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Off-site, it's on the line

David Studdert considers the rewards of teaching in the most challenging environment

It's Monday. You get to school. You let the students in. Suddenly the fire alarm goes off, one of the kids is being beaten up on the doorstep, the phone's ringing, the cook's moaning, the secretary's got the hump. And, one more little detail, there's absolutely no one there to help you.

Welcome to the world of off-site centres, those dustbins of the education system. The retraining, restraining camps for the excluded nightmares of mainstream disorder.

Off-site: the word says it all. Off centre. Off line. Off roll. Off, not on. Off, not edible. It adds up to the same thing; a centre isolated physically and spiritually, a place for kids supposedly so bad, so abused, so absent and so illiterate that they need a special unit all to themselves.

Sometimes teachers like myself can be forgiven for thinking that everyone has forgotten about us. I mean isn't that what these centres are for? To forget, cast aside. For the last government, they were a dark corner with no votes and only bad news. For the career teacher they're black holes. For the councils that often fund them they're an unwanted burden, a costly drain on scarce resources.

Did I forget to say that I work in one and I've done so for five years? That I'm still alive? That I wouldn't work anywhere else? So what is it that makes someone like me - an apparently sane, well-adjusted individual - opt for a lonely existence teaching these supposedly unteachable kids?

Well, first, you actually get to teach. In small groups, where everyone gets attention. Who has time for every kid in classes of 30-plus? My classes are 10 at the most, and believe it or not, the kids want to learn. Not that there's anywhere to hide. After all, these are kids rejected by everyone else and they know all the tricks. Beyond our gates they may well be engaged in all sorts anti-social activity.

But you battle through all these difficulties, all their defences and finally if you persevere you get to see them learn something. What's more, this beautiful, illuminating moment isn't lost in a rush of admin or among five different classes all screaming for attention.

Besides, one reason you get to teach like this is because you team-teach constantly. Some teachers find this intimidating but I've always found it interesting and fruitful.

At my last centre I taught with one of the best English teachers I've ever worked with and I picked up lots of new ideas. You feel supported, less pressured and a lot of problems seem to solve themselves. Two heads are definitely better than one.

Often there are no more than four teachers in these centres and you stand or fall together. You get involved in things, whereas you'd be actively discouraged from contributing in mainstream. And if it sometimes feels like Fort Apache, then that provides ample scope for bonding and gallows humour.

Lastly, despite their reputation, the kids aren't that bad. The teenage bank robber was an extremely hard-working and diligent lad. Unlike his mainstream contemporaries, he had no need to prove how hard he was. This is not uncommon. Young people who appear menacing to lone teachers in big classes are much more containable in smaller groups with a team of teachers.

In any case, underneath all the bravado and terrible stories these are just kids. They need love, attention, and respect - the same as every other child. Besides, for every bank robber there are four quiet chronic non-attenders who love attention and praise and sit in the corner working all day.

Finally, it's real. Off-site is the last resort. There is no other safety net, no other education after us. It haunts everything you do. You are always aware of how many things are constantly pulling these kids down and how few things are lifting them up. There are ones who literally disappear. Or the kid you discover under Charing Cross Station sleeping in a cardboard box. There's an inexhaustible stream and every year it seems to get worse. It always feels like a race against time and is never mundane, cost effective or safe.

David Studdert is a writer, musician and sometime teacher. He has taught in Australia and England in mainstream schools and off-site centres

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