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You aren't 'alf boring

Steve Mount on the challenge of teaching children at Pupil Referral Units who have lost interest in learning.

Science is "crap and boring and does me 'ead in" was what one 15-year-old girl told me six years ago when I first started work at a unit children with emotional and behavioural difficulties (now a Pupil Referral Unit).

I had spent 14 years in science mainstream and had been looking forward to working in a testing environment. I survived the morning's lessons. Then at lunch, this pupil told me why she had been excluded. She said she was "thick" and that she hated science.

She said she had no intention of working in my lessons and I could do nothing about it (she was right and left a term later, having done little science). I was surprised but intrigued. I spent some time questioning her in the hope of finding some "handle" that I might use to get her to engage in the next lesson, but she was adamant.

As she walked away, she turned and said: "You know Steve, you're not such a bad bloke, but when you're over there (pointing to the converted bicycle sheds that we used as our main teaching area) you aren't 'alf a boring bastard. "

It was obvious that I was not making the grade. As time passed, I acknowledged that nothing could prepare anyone for this type of work other than to do it and to follow the maxims of "if it works, use it" and "make the 'rule' fit the experience".

I knew I wasn't a "bad" teacher, but it was clear that I wasn't good enough. I needed other skills to design a better "master plan" for educating these pupils. But I was not going to be defeated.

Six years on, I still reflect back on that conversation. I know that from her perspective, I was boring because I was doing what I thought was important. This was not the best place to start and although I would never advocate that teachers only teach what pupils want to be taught, what is wrong with starting from where the pupils are and building from there? These young people need a more sophisticated approach. Telling is not good enough.

I know that this is not a new idea, but it does have a renewed emphasis in this environment. I think the only thing that is important in teaching is what the pupils believe to be true. Everything else follows on from this.

One must allow them to believe that they want to do this work. It's reverse psychology: if you want a pupil to sit somewhere, tell them you want to sit there and, almost without exception, they will sit there smugly. But there is a time when to use this approach and when not to.

I am sure that some of my lessons are still "boring" but I try to prevent this. The problem is how can one provide a science entitlement curriculum to a group of demanding pupils with few resources and limited timetable allocation?

I do not have a secret recipe or answers that will lead to success. I work towards that position. I still relish the challenge and continue to find questions to ask: How may I simplify this? How can I best prepare them for this? What can I ask them to do and how can I record this? What extension work could I have and what is the minimum I will accept? And so on.

No single approach will work with my pupils: what works one time, may fail another. For example, the first time I used a cardboard helicopter to show how its rate of decent could be changed, the pupils were fascinated. They were engaged for the morning when the lesson was supposed to be half that time. The second time, the group used the cardboard, Blu-Tac and paperclips as weapons in a classroom war. Prisoners were bound and gagged with Sellotape.

I retreated to a safe position where the group were "persuaded" to get on with some written work. These were the first pupils I had hoped would be my entry group for GCSE (they were Year 11 pupils).

I try to follow guidelines. I prepare and organise in advance. I like to use a "hands-on" approach but this can be limited if you are trying to hit the GCSE target in less than three terms.

I try to differentiate my work at the written and task level. I always prepare more than a sufficient quantity and variety of work. I try to take all questions seriously although many are "distractions".

I try to get them to think for themselves and accept responsibility for their actions. Sometimes I succeed. On a good day, my pupils may extend their knowledge boundaries and reinforce existing ones. They may complete an experiment and they may even enjoy the work. On a bad day, I wish I were somewhere else. But the good outweigh the bad.

I have recently conducted a national survey of all 304 pupil referral units on the latest Department for Education and Employment listing - a formidable document with some 90 questions.

I am still analysing the research but evidence from just a few questions give a flavour of the survey.

Half of the respondents do not have a qualified science specialist on the staff. But 83 per cent of them have teachers who are teaching science for at least some of the week. Only about a quarter of these are qualified science teachers.

The survey revealed that there may be up to 12,500 pupils in PRUs. Fifty per cent of science lessons had between two and five pupils in a class, 37 per cent had between six and nine children.

In almost half of the units, pupil assessment is linked to the national curriculum in science.

The survey revealed that attainment target 1 (investigations) posed most problems for pupils and teachers thought it was the most difficult one to teach. They also found that AT4 (physics) was the most difficult "area" for them.

Thirty-eight per cent of units do not have a laboratory of any kind, adequate books or p equipment. Only about 5 per cent have a fully equipped lab. The survey also revealed that although teachers may need equipment, what they want is someone who also understands their needs and is prepared to help.

Schools and teachers need to collaborate. By doing this, the biggest enemy, isolation of PRUs and their teachers, can be defeated. The benefits of this are obvious. The PRU would establish lines of communication for advice, support and ideas and have access to a pool of resources. The mainstream school would have access to teachers who have some specialism in working with difficult pupils.

Science offers so much to all our pupils. It develops skills and knowledge about our world. It offers challenges and provides solutions and can be a positive and rewarding aspect for personal development.

Steve Mount teaches at a PRU in Rotherham and is carrying out research at Sheffield Hallam University.

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