Eddie and the Taught Rods

25th April 2008 at 01:00
Pupil referral units face an overhaul because of poor performance. But one in Suffolk is rated outstanding - thanks to rock and roll. Irena Barker tuned in

Pupil referral units face an overhaul because of poor performance. But one in Suffolk is rated outstanding - thanks to rock and roll. Irena Barker tuned in

In their heyday in 1976, Eddie and the Hot Rods were bigger than the Sex Pistols, who supported them at a gig at London's Marquee Club. And at the 1977 Reading Festival, the Southend rockers played alongside Aerosmith.

The Hot Rods' star has waned slightly since then, and only the lead singer - the leathery faced Barrie Masters - remains from their original line up. But decades after their top 40 hits "Teenage Depression" and "Do Anything You Wanna Do", they have found an unlikely new fanbase: the pupils of a Suffolk referral unit.

Their visit to Parkside PRU in Ipswich is part of an ongoing project by the unit to inspire its pupils through rock and roll and the arts. Half are already learning the electric guitar: the instruments hang from hooks in the corridor, so pupils can pick them up and play them when they want.

The unit caters for 32 pupils, mainly aged 14 to 16. Many are struggling with mental health problems, eating disorders, autism, self harm and physical disabilities. One girl even had a phobia of saying her own name. Some are school phobics and refusers, and have only started to emerge from their shells since arriving at the unit. Several are on medication. But as pupils bash away on drums and play chord progressions on the schools' electric guitars, there is little outward evidence of their problems.

Although the Hot Rods have visited specialist performing arts schools, it is the first time they have met pupils at a referral unit.

One pupil, who suffers from attention deficit disorder, had been practising playing his guitar behind his head, Hendrix style, before the band arrived; a group of girls take just minutes to add their own harmonies to the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash".

"We teach them a few songs from the older days, something by The Who or Rolling Stones. Then we do something a bit more up to date, like The Kooks," said Barrie, 51. "The quiet ones are often the ones who surprise you. They have a lot of confidence issues; they have very low self-esteem, but this brings them out of themselves."

Richard Holgarth, guitarist with the Hot Rods, said he expected pupils to be a little bemused at first. "They look at us and see parental-aged people, but when they see us jumping around and it's not a tea dance, they get quite into it."

After the rock workshops, pupils are encouraged to sit down with the band and ask questions about life on the road. The group still tours regularly around the world. Between tours, three out of the four members work on building sites.

"There are no holds barred," said Barrie, who once could not leave his house for girls screaming outside. "If they want to know about whether I slept with groupies, or took drugs, I tell them the truth."

The pupils have previously enjoyed workshops with blues musician Buddy Whittington, a guitarist with the Bluesbreakers. More rock and blues workshops are planned.

Stuart Bailey, who has been head of the referral unit for seven years, said: "The whole thing started about four years ago when I saw a samba band busking in Colchester. There were strong elements of team working, and bass notes with a physical feelgood factor, so within a fortnight the school had formed a samba band."

This led to performances at the renowned Snape Maltings concert hall near Aldeburgh in Suffolk, the Ipswich folk festival, and even the British Library in London.

The samba success then led to further projects, including a Snape Maltings show last March featuring body percussion, wheelie bin drums, boomwhacker acoustic sticks, rap and dance.

The unit, which received an "outstanding" rating and glowing report from Ofsted last year, is justifiably proud of its achievements. Mr Bailey, who wears a pinstripe suit to work, believes demand is so high it could be filled "10 times over".

But he does not want to leave the impression that academic subjects are not also very important. All pupils study a range of core subjects to GCSE, as well as drama, technology and conversational Spanish - taught by a teacher in North Wales through videolink.

And there is a focus on health: even the staffroom has recently been converted into a "lifestyle management" suite for pupils, who can use cross trainers and running machines while watching a 42-inch, wall-mounted television.

Mr Bailey said: "We have a girl with cerebral palsy and autism who came into the unit and she used to throw chairs around. Now she sings and is learning to make friends".


Alternatives to schools such as pupil referral units (PRUs) are "not good enough" nationally, according to Ed Balls, the Secretary for Children, Schools and Families.

Mr Balls will publish a white paper this summer, setting out ways to revamp the institutions. It is likely to include plans to make PRUs more accountable, by getting them to publish data on their performance.

The white paper is also expected to bolster powers for local authorities to intervene when units fail.

Mr Balls' concerns about PRUs are backed by inspection reports, which have painted a disappointing picture of them.

But Suffolk is bucking that trend. Five of its 13 PRUs, including Parkside, have been rated as outstanding by Ofsted.

Suffolk council believes its units are working because they have a strong degree of independence. Each has a headteacher and its own dedicated management committee, while in other authorities a single committee can run several units.

Adrian Orr, senior adviser for social inclusion in Suffolk, said: "Management committees can be focused in the same way as school governing bodies, and deal with the needs of the PRU at the stage it is at. If management is across several units, that can become diluted."

Rather than having a separate behaviour support service, it is the responsibility of PRU heads.

"The degree of autonomy has allowed more creativity in the way the PRUs are run, " Mr Orr said. "It attracts staff looking for a career path, as the management structure is more like a school.

"We don't want pupil referral units to be a cul-de-sac for children or for staff."

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