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Pupils I'll never forget

Frances Toynbee learned to be careful what she said to Tony

I started my career teaching English in mainstream secondaries, but I quickly became disenchanted as I didn't feel teachers had the time to help those who needed it. So I went for a job at the Hammersmith Centre, an Inner London Education Authority off-site unit.

I had four or five students in a class and I taught them everything; it was like a primary school for 13 to 16-year-olds. Tony Flood was a 14-year-old in my first group and he looked me straight in the eye on our first meeting and said: "I don't read and my family don't read, we don't believe in it, so don't think you are going to get me to do it." He had been a persistent non-attender at school but he wasn't noisy or assertive. He was a gentle soul, very kind and loving. He liked being in a small class and turned into a really hard worker.

I did get Tony to read in the two years he was with me and he passed his English GCSE, but the thing about him was that he would stop me in my tracks with these massive questions. One day he looked up and said:

"Frances, where are we from, we human beings?" He wanted to go on and do a project called "Where We Are From". I didn't know where to start so we went to the library together to work out how to structure it. He loved talking about the nature of existence, the universe.

I remember telling him I didn't believe in marriage, but then I got married soon after. Tony had become a motorbike courier; he loved being out and about, but he kept coming back to see us, crashing through the doors in all his gear. After he heard I'd got married, he burst in and told me I was a hypocrite. He'd remembered what I had said. That taught me that you have to be careful about what you say to teenagers.

He also taught me that it's easy to underestimate people's intellectual abilities if they can't read. Tony was a deep thinker, and I got him to read through talking. We would talk about all sorts of things and I would write down what he had to say and get him to read that. I would also read to myself while the group was working so they could see that it was pleasurable, not a duty.

Frances Toynbee, 45, has been a head of several pupil referral units for the past eight years. She now teaches at Scarborough PRU after recently taking maternity leave. She was talking to Elaine Williams

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