Alan Kemp knows a thing or two about working with challenging youngsters. A tough-talking former rugby player, he started his career in a special school on Tyneside 27 years ago and now runs the Gillford Centre, acknowledged as one of the best pupil referral units in the country. It serves Carlisle and rural communities in north and east Cumbria, catering for some 60 pupils who have been excluded or are under threat of exclusion because of their behaviour. Around half have statements of special educational need.
When Mr Kemp arrived three years ago, the centre was classified as having serious weaknesses. Staff morale was low and absences high. Last year, inspectors declared it a good, very well-led centre and praised its teaching. Alan Kemp says he now has a "canny team" of staff, But the average age of his 14 teachers is 45 to 50. He says one of his hardest tasks is finding younger staff with the qualities to work in this tough environment. He sees increasing numbers of permanent exclusions in the county for violence and intimidation. And he says the excluded children are getting younger.
"Our junior end is expanding all the time," he says. "We usually have one permanent exclusion a year - we've had four this year."
He is very straight with candidates for teaching posts. "I'm a firm believer that you can either do it or you can't. And if you can't, you need to be told - so you can go and do something else."
What challenges do they face?
"Confrontation, intimidation from kids," he says. "You'll get challenged mentally, they'll have a go at your personality. Even the best members of staff say it takes six months for kids to get used to you in a place like this."
Working in a pupil referral unit may be at the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to choosing a challenging career path. But Alan Kemp maintains that if you can work in an environment like this, you can work anywhere. "I guarantee anybody who can survive this system for three years will end up as senior teacher in a mainstream school."
Carol Adams, head of the General Teaching Council for England, says the issue of challenging schools is a subject close to her heart. She started her own teaching career in tough inner-London secondary schools. She believes that schools offering challenges do not fall in to one group, and that teachers should choose carefully.
Trying to identify the kinds of pupils you want to teach as well as the school you want to teach in is really important, but not always easy, she says. Challenging schools in challenging circumstances can differ enormously.
"For example, in one school I taught at in an inner-city, very multi-cultural area, the children were just incredibly needy and desperate to learn. Nothing could be more rewarding than teaching those children, because once they trust you, they will learn and learn and learn.
"A different kind of challenge is to teach in a school where there's really challenging, anti-social behaviour, where the children are in some ways quite self-confident, their antagonism towards education is often reinforced by their parents' experience,and they are actually giving you real in-your-face challenges to your authority.
"That challenges you as a teacher to find a way of developing a relationship with those pupils and asserting your authority in an effective way."
Carol Adams stresses the importance of staff support and teamwork to avoid pupil behaviour or comments getting to you.
"If you do feel hurt, you need someone to go to to remind you not to take it personally. You need good systems in the school to back you up if you're dealing with challenging behaviour."
While some teachers decide this environment is not for them and move on, persevering can pay dividends, not only for the teacher's career but also for the pupils. "What those young people need more than anything is that someone cares about them sufficiently to stay."
The Department for Education and Skills has promoted various initiatives to help staff in challenging schools. These include the trainee heads scheme, which places well-qualified deputy heads to work alongside heads and senior management teams in tough schools.
But the Government admits that the capacity of local education authorities to support such schools varies. Carol Adams believes there is not nearly enough professional development support for teachers in challenging schools. Initiatives including sabbaticals and professional bursaries, brought in as pilots, fell victim to funding changes last year when money that had previously been allocated to these schemes was handed directly to schools.
The GTC is about to send out leaflets to heads and governing bodies, warning of the need to invest in professional development for staff. "If you don't invest in staff, particularly in these schools, they're not going to stay," says Ms Adams.
According to Teacher Support Network, a national charity that offers counselling and support for the profession, there has been a significant increase in callers in the early stages of their careers. Tom Lewis, the network's information services manager, says many newly qualified teachers can feel overwhelmed by some of the behaviour they are confronted with.
"Sometimes they feel as if they don't have adequate training before qualifying, to prepare them with strategies to use within a school that has children with challenging behaviour.
"Sometimes because of the nature of teaching, it can feel very isolating.
And I think sometimes for teachers themselves, both the newly qualified and the older experienced, there can be this conspiracy of silence: 'If I begin to admit I'm having difficulties, how will I be viewed? Will I be seen as unable to cope?' " Back at the Gillford Centre, Alan Kemp is only too aware of the risks of inexperience and inadequate training. "If you get a very young person coming in and they're not mentored properly, and a kid baits them, that's when they end up getting kids against the wall. And that's when they end up losing their jobs."