Why I turned my back on a headship to work in a PRU

This teacher became disillusioned with mainstream schools that were failing pupils year in year out

The government's plan to get tough on behaviour in schools will result in more exclusions, warns Bernard Trafford

My dad died when I was 11. I was very close to my mum and still am but I appreciated going to an all through school where I had consistency.
I remember once, we were in woodwork, I just couldn’t get something right. I got so upset about it, I could tell at some point the teacher was getting irritated that I wasn’t able to get this simple thing. Then she noticed that I was really upset, she must have known about my dad, she picked me up and sat me on her lap. She gave me the biggest, longest hug and just let me cry. I was in Year 6.

Now I’m a teacher myself, and I like to think I’m more tuned into certain signs in children. My experience tells me that when a child is acting up, there’s usually more to it than meets the eye. I’m not just talking about the children who are calling out for attention. Some children internalise, which is what I did. These are often the children who are very keen to please, almost too studious, when you can just tell something is slightly off kilter, I can have quite a good idea of what they might be feeling or thinking.

Sats specialist

In the early stages of my career – in primary – it quickly became apparent that I was good at getting children to do well in their Sats and, for a time, I was quite proud of that because that’s what I was being told was a good teacher. “You’re a good teacher because you’ve got 93 per cent pass rate.”

But I soon became disillusioned. I remember looking at one child in my class and thinking: “He’s 10 and are we really saying, ‘Look he’s not going to get it, so we’re just going to discount him’?”

I was sending children off to Year 7, but with what skills? I believe passionately that primary school is about children becoming numerate, literate – but also emotionally literate. 

Those are the three skills we need for life and Sats don’t serve that purpose.

None of this is to suggest that the schools I’ve taught in did not do a lot of things well. We supported children who had SEND or emotional needs, and we tried to work hard with families and reach out.

But we still had cases where we were excluding children or couldn’t meet their needs. I found it really difficult but ultimately you have consider that child and the impact on the 29 other children in that class. Dealing with that much emotional need is stressful for teachers as well.

My experience of PRUs is quite different from what I hear when secondary teachers talk about them. “Children don’t come back, that’s it. Your life chances, once you’re in secondary PRU, are awful.”

When we occasionally did managed moves of children to PRUs, they were successful because they would go, generally for two terms, and then reintegrate back into the school in the third term and I would always be amazed at what a positive turnaround it was for that child. I would always think, “What is it that they do? What made it successful for the child, when they came back into mainstream?” It was almost like something had switched.

I remember one child who was difficult, oppositional and violent, and ended up getting permanently excluded at the end of Year 6. When we reflected, we’d done him a massive disservice. Maybe if we’d contacted the PRU when he was in Year 3 and he’d received support much earlier, he would have had a better chance of returning to mainstream schooling.

Career change

I had reached the point in my career when I felt as though I wasn’t learning anymore. I guess I felt a bit depressed with mainstream really. Despite my disillusion, a headship came up and I was asked to apply for it.

I thought to myself: “No, there are still 5-10 per cent of pupils that, for some reason, we’re just not meeting their needs or we’re just not getting through. I’ve still got so much to learn about what actually works for [all] children.”

So instead I took a placement in the PRU sector. Through a programme called The Difference, I’ve now been teaching in a setting called The Courtyard for four weeks. There have been challenges and sometimes it has been hard to be in a position where I feel I have the least expertise when I have been used to feeling like I have quite a lot. I have already learned so much in the short time I've been here and I absolutely love the kids – they are fun, engaging, smart and yes at times hard work – but no different from any other kids I've encountered in my teaching career. It should go without saying that they absolutely deserve the best.

I hope that when I return to mainstream, I will take some of these lessons back with me, and as a result I will allow fewer kids to fall through the gaps.
 
As told to Iesha Small. The Difference runs a programme which develops leaders through a two-year leadership placement in a PRU; Vicky will be telling her story at the IncludED conference 2019, in partnership with Tes. Tickets available now.

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