I suppose it is no wonder that when I became a Supported Living Carer the more challenging care-leavers to pass through my home would be the ones who won a permanent place in my heart. All of them have struggled in the mainstream school classroom to varying degrees so these days I can see the problem from both the teacher and carer perspective and still I don't know the answer. I look with frustration across the rows of desks at the thirty children in front of me and my heart breaks for that "attention seeking" pupil who is struggling to focus and wants me all to herself. I really want to give her the connection she craves but I want to do my best for the other 29 as well and somehow that just isn't possible, even with the occasional presence of an angel of mercy Teaching Assistant. I am sure the children are far more frustrated with the situation than I am. More annoying still I am sometimes pretty sure I know how I can help that struggling pupil to learn, I simply don't have the time or resources.
This week I witnessed an alternative, which wouldn't work for everyone but might help a fair few of the "naughties" I am acquainted with; I had the opportunity to visit a specialist school for boys with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. About 50 boys are educated there, in my eyes most of them shorter versions of the lads I have supported in my home. The class numbers are very small, the ratio of staff to pupils high and the atmosphere was one of calm kindness. It was not the scene of chaos that I was expecting, although I am sure things can get out of hand from time-to-time and I certainly only saw a snapshot.
First I was shown an art class, where an enthusiastic, excited, attachment-seeking twelve year-old insisted on showing me his sketchbook, which I obediently admired. Then there was a maths class, where one young man was struggling to sit still and not shout or make noises; "A stranger in the room can be unsettling for some of our boys," explained my guide. We passed classrooms with cosy, quiet, cushion-filled corners where overwhelmed children could hide for a while; we dropped in to a cookery lesson where the smell of Apple Crumble was mouthwatering. There was an allotment; a display of photographs from the annual ski trip and a poster reminding everyone of an upcoming outing to the theatre.
I was impressed with the school and its staff, as you can probably tell, but saddened that the care-leavers I have supported, with complex behaviour and emotional needs, never had a similar opportunity. Most were squeezed into a mainstream mould which was not suited to them and resulted in their exclusion and transfer to a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU). No doubt there are PRUs which do a fine job but my experience of our local unit is that it is mostly an expensive holding area for the children who disrupt the "normal" pupils. It herds the excluded, challenging pupils together; keeps them out-of-sight and out of mind for a few years and then releases them into the world at 16 without a qualification to their names. Does that sound harsh? Perhaps it is and perhaps many PRU staff do their best for the pupils they teach, but I have supported two boys who graduated from the local one: both have no qualifications; both are NEETs (not in education, employment or training); both have served time in custody and neither is stupid. They are both of at least average intelligence so you might think the place could have at least squeezed a GCSE or two out of them.
At the end of my tour of the special school I was told there was a second small unit across the road for the hard-to-reach boys. Did I want to see it? Absolutely I did! Hard-to-reach boys are fast becoming my speciality after all. My guide explained that some of their oldest pupils have terrible attendance. Some are serial runaways; some are looked after children who have had one placement breakdown after another; some are from traveller families and a few have been kicked out of their homes and are sleeping on friends' sofas. I was told that often these boys were reported missing to police and the school was the only place they still dropped into, even if just for a cuppa and a sandwich. The unit itself had the feel of a youth club or children's home more than a school. There was a pool table; a large kitchen "We feed all our boys three times during the school day, they don't always eat at home;" a boot room and showers "for our older boys who sofa surf." Upstairs one of the rooms was occupied by a massage therapist who comes in once a month for parents and carers, an initiative to build positive ties with pupils' families who often have a stressful time.
I love the holistic approach of this school, although I hate the fact that so much of it is necessary.Here is a team that understands that a child won't learn if their basic needs are not being met. Working in mainstream education I feel frustrated by the focus on pushing pupils to the next attainment target and punishing issues such as a lack of homework. Teenagers who I feed with breakfast bars from my own desk drawer and who confide in me that they don't return home till bedtime have bigger problems than achieving a Level 5 in Spanish. Maslow was the bane of my life at foster training but he is right when he insists that children cannot learn until their more basic needs are met. They certainly can't concentrate if they are hungry or worried about where they will sleep later. Neither will they make friends if they haven't showered in days. Furthermore children who have experienced trauma, or are still in the thick of it, have other things on their minds which will not be on the teacher's lesson plan and they will communicate them with their behaviour. I am relieved and encouraged to discover that some teachers recognise this fact and are highly gifted interpreters.