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'Working in a pupil-referral unit changed my career'

The challenges of working in a pupil-referral unit show us how to support pupils in mainstream schools, says Shaun Brown

Mainstream schools can learn a lot from pupil-referral units to prevent pupils from being excluded, writes Shaun Brown

The challenges of working in a pupil-referral unit show us how to support pupils in mainstream schools, says Shaun Brown

By the time I’d been teaching for seven years, I’d taught literally hundreds of classes and thousands of students. But it was one class, and one pupil, who changed the direction of my career.

At the time I was a head of geography, in a new secondary school in a deprived part of East London. So far in my career, I had been stimulated by what drove success for pupils. Perhaps it was the shock at the speed with which everything unravelled for Jason, or the "deskilled" feeling I had when he returned to my classroom from a fixed-term exclusion. Either way, by the time he left the school, I was left wondering whether I ought to do so to.

Jason was the star of my Year 7 form play. Well-liked by everyone in the school, staff and students, he was a really positive member of any class. But towards the end of Year 7, he changed – and rapidly. His behaviour became difficult to manage; his relationships with staff and students broke down.

Things quickly escalated to the point where he was out of control, and then out of school. He returned briefly in Year 8, but lasted only a few weeks, before a really serious incident led to his permanent exclusion. What had happened to change such an apparently happy child? What could I have done differently to help him?

Learning from pupil-referral units

Countless teachers have this feeling every year. When they feel like they haven’t got the skills and support they need to work with the pupils in front of them, research shows that they are more likely to quit the classroom. And this problem is worse in schools serving deprived communities, like mine – where often such specialist skills are needed to work with vulnerable students and often little training is available.

But I didn’t leave the profession. Just my school. I was becoming more interested in the challenge of pupils who didn’t succeed than those who did. My career took a new turn: to a pupi- referral unit which served pupils like Jason, for whom learning had stopped when something much more dramatic was happening in his personal life.

Pupil-referral Units aren’t commonly thought of as a career route – lots of teachers have never really heard of them or stepped inside. But most local authorities have one, for pupils who have been fixed-term or permanently excluded. 

Working in Tower Hamlets Pupil Referral Unit, I learned a lot about myself and developed the expertise needed to work successfully with vulnerable children through both the job and the master's course I took alongside it.  

Working here gave me paradigm-shifting CPD. Most significantly, I experienced first-hand how traumatic early childhood experiences had exposed students to the significant challenges and risks they faced as adolescents. I came to better understand why students like Jason were behaving as they were and, crucially, how to better keep them safe and keep them learning.

Across 10 years at the school, we developed a practice that helped all staff to recognise and better support the learning, wellbeing and safeguarding needs of their students. In my post as head of inclusion, I also forged strong multi-agency links which brought specialist services into the PRU where students could access them directly. I had learned so much.

Students falling through the gaps

Although my time at the PRU was richly rewarding, I was excited by the opportunity to apply what I’d learned there in a mainstream school. Could we better support escalation in pupil need and prevent more Jasons getting to the stage of permanent exclusion?

In 2015 I left the PRU to become deputy head of Thomas Tallis School in Greenwich. My new head, Carolyn Roberts, specifically chose to appoint me so that I could apply my specialist knowledge to improve outcomes for all students in her mainstream school.

When I arrived, like many mainstreams, Tallis had a clear division between its "high-needs support" team and the pastoral team who managed behaviour across the school, and, consequently, many students fell through this gap.

In short, too often the underlying needs associated with challenging classroom behaviours were unrecognised and unmet. Escalation of these difficult behaviours would lead students into repeated external exclusions and ultimately to permanent exclusion. In 2015 Tallis exclusions were high and above the national average, and attendance was significantly below the national average.

I was determined that we wouldn’t lose great staff through their frustration of not knowing how to respond to difficult behaviour. Key to that was a sense of ownership: helping every staff member feel they had a clear role in supporting all pupils’ learning, wellbeing and safeguarding needs. 

Staff training helped all teachers and non-teachers recognise different tiers of need, and that "inclusion" wasn’t just a word that applied to high-needs students, but was also crucial for pupils with lower or less visible needs (all adolescents are challenging – it’s part of the journey!) (Indeed, Ofsted has recently highlighted that those pupils who most need safeguarding have often not been on schools’ radars prior to serious concerns.) 

As we first united and then integrated the "pastoral" and "high-needs" teams, fewer pupils fell through the gaps. Giving extra training to staff who were naturally strong on restorative conversations meant a new behaviour support team could support teachers in applying de-escalation techniques, and soon fewer classroom disruptions were leading to internal exclusion. In turn, as internal exclusion was less populated, it could be more effective at helping pupils turn around and get back to lessons. 

I applied those lessons I’d learned myself, back in the PRU. Knowing that behaviour is communicating something, we developed an Inclusion Support Unit model using trained counsellors and therapists to offer specialist one-to-one and group sessions to ensure that students who were internally excluded or exhibiting challenging behaviours received appropriate interventions, matched to their learning, wellbeing or safeguarding needs.

In the year 2017-18, over 250 students accessed the Inclusion Support Unit. Staff, students and parents recognised the importance of this work in recognising and supporting unmet needs. Following a group intervention for girls, one parent noted: “[My daughter] became aware and more insightful and was able to manage her feelings much more effectively".

All staff gained from the specialist knowledge I’d learned in PRU on child development and trauma. While the Inclusion Support Unit might meet higher tier needs, every teacher came to understand what might be motivating challenging behaviour and how they could best respond to de-escalate. 

Absence and exclusion

Too often, if we have had happy childhoods ourselves, we can assume that traumatic experiences are anomalous – belonging only to the minority who are "LAC" on our class registers, for instance. But this is far from true. 

The Department for Education found last year that in the state school population, one in 10 pupils had been involved with social services, invariably in situations that cause trauma to that child. In schools in deprived areas, the concentration of trauma is likely to be even higher. 

And when it comes to adolescents, safeguarding risks like peer assault, grooming and exploitation commonly go undisclosed and unrecognised in any dataset. So every adult working in schools needs to be able to respond to unexpected behaviour as though it may be being driven by a safeguarding or wellbeing/mental health concern.

School exclusion and absence are closely linked. At Tallis we developed a robust and supportive response to absence led by heads of year and coordinated by our in-house family support worker, who built relationships with parents and recognised needs that were impacting on attendance. One boy struggled with attendance in Year 7.

His mum wrote this to his head of year: "I watched you build up a trusting relationship with him and I believe this to be the key to his belief that school could become a safe place for him. You trusted him and gave him the space to work through his issues and prioritised this over the immediate issue of lessons. You gave him the chance to work through some core life issues. You always acknowledged his achievements and encouraged him to go further.” In Year 7, he never attended for a full day, but in Y8 he currently has 100 per cent attendance.

It was amazing to see a sense of control passing from the specialist staff to middle leaders, frontline classroom teachers and on to pupils. Staff wellbeing and pupil wellbeing go hand in hand, and data showed the impact we were having as a team. 

By July 2018 attendance was significantly above the national average, and levels of exclusion had fallen by over 60 per cent. This could not have been achieved without the buy-in of all staff into reducing exclusion, and particularly by the school leadership, which was committed to community and inclusion.

It was my dream job. Which was why deciding to leave was so difficult.

My new role establishing the new Difference Leaders Programme is perhaps the only thing which could have taken me away from deputy headship at Tallis. The learning from my PRU journey allowed me to build inclusive systems in mainstream with a real impact on staff and students – reducing exclusion and improving outcomes. But this was an unusual journey.

Now, through the Difference Leaders Programme, there is an opportunity for thoughtful, ambitious teachers to follow a similar leadership pathway. The two-year Difference Leaders Programme offers intensive specialist training, leadership coaching and an NPQSL alongside two years in a PRU leadership post. This programme will create a new generation of leaders, equipped to understand learning, wellbeing and safeguarding needs and improve outcomes for vulnerable children.

The Difference's first annual conference will take place this Saturday. Hosted by Oasis Academy Southbank, it is an opportunity to access CPD from, and build a dialogue with, the country's leading practitioners for supporting the needs of vulnerable pupils. Tes is media partner

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