Nature vs nurture at the unit that gives pupils an outside chance

1st January 2010 at 00:00
The Voyager Pupil Referral Unit places youngsters who have been excluded - or are at risk of it - into the wild landscapes of south Devon to challenge their behaviour. The results have attracted nationwide interest, writes Kerra Maddern

Spending half the week scaling world-famous countryside and tackling potentially dangerous sports is not a curriculum option offered to most excluded children - for good reason.

But what most teachers would see as a health and safety nightmare is actually a lifeline for those let down by the education system, staff at one of the country's best pupil referral units have found.

Taking inspiration from the landscape around them, teachers at Devon's Voyager Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) help children to manage desperate situations at home and school using outward bound-style activities. Their work is not only nationally significant, according to Ofsted, but has also brought a large reduction in local exclusions in the past few years.

For almost half the week, Voyager pupils explore the local moorland, traverse ravines and go letterboxing (a cross between orienteering and a treasure hunt), caving and climbing. They may not attend many traditional lessons, but its students make more progress academically in one term than they have in the previous two years.

Most Voyager pupils have Asbos and some are violent towards staff and students in school. Almost all have experienced family problems and this is usually the reason for their bad behaviour.

But Voyager's outdoor activities are not meant to be fun, nor a reward, and this is one of the chief reasons for the unit's success.

The aim is not to help children do better in lessons - most of them do not have significant special educational needs. Teachers believe it is behaviour problems that need to be tackled first, after which everything else slots into place and pupils are ready to return to school.

Rather than having targets for English and maths, they have daily targets for their actions - for example, listening and not being rude. Outdoor activities are the key to helping them achieve this. They put children in situations which are real - unlike the "artificial" classroom environment, helping them to see why instructions are given.

About 20 to 40 per cent of pupils' time is spent outdoors. The river or ravine is an environment to learn in, and if pupils won't go out, they are not allowed to do anything else. Gradually, without realising it, they begin to work as a group. Tackling tough activities builds their self-esteem and they learn to trust adults - and to realise that teachers are not the enemy.

"If a member of staff is at the other end of the rope, they have to rely on them, and it builds trust," says Roger Hopper, director of outdoor learning.

"If they don't bring waterproofs, they get wet. If they don't bring a packed lunch, they go hungry. The activity we do is immaterial - it's a teaching vehicle. We don't just teach them canoeing or climbing: we are teaching them how to succeed."

Staff see it as their job to help pupils work out the rules they need to survive in secondary school.

"They've learnt to be helpless because they've had years of people doing everything for them. We want them to realise they can do anything their peers can," says headteacher Lee Earnshaw, who has just left Voyager to lead a special school in Plymouth. "They have to know they can be in control, they have to learn how to think for themselves.

"We don't see the activities as providing excitement - they are there to take the pupils out of their comfort zones and build self-esteem. It teaches them that success feels good and that actions have consequences."

Voyager began as an experiment seven years ago. At that time, Devon County Council had set up small PRUs all over the county. To begin with, it had just one pupil and the three teachers, working in a rented flat above a cafe.

But the flat was at Morwellham Quay near Tavistock, a tourist attraction with a working farm. Soon there were more pupils, and they were working on the land and helping to restore aVictorian garden.

Staff asked the council for more pupils. When told there weren't any, they toured local secondaries. This led to Voyager catering for pupils at risk of exclusion, and not just those already expelled.

Unsurprisingly, the work of Voyager has attracted national attention. Teachers from around the country regularly visit to see the unit in action. And the staff, previously primary and special-school teachers or youth and outdoor education workers, run an outreach service and training for teachers in local secondaries. It is these links that have driven down exclusion rates.

These changes in children's behaviour are often seen as impossible to measure. But Voyager teachers have developed the first system of its kind that shows pupils' peaks and troughs. All information - from academic performance, the diaries children have to keep every week and marks they are given each day for behaviour - are linked together to paint a full picture of their life. It is this system that impressed Ofsted inspectors.

It takes staff hours each day to update the records, but the system has proven invaluable in helping pupils - and teachers - to decide when they are ready to go back to school. It also shows how bad situations at home affect the way pupils act at school. It has even helped to reveal previously undiagnosed medical problems.

One boy's results clearly showed he had hyperactive periods, and the graphs led doctors to treat him for ADHD. Another boy, whose mother is an alcoholic, only misbehaved in the periods after she had been drinking.

This link between school and home is central to Voyager's work. All parents receive a daily phone call so they can be told good or bad news, and so that teachers can subtly find out if there are any problems within families. This also helps to identify whether children are behaving differently at home and in school.

It is this personalised approach that helps children get back into school. Voyager's aim is to reintegrate children into secondaries as soon as possible. There is a strict rule that pupils can stay in the unit for a maximum of two terms: statistics show that they become disillusioned after that time.

New arrivals often have a honeymoon period, then show a dip in behaviour before improving. The speed of reintegration is led by the children themselves.

Chris Humphries, Voyager's new headteacher, says: "We can't replicate a school environment. If the problem has been that being in a secondary is too noisy or busy, then that's something we can't tackle. But sometimes schools won't have children back - it's only a minority, though, and only those who don't understand what we are trying to do."

Everything is personalised. Children can be taught on their own, and in some situations will lead their own curriculum. One boy, a budding engineer, transformed a broken toy car into a hovercraft. This pupil, who finds it hard to cope with group situations, then felt proud enough to walk around showing off his handiwork.

Voyager follows the national curriculum, but not in the traditional sense. Staff use the aims - which say children should value themselves, others, society and the environment - as their inspiration.

Teachers have found that playing games can be the most useful lessons. Poker teaches risk, Monopoly develops maths and planning skills, but all games help these young people to realise that life is unfair and how to deal with this injustice.

The original success of Voyager quickly led to seven other branches being set up, but after rationalisation only two remain. A radical overhaul of the current system for excluded pupils in Devon is due next year and will see one unit for all ages and schools taking control of provision. It will make managed moves - in which pupils informally change schools and do not go into PRUs - easier.

It is still unclear how Voyager will fit into these new arrangements. But despite these testing times, its staff hope that their work, and its legacy, will speak for itself as the reforms are put into practice.

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