Success for the bunker boys

18th May 2007 at 01:00
Former nuclear shelter is home to one of the country's outstanding pupil referral units

IT MAY be a pupil referral unit but it is as far from the stereotypical image of a sin bin as is possible to imagine. Students busy themselves with activities from falconry to art and have been praised for their "keen interest in foreign affairs".

Though referral units have been criticised by the Tories for their supposedly poor standards, this is an unequivocal success story and one of only a few to have been rated as outstanding by inspectors.

Housed in a former nuclear bunker on the outskirts of Harrogate, in North Yorkshire, the unit is unlikely to win any awards for architecture. Until recently, it still boasted a car-sized air filter and water recycling system to protect locals in the event of nuclear fallout. Although the Cold War may be over, it is still very much in the business of crisis management.

The pupils who travel to the low prefab building every day come from some of the most deprived parts of Yorkshire. They have been expelled or threatened with expulsion, spent time in care homes, or come from some of the area's most notorious families. A few have barely attended school at all.

Despite this, the unit has won praise to make even the most leafy private school green with envy. Its last Ofsted report dished out grade ones all round, lauding the "high calibre" of teaching and rating student progress as "remarkable".

Its tough love tactics, where pupils are lavished with one-to-one attention but dressed-down if they step out of line, are working.

Teenagers typically advance one national curriculum level - equivalent to two years' progress - in a 12-week period and those who stay longer achieve around eight qualifications, compared to the expected one. Martin, 16, who is preparing to sit maths GCSE next week, said: "There's smaller classes and you learn better. I hated school before. I'd either stay home or get sent home."

Samantha Campbell, the headteacher, tells why she moved to work in a PRU.

"I didn't like school personally," she said. "I was bullied. And when I became an art teacher, it was the naughtiest kids I liked working with.

They were the most lively, the most spirited."

She is angered by the common perception of referral units as sin bins where pupils go to kill time and smoke cigarettes. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, recently dismissed state-run units as inadequate and advised replacing them with voluntary groups.

One in eight was given a poor rating by Ofsted last year.

"It doesn't match the reality of what we do," Mrs Campbell said.

Not that life in the unit is always easy. Dashing across town to rouse a drowsy child from their bed in time for lessons is par for the course.

Managers spend "a lot" on taxis to haul them in from across the county. And if pupils can be combative, so can parents. "Some of them will basically tell their kids to tell us where to stick it," said Rob Loach, the deputy head.

Teenagers have undergone training in falconry, catering, childcare, social work and arts and crafts. James, 15, is an apprentice at a farm equipment company. He is impressed by this foretaste of adult responsibility. "They let me handle pound;60,000 tractors," he said.

Of the 450 pupil referral units in England, only 183 were inspected last year and fewer than 20 were rated outstanding. Staff at Harrogate believe they have a recipe for success others could copy. "I took them to a football tournament and they were so well-mannered," said Mr Loach. "I thought, 'these are just nice, normal kids, trying to succeed'."


Create a culture of respect. That means no hoodies, no chewing and no bad language.

Establish firm boundaries. Act clearly and decisively when rules are broken.

Reward good behaviour. Prizes such as Argos vouchers can act as an incentive.

Respond to pupils' interests. Allow them to pursue ambitions through work experience.

Meet the family. It is vital to gain their co-operation and understand each child's background.

Talk to the school. Find out about pupils' strengths and weaknesses. Update staff on their progress.

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