Is it true that we've been given only five places for work experience?" Our behaviour assistant's Scouse accent diverts me from percentages and frightens Stefan half to death. I explain that the unit has been offered more, but I accepted only five. "If we have 20 kids in Year 11 and five places, what percentage is that, Stefan?" His blank expression confirms that "catch-up time" has not been overly successful.
"Only five kids on work experience. That's appalling." I then confess that only three are actually likely to go: the other two have joint placements with a college and can't be released for the three weeks. I don't dare tell the truth that only one student is likely to start the placement. One of the three is rejecting all attempts to get him to attend the unit and the other has, like the Musgrove family in Brookside, vanished overnight.
It's easy to blame the system, but the red tape involved in work experience now makes it a tedious and almost counterproductive exercise - particularly for our students. But the clientele at a pupil referral unit need this opportunity more than most. A chance to build a reputation and perhaps become employed. A chance to have something startling to put in their record of achievement folder. A chance to show the adult world that they are not lacking in intelligence.
Sadly, only a handful get this chance. We have to mention those with criminal records - particularlywhere the criminal activity involves theft. We have to mention those lacking social skills. Then there are those whose attendance is sporadic; those who believe that appearing at the unit any time before noon counts as a morning's attendance; and those who may not be with us - but attending one of Her Majesty's institutions.
Even then, there are people who miss out. The initial paperwork for ur placement period in March is required before the summer holidays. At that time, we had only nine Year 10-going-on-11s. By December we had nearer 30 - but are now back to 20. Changes in policy within the authority have brought about this dramatic variation, but the red tape has failed to adapt accordingly. Some of the new kids are ineligible for their old school's work experience - usually because they are viewed as a risk. Some weren't even attending school when their peers were out discovering the real world.
Trying to plan anything further ahead than the end of the week is difficult. We once had to abandon a theatre trip two days before it was due to take place. Conversely, we have a waiting list for our sports afternoon. No surprise there...
Since the gestation period for authority-sponsored work experience is so long, we have taken to trying to find placements ourselves - based on friends, relatives and "the grapevine".
Even that has problems. A mother phones to ask if her son could go on work experience with his dad. No problem - but some paperwork needs to be completed. I duly send the forms home and wait for their return. Some weeks later the mother phones again: "When would the work experience placement start?" she asks. I describe the process and that the forms which I sent out need to be returned. There is a pause. The forms are with dad - but she and her husband have recently split up. Although she is happyfor her son to work withhim, she is not prepared to talk to her former husband. Would I, therefore, do the chasing?
That was three months ago. The forms have still not materialised. The son is with us because he was always getting into trouble with teachers for not completing work or bringing the equipment required for lessons. Looks like he takes after his dad.
The writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, works in a PRU in East Anglia