Liam*, 14, is "kicking off" in the school library upstairs. By the time the headteacher gets there, books are strewn across the floor, chairs are upturned and Liam is nowhere to be seen. A young supply teacher, on his first day in, looks flushed but calm as he carries on teaching the remnants of the class.
Liam is spotted several minutes later returning to the scene. "You going to clear that mess up?" asks Claire Lillis, head of Ian Mikardo High School in Tower Hamlets, east London. "Yeah," he replies. "Good man, well done," says Ms Lillis.
He needed to let off steam and now he is ready to tidy up, explains Ms Lillis. He will do it together with a teacher, taking responsibility for his actions, but hopefully appreciative of the adult's help as well. If necessary, Liam will sit down later with the supply teacher and a colleague to unpick what each of them could have done differently. Then the incident will be closed and forgotten about.
Handling episodes of this type is a delicate operation. Liam is one of 25 secondary-aged boys at Ian Mikardo - a special school for pupils with severe and complex social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) - who has been excluded, or is at risk of exclusion from mainstream school.
Traditional discipline and routine did not work for him there and will not work for him here, explains Ms Lillis. Not all the pupils have learning difficulties, but poor attendance or a negative attitude in mainstream education has left most of them lagging behind academically. Instead of attempting an assignment and risking failure, they may have ripped up a worksheet, sworn at the teacher and stormed out of the classroom.
"A lot of our pupils have problems articulating themselves or communicating, so they will act out how they feel," says Ms Lillis. "They may pull down displays, be verbally abusive or trash the way you look, talk or teach. We have to look behind that behaviour and see what emotions are driving it."
Ms Lillis admits that it takes a fairly resilient type of teacher, but she relishes the job. When she joined in 2002 she was the fourth head in nine months and the school was in special measures. It had its second "outstanding" Ofsted rating earlier this year.
"It is challenging but in a positive way," she says. "We have boys here who arrive with their hoods down over their face, who can't make eye contact or really communicate. When they leave with their head held high and going on to college . it doesn't get much better than that."
But not everyone has such a positive attitude towards working in this much-maligned sector. Attracting teachers with the skills and patience required to handle pupils in pupil referral units (PRUs) or SEBD schools such as Ian Mikardo is increasingly difficult.
Of the 128 PRUs that have had to advertise for a headteacher since September 2001, one in three have had to readvertise, says John Howson, managing director of Education Data Surveys. Government figures also show that most special schools find it harder to fill vacancies than their mainstream counterparts.
"Some special schools do better than others," Mr Howson says. "Teachers are keen to work in hospital schools, followed by those for physically handicapped children who are mentally fine. I suspect more challenging schools, such as SEBD schools and PRUs, struggle the most to recruit candidates, especially in London and the South East."
But there is no shortage of pupils. Approximately 135,000 young people a year spend some time in alternative provision, a third in PRUs, and the remainder in various institutions, depending on local authority provision.
The PRUs and SEBD special schools they attend are often viewed as dumping grounds for the disaffected, but in fact they offer a brutally stark last chance. If it goes well, college, training and employment are all within reach. If it goes badly, there is little standing between them and the criminal justice system.
Although just over half of PRUs were judged to be good or outstanding by Ofsted in 200506, the outlook for many of their pupils remains bleak. Excluded teenagers who have spent time in alternative provision are more likely to be involved in crime, become Neets (those not in education, employment and training) and have poor job prospects, according to the Youth Cohort Survey.
And, as reported in The TES, Jon Coles, the Government's director general of schools, offered an even more disturbing prognosis earlier this year, suggesting that some 15 per cent of long-term Neets are dead within 10 years. The work of PRUs and other alternative providers, perhaps more than any other educational facilities, is, therefore, literally a "matter of life and death".
But even the best PRUs face a raft of problems that hinder their ability to help pupils. Poor accommodation and facilities do not help, the Government admits in its Back on Track white paper. Ofsted has also highlighted a shortage of trained staff, resistance from mainstream schools at point of reintegration and pupils arriving haphazardly throughout the year without records.
"Often pupils end up in a PRU that does not suit their needs simply because it is the only one available in the area," says Professor Ken Reid, deputy vice-chancellor of Swansea Metropolitan University and chair of the National Behaviour and Attendance Review.
"It's the Cinderella sector for a kind of forgotten child. There may be good alternative provision or none at all. Some Welsh parents have to bus their children to PRUs in England because there are none locally available."
Woodlands School is one of only two special facilities in Shropshire for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. It is a big county and some of its 40 pupils have to commute more than an hour each way.
The pupils have become more challenging over the years, says Robin Wilson, Woodland's headteacher. "They may display very complex difficulties," he says. "A single pupil might be autistic, on medication for ADHD and display acute social problems. Many will also be from very socio- economically deprived families."
Mr Wilson has been punched "quite badly" in the face by a pupil, and last year an autistic pupil swung a large branch above his head. "He deliberately missed me but I have no doubt I could have been killed if it had made contact. Luckily, I had a good relationship with the boy so he responded to what I was saying."
But for each one of those threatening situations, another pupil will have been turned around, Mr Wilson says. "A parent told me, `You have given us back our son'. That is quite something."
Mr Wilson admits that working at the school is "no breeze". Teachers need to be as good, if not better, than those in mainstream education - delivering exciting, well-delivered lessons. "We need great teachers here who are 100 per cent committed. If you are talented and inspirational, you have half a chance."
He often has to readvertise jobs, but if he does not get the right candidate, he will not make an appointment. It is little help that salaries do not reflect the enormous demands made on those who work in special schools. An experienced teacher on the upper pay spine may be more attracted to a mainstream school where the extra cash they receive through a teaching and learning allowance ranges from about pound;2,000 to more than pound;11,000 rather than a SEN allowance at a SEBD school.
Teachers who work mainly with SEN pupils qualify for an extra payment of more than pound;1,900 a year. But the School Teachers' Review Body has recently recommended that this should be replaced with a sliding scale of allowances starting as low as pound;1,000, so the financial incentives are not great.
"There is little remuneration working here, but the rewards can be enormous," says Mr Wilson. "You can build very solid, meaningful relationships with small groups of pupils. You can collapse the curriculum and be flexible with what or how you teach. I get an enormous buzz from making a real difference to some angry, aggressive and troubled teens."
The Government wants these pupils returned to mainstream education as quickly as possible. To reflect this, it has suggested that PRUs should be renamed "short-stay schools" or "integration schools".
But although a name change may help to remove some of the stigma attached to "units", those who work in the field believe the "short-stay" moniker is unrealistic and misleading.
"While some PRUs do, admirably, feed children back into mainstream schools within a year, many will keep children at supposedly `short-stay' PRUs for years - and thank goodness they sometimes do," says Dr Ted Cole, the director of the Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties Association. "The unreformed mainstream schools which excluded them could still be unsuitable, inflexible and unable to address the child's complex needs."
April May Kitchener, the headteacher of a key stage 4 PRU in Wales, agrees. "Sometimes it helps if pupils have some continuity at a PRU and can stay for at least two years," she says. "Inspection teams criticise PRUs for poor integration, when in fact there may be no other local provision available."
But John Bayley, a behaviour consultant and former head of a PRU in Southwark, London, used to insist that pupils had a mainstream school lined up before they even arrived at his PRU. "Without that, the PRU becomes the end stop rather than part of a journey," he says. "There is a temptation for local authorities to use PRUs as dumping grounds. Pupils should be reintegrated back into mainstream education, not stay at a PRU forever."
To be successful, PRUs need to have a strong relationship with local schools and parents, Mr Bayley adds. "I thought I would meet parents from hell at the PRU, but bar one famous occasion, I never did. They are as exasperated and caring as everyone else, and they need support.
"You have to work together to avoid some of the more damaging long-term consequences for their child, such as homelessness and serious mental health problems," he says.
Employing resilient and empathetic teachers is key. Working with pupils who know they are at the bottom of the heap provides its own unique challenges. "They are more fragile than other teenagers and so they often present in hostile ways when building relationships," says Mr Bayley. "I used to tell my teachers, `If you object to being told to fuck off, you are in the wrong job because it will happen 100 times between now and Christmas'."
Ms Lillis does not have to wait that long. She laughs it off and carries on chatting to the boy in question. If she needs to discuss the incident, a psychotherapist is at hand, who holds fortnightly individual sessions and weekly group sessions for staff.
"It is an opportunity to be reflective, take a step back and think," says Ms Lillis in the therapy room, which consists of comfy chairs, a bowl of fruit, a vase of flowers and a box of tissues. "I don't want teachers to go home and think, `I'm a failure' and I don't want them to think of the children as unteachable or evil either. Having time out with a psychotherapist helps us reflect on what went wrong."
She also does not want staff to mirror dysfunctional behaviour. "If a pupil makes me angry, how might I treat my deputy, and how might the deputy treat the rest of the staff? Before long, dysfunction can be institutionalised."
Ian Mikardo feels far from dysfunctional. It does not have sanctions, rewards, uniforms or traditional subjects, having replaced them with a curriculum taught across five areas: my passport, body, world, self and future.
It has a smoothie bar, brightly-painted corridors, a recording studio, an Apple computer suite, a hairdressing saloon and classrooms that look more like a home.
"The majority of boys are delighted to be here," says Ms Lillis. "They think they have landed in a sweet box. And the staff love it." Getting that message out to those that matter - prospective parents and recruits - might still be an uphill struggle.
* Name has been changed
Neither unteachable nor evil
- Some 135,000 pupils a year spend time in alternative provision.
- Just under 1 per cent of pupils (70,000) in England and Wales are in alternative provision at any one time, many for short periods.
- Most are boys aged 11 to 15.
- Half have been excluded from - or are at risk of exclusion - from mainstream education. Others have medical or psychological needs.
- Around one-third are placed in one of the 450 council-run PRUs. The remainder will go to a range of facilities, including secure units or SEBD special schools.
- Three-quarters of young people in PRUs have special educational needs.
- In 2006, only 1 per cent of 15-year-olds in PRUs achieved five good GCSEs or their equivalent.
- In 200506, more than half of the PRUs inspected by Ofsted were judged to be good or outstanding; one in eight were judged inadequate.
Source: Back on Track: a strategy for modernising alternative provision for young people. DCSF, May 2008.