Talkback

28th September 2001 at 01:00
It seems no time since I was sitting on the terrace under a starlit sky at 10pm in my shirt-sleeves. It was August, so I must have been on holiday. But I was surrounded by Basic Skills Agency resource packs, texts and sheaves of notes. Was I unique? I doubt it. Different? Certainly. You see I've been appointed teachermanager of one of these new-fangled learning support units that the Government has decided to set up.

I come from a background of work in pupil referral units and home tutoring. I almost retired once. But this is my latest challenge and it's the result of helping reintegrate a student.

Two of the senior teachers at his school watched me coaxing him back to work after a series of confrontations. My reputation spread. People began to ask if they could come and watch me. Some sort of magic seemed to be in the air.

Sadly, there is no such thing. I was able to coax Richard back because I had worked with him as a home tutor. He knew me. More importantly, he trusted me. If there is a "magic ingredient" in what I do, it is just that - trust.

I try to be honest with the kids I'm working with. If I tell them they can do better, I am not undermining what they have done. They know that and try to respond. One of my clients, Steven, didn't believe me to start with. He was convinced that, having been excluded from the pupil referral unit, he'd blown it. It took some time to get him to believe in himself and admit that he couldn't read (Year 10 with a reading age of just under eight). This term he starts college and will be getting extra help with his reading. He believes in himself again.

We don't usually buy British papers when we're abroad, but this year my wife happened across a Sunday something and bought it. Inside was an article by a disillusioned teacher complaining about working conditions, kids. . . one of her gripes was that these new units - like the one I am opening - would be counterproductive. She thought they would become "sin bins". If you accept that my clients are all close to, or returning from exclusion, then yes, I am managing a sin bin. If you believe the units are to accelerate learning and help kids get back into regular classes, then no, they are not.

Last term, I met each of our potential clients and their families. We spoke about why their son or daughter will be working in the unit. We have set up targets - academic and social - which they and their families have accepted.

Since, in my experience, many of the behavioural problems kids demonstrate come from lack of social skills and more potholes in their learning than in rural French roads, it is important to have educational targets. Hence the pile of material I ploughed through in August.

Accepting some of the available good practice about literacy and numeracy strategies, I want to weave spelling and fractions into PSHE topics. I must encourage writing and learning tables. I must make the Industrial Revolution relevant.

Of course, that is the other piece of magic in the way I work - me, a learning support assistant and between four and seven clients from Years 9, 10 and 11. Anyone who is struggling can have personal attention. If the group comes to the conclusion that none of them understands the difference between "there" and "their", we can abandon the lesson and focus on that particular pothole.

And we will be working in bright, sparkling surroundings. All too often, I have visited PRUs in sub-standard accommodation and equipped with leftover texts and kit. I have the chance to offer these kids an environment where they can learn and develop. Sin bin? I hope not. Catalyst for learning? I hope so. Despite the advanced bad press.

The writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, is opening a learning support unit in East Anglia this term

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