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Rebel's cause is far from lost

Self-styled 'deviant' Sue Parr now transforms the behaviour of some of Lancashire's most disruptive pupils. Biddy Passmore reports.

SUE Parr has long been fascinated by deviance. "Probably because I'm a bit of a deviant myself!" she says.

The woman who heads a pupil-referral unit for primary children that has just earned a rhapsodic report from the inspectors came late to teaching. She left her grammar school at 16 with eight O-levels and a bump, married her boyfriend, brought up two sons and spent the next 15 years helping her husband start and run a construction company. He is now chairman, and she and their younger son are directors.

Having acquired two A-levels at night school, she went off to Edge Hill college in Ormskirk to take a social science degree and teaching qualification in her early 30s. It was a teaching placement at a school for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children that got her hooked. "They absolutely fascinated me," she says.

They still do. Her understanding of such children and her "sparklingly clear vision" (according to the Office for Standards in Education) of what needs to be done to help them, has enabled her to transform Golden Hill, a unit for 30 of the most disruptive primary pupils in Lancashire, into a model of its kind.

"The quality of education far exceeds that found in most schools," say the inspectors. "It is very rare to find such high quality teaching ... Expectations are sky-high ..."

Recruited from a special school in Skelmersdale just before the unit's last (critical) OFSTED inspection, in 1998, Mrs Parr set about hand-picking new staff and giving it a fresh drive and ethos. She was also behind its move from a cramped Victorian house to a spacious former infants' school. Sue Parr is blunt about the pupils' shortcomings when they arrive, either excluded or at risk of exclusion because they are driving their schools to distraction.

"They can't listen, can't share, can't interact with others. They're used to getting their own way. 'Please' and 'thank you' are unknown to them," she says.

Her aim is, ideally within two terms, to change pupils' behaviour and attitudes so much that they are ready to be re-integrated into school. The approach is based on peace, constant reinforcement of acceptable behaviour and precisely set, individual targets.

Why are so many young children - especially boys - such a problem in school? Some, says Mrs Parr, are just not ready for primary school:

"they're too boisterous, not ready to settle". After all, the children referred to the unit from reception classes would not be in formal education in other countries.

Some, such as children in care, may have a whole history of abuse and neglect behind them. Others are struggling with dauntingly difficult home lives, undiagnosed dyslexia, or long-term bullying.

Often, however, Mrs Parr thinks it's "a mumson thing". "They just let their sons get away with it," she says - and there is usually no father around to help.

She has embarked on an Open University doctorate to examine why so many boys are excluded from school. It should make interesting reading.

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