It's not just downs behind the wire

4th January 2008 at 00:00
Why would anyone choose to work in a secure unit? Here one teacher describes his experiences on the other side of the locked door.

A throw-away comment by my headteacher left me speechless the other day. We had been talking of my time teaching in a secure unit and how those places only ever seem to get bad press. Neither of us could think of any good news story that had managed to crawl out under the wire.

He had asked: "Why did you stay so long in such an awful place to work?" After a bit, I had muttered something about protecting society and no child being all bad, but his words haunted me.

I had spent 10 years working with the most challenging pupils in the country. It was difficult and stressful but I felt - and still feel - that it was ultimately a professionally rewarding experience. Yet here was my head, someone who knows me well, asking why I stayed. It was as if a secure unit was a place that broke the rule that says life has ups and downs. It ran with downs and yet deeper downs. There would have to be something wrong with anyone who wanted to work there.

Far from being like that, the secure unit was a place of extremes. When a lesson went well the rewards were high; if it went badly the place could hit rock bottom and start digging. Two lessons illustrate this point, both of them in front of school inspectors.

First lesson

All teachers know that preparation will make or break any lesson we teach. Three main areas need to be right. The practical components need to be there, we need to know what we are talking about and have a plan for learning and we need to be "up for it".

I was living through a rough patch. I was nursing my dying mother and it hadn't been a good night. She had been in a lot of pain and I had arrived about 5.30am to help the overnight carer, but now my mum was reluctant to let me out to work.

The day care worker had arrived at 7am but was not willing to be left on her own with a client in such distress. By the time I set off for school, I too was upset. It was already after 9am and, with 37 miles to travel, I would be lucky to get in before morning interval.

The security measures were tighter that morning following an "incident" overnight in the classrooms. So it took a little longer to get into the secure unit. Everyone had to be fully searched and that included teaching staff.

In school, my scheduled time with the inspectors was more than an hour away. The planned lesson - marking out and cutting a mortise - was well prepared. The children normally enjoy this bit - lots of banging with mallets and chips of wood flying off.

The lesson would involve a quick reminder of the safety rules, a short demo with the tools. A dramatic example of what happens if the chisel is turned the wrong way, breaking the model - that always achieves gasps of approval. After that, it's all chisels, mallets and happy pupils.

The wood was cut, the chisels sharpened. The lesson plan was clear. After the harassing start to the morning, I may not have been the calmest teacher in the world but two out of the three preparations for my good lesson were still firmly in place.

This was the kind of situation, arriving tired, late and harassed, that any good teacher worth his salt could easily rescue. Then I reached my classroom door. The janitors had nailed it shut and daubed a message which read "Security Risk Keep Out". The "incident" the previous night had been in my room.

The inspector found me staring at the door in disbelief with my adrenalin levels rising.

"It's OK," he said. "I'll give you some time to get organised and be with you in about 30 minutes. I'm sure this kind of thing happens all the time."

That was when things started to go downhill fast. After the "incident" another two classes were out of use, so there was nowhere for me to take my class in the school. The lesson would have to take place in one of the living areas.

Next, the care staff informed me that the children in my class had been unsettled overnight, with some bedrooms being smashed up and a member of staff assaulted, but they were now ready to join school. The duty officer was sending an extra member of staff in with me "just to be on the safe side".

I got the class into the living area and gathered them round a kitchen table, informed them that there was no woodwork that day and we would be starting a design exercise.

The inspector arrived early.

A motivational speaker would now tell how, despite all of this, after a quick visualisation and a personalised breathing exercise, the lesson soared. The class was enthused. But that's not how it went. The pupils remained disgruntled, complaining all period that they should be in woodwork. They reluctantly put pencil to paper, drawing more "menshes" than design concepts. The security staff read The Sun and the inspector left early.

He quite justifiably wrote the worst report I have ever received.

Second lesson

A secure unit is subject to a great deal of inspection from all of the stakeholders. We were regularly visited by social work, children's rights, members of the children's panel and the local MP. But being a national resource, most of all our teaching was subject to review.

Every three years HMIE visited the secure unit. The last inspection hadn't gone as well as we had hoped, with lessons like my own adding to an overall "fair" rating. But we had worked hard at improving the school, a new management structure was in place and we had introduced a new subject to our curriculum.

The subject started off as "life skills", spent some time as "reasoning and rehabilitation" and moved on to "personal development" before settling into something we would all now recognise as personal and social education.

In the secure unit, PSE was taken very seriously and received equal weighting with English and maths and, for this inspection, I was the one who had to deliver the goods.

The lesson to be observed was on "alcohol". The class was made up of boys, around 15- to 16-years-old, who all had a deep personal knowledge of the demon drink.

We were nearing the end of the unit, having covered safe limits, its general effects, along with some of the pros and cons of alcohol consumption. The lesson that day was about problem drinking and would require the boys to talk in an open and mature way about their own issues. My worry was that, with a stranger in the room, the trust I had built up would be broken.

This lesson had a lot riding on it and before it started I would need to persuade the inspector, Bob, to join in the discussion. Bob's reputation was as one of the old school and he didn't do much to disillusion us. We had only been credited with a "fair" last time and if we wanted anything better, we were going to have to show him in detail that we deserved it. Much to my surprise, Bob agreed to join in.

The lesson started by welcoming Bob and introducing the boys quickly. First of all there was Willy who, after a heavy drinking session, had been involved in the fatal stabbing of a teenage boy wearing the wrong colour of football top.

Then Mark who, when at home, was regularly hospitalised after taking his favourite cocktail of booze and amphetamines. Next was Joe. Having lost his dad to drink, he now sold drugs and was able to keep his mum supplied with booze. And finally there was Andy, who got drunk, then stole cars but felt it wasn't really a problem.

Bob had to be brought in quickly if we were to take the lesson forward. "Do you take a drink, Bob?" I asked Her Majesty's inspector. Bob and I shared our experience of "normal" drinking - how sometimes we still got it wrong.

Like flowers in the spring, the boys opened up. Willy told us of his regrets for the family of the dead boy, of his regrets for himself and his own family. He spoke of his hopes for the future, that this time in the secure unit, away from the gang, he might make a clean break from the way he had been living. He confided in us all of his worries about the big party that was planned for his release and the drinking that would happen there.

Mark spoke of how he had been "brought back from the dead" on several occasions and how frantic his mother and sister had been. He spoke of the strain his habits were putting on those he loved, how his mother was a nervous wreck every time he left the house, and how his sister, to whom he had been close, now just argued with him.

Joe shared with us that he was scared of losing his mother but knew no other way to keep her than to buy her drink - but that it was "good-quality drink, 'Jack D', none of your cheap stuff". Joe knew he had to find another answer.

Finally Andy, who didn't have a problem, spoke of the false courage and bravado that drink gave him and that he was probably not as "good" a driver when he was drunk.

The six of us sat and explored these issues as the lesson ran over into lunchtime.

Eventually, a member of the care staff came looking for the boys and took them down to lunch. No answers were discovered that day in the secure unit but some honest questions were found.

When the lesson was over, Bob and I sat in silence looking at each other. He started to make some notes and I to write up mine. Bob broke the silence asking: "Is it always like this?"

"Nah," I said, "you just caught them on a good day."

The ups and downs of teaching are funny things. I now teach in a large secondary school that has its fair share.

Maybe one day I will find a school that runs with ups and upper ups. Till then, I am happy to be where I am and happy to have been where I have been.

Names and facts have been changed.

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