Prophets and loss

16th December 2011 at 00:00
Amateurs-for-hire who tout miracle gains for excluded pupils are not only naive, but dangerous, says Paul Dix

The miracle prophets are touring the country with seductive promises. Headteachers are being told that if they exclude anyone, these characters will take those troublesome pupils "the very next morning" and "turn them around" for #163;45 a day.

These are unregulated providers of education for the excluded, with no Ofsted rating or inspection scrutiny, being run by private companies for profit. At the end of a sales presentation one teacher enquired whether the staff have teaching qualifications. With pride the salesman told his audience, "Oh no, we don't use qualified teachers - our instructors are people with life experience."

Life experience! I nearly choked on my qualifications. How does "life experience" make you a dedicated specialist in behaviour, child protection and emotional trauma?

How many unqualified adults can ease Janice into picking up a pen knowing that her mum is trying to put her on the game? How many can deal with Kyle, who won't get a Christmas dinner because the takeaway will be shut? How many know how to interest Darren in maths, days after his father committed suicide, or recognise the signs of ongoing abuse?

Sure they could give it a go, blag it, experiment a bit. Hell, they might even make some headway with a few false promises. What about managing Leanne, who has to care for her dying mother and pretend that she is not angry? Or teaching Tyrone, whose father has just told him to get out, leaving him to choose between crappy sofas or the care system?

I would like to tell you that these stories are rare exceptions. I wish I could. The truth is that pupil referral units (PRUs) deal with the most damaged children from the most difficult circumstances. These stories are not exceptions, but the lives of children I have met, all in the last week.

This is not a place for amateurs. These children need the consistency of expert teachers who are committed to the long haul. Not the random interventions of adults who naively think they can "turn them around" in a few days. The lack of understanding would be laughable, if it were not so dangerous.

I fear we will only wake up to what is happening when someone - a child or an adult - gets hurt. My experience giving advice and training on restraint shows me it can take the death of a child to wake society up to dangerous practices.

Are we really ready to throw children with the worst life chances to unregulated providers who have no plan and are relying on improvised skill to help meet a profit motive? What does that say about us?

Experimenting on the most damaged, the most disadvantaged, with people who have qualities but no qualifications and virtually no regulation is playing Russian roulette with childrens' lives. It is a derogation of responsibility and places the most at-risk children with well-intentioned amateurs. We don't allow unqualified staff in mainstream schools to deal with the most difficult behaviour or take charge of child protection cases. Yet in alternative provision it seems that the door is being held open for anyone to have a go.

We would also never let such have-a-go-heroes into young offender institutions or secure training centres. The results would be catastrophic.Yet many of the children they work with in PRUs are also in and out of custody, have emotional scars most of us can barely imagine and live in dangerous poverty.

The qualified teachers I have met who work in PRUs with the most damaged children are experts in their field. They are not just amazing human beings, but have the right qualifications, years of training, bags of relevant experience, knowledge and skills that I am constantly in awe of. These people are rightly trusted to deal with the complex needs of children in trouble. You would trust them with your own children; you would trust them with your life.

They are the uncelebrated, unloved and undervalued holders of the safety net that saves young people from criminality, addiction and repeating the mistakes of their parents. Teachers in PRUs are the real heroes. Yet we treat them as if they are entirely dispensable, replaced by unqualified low-paid "tutors". It is disgraceful.

If amateurs are really allowed to "have a go", then next week I think I will be a doctor, maybe a lawyer, perhaps a policeman or surgeon. After all, I have life experience - what more could I possibly need?

Paul Dix is the author of "Taking Care of Behaviour" (PearsonLongman) and lead trainer at

Find him on Twitter @PivotalPaul.

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