Once morning lessons begin, Patrick Ryan starts to pace the corridors of the school with his walkie-talkie. Officially, Patrick is described as a behaviour support officer, but his role is more that of dedicated trouble-averter. He is on call to remove disruptive pupils from their classrooms and to search for absconding students who have failed to turn up to their lessons.
All of the senior staff at the Bridge Academy, a school for pupils who have been excluded from the mainstream, carry walkie-talkies, and the corridors crackle with the noise of requests for back-up and appeals for straying pupils.
Patrick is a calm presence when the school secretary comes out to announce that a year 10 pupil, Robbie, has climbed over the school gates carrying a pair of scissors, taken from the art class, and disappeared. He is at ease in this atmosphere of simmering unrest, dispelling conflict with quiet banter, ignoring the abuse that pours from students’ mouths.
“Where’s the fucking toilet?” a new pupil asks him.
“Why can’t you just ask nicely, without the swearwords?” he replies, ushering him to the loos.
A 14-year-old girl with a profoundly unhappy expression walks along the corridor the wrong way, brushing against the walls, flicking every switch and pulling at every bit of electrical wiring. Patrick consults the school timetable, gently turns her around and helps her to the correct room.
Headteacher Seamus Oates stands in the corridor and greets the late arrivals with warmth. A lot of pupils arrive for the free breakfast club that starts at 7.30, but those who arrive after school has begun are rarely reprimanded for coming late because staff are so eager to reward the fact that they have turned up at all.
“Good morning Rhys,” he says to a short, wide boy, who comes in drinking a bottle of cherryade.
“Angry, angry, angry,” the child replies.
Pupils end up in this Victorian school building, off an expensive, wisteria-cloaked residential street in Fulham, west London, if staff at their mainstream secondary schools are no longer able to cope with what is euphemistically referred to as “challenging” behaviour. There are currently 108 students at the Bridge Academy, aged between 11 and 16, but as the year progresses this could rise as high as 160, as schools exhaust their attempts to keep pupils in the school and permanently exclude them. There are usually more boys than girls, with a ratio of 7:3.
But far from being a dumping ground for impossible-to-teach children, this school is an unexpectedly positive place, where staff and many students feel optimistic about their prospects. The government recognises that, across the country, these schools for excluded children, known as pupil-referral units (PRUs), have a very patchy record – there are 427 in England with 14,050 pupils – but the Bridge Academy is unusually successful at what it does. A recent Ofsted inspection said it offered an “outstanding level of education and care”.
Previous schools have failed to teach these children, but the Bridge Academy has a very high staff-to-pupil ratio, so that no class will have more than eight pupils and most have just two or three.
Oates, who started his career as a biology teacher in a mainstream school, said he always felt he could do more to help the two or three students messing around at the back of the class and refusing to learn, if he had more time. He launched this school seven years ago, determined to find ways of supporting pupils that other schools are unable to manage. Teachers here have time to focus on helping children and are trained in managing difficult behaviour.
Paul, 15, and starting his GCSEs, has volunteered some of his free time to talk about the school, and (impeccably polite and thoughtful) explains how he arrived 18 months ago after a fight with another pupil at his old school. The way he tells it, the other boy said something rude about his father, who died when he was a baby. “I strangled him with a tie. His head went red and it banged down on the table, then the teachers dragged me off him,” he says, recounting the facts calmly. “I wasn’t arrested or anything. I’d never been expelled before and they called this a managed move. I thought it was bang out of order. He knew my dad had died; he was asking for it. In my mind if you can cuss someone who is dead, then you deserve to be dead. That was what was in my mind when it happened. In a way, I didn’t really want to kill him, but I suppose I wanted to get my point across, that you shouldn’t say that kind of thing, it hurts people.”
Life at this school is much calmer. “The classes are smaller, and there’s more help. At my last school there was a counsellor who came every two weeks. Here there are counsellors here all the time,” he says.
Sarah is a year older than him and has been here since she was excluded from a girls’ school in the borough three years ago. “I started trashing the school, beating up the teachers and I finally got kicked out in year eight,” she says. “If I was in a mainstream school, I’d be walking out with U grades. Here we get more attention; the teachers really help me. I am having a pretty cool time here.”
The school tries to ensure that all students take some exams in their last year at school, and the head says last year the pass rate for GCSE A*-G was 93% (he concedes that the more usual definition of success – five GCSEs A*-C – is “not appropriate” for this kind of school).
Sarah’s mother died when she was four, and life with her father stopped working out around the time she was moved to secondary school, so she went into foster care, didn’t settle well, and has lived in six different homes in three years.
Although she’s much happier at school now, she still gets into fights. Her hand is in a bandage, bones broken after she punched her fist into a brick wall after a recent confrontation with a teacher. “I have so much respect for the teachers now, I couldn’t hit the teacher. So I went outside and hit the wall instead,” she says.
Despite the odd outburst, she is doing much better here and hopes to train to become a chef.
Once they drop their defensive guard, most of the students here seem lovely children, just extremely difficult to teach. Staff have their own methods for creating an atmosphere of calm. In one maths class there are just two pupils, one of whom is lying on the floor on a vast pillow-shaped bean bag, the other sitting on a chair; classical music is playing while the teacher stands at the smartboard explaining an exercise involving three-dimensional shapes.
Next door, maths teacher Dawn McClean is conducting a GCSE maths class in a more conventional style, addressing a group of four girls and two boys who are seated facing her at a row of desks.
One of them mutters, “fucking journo”, when I sit down. McClean does some tactical ignoring and continues with teaching. Everyone in the class has to write down today’s objective in their text books: “To have an understanding of discrete and continuous data and how to display it.”
“What’s the point of these fucking objectives? They are so fucking pointless,” one boy says. McClean smiles and presses on, pausing to ask one girl to put her cigarettes away. She puts one behind her ear, and hides another in her bra.
“No one use any of these pens, apart from me, or I will smash you,” Michael, a noisy 15-year-old tells his classmates, in a friendly rather than menacing voice. He has exceptional skills in time-wasting, which he displays for the duration of the lesson.
“Does anyone know what discrete and continuous data is?” the teacher asks.
The children are smiling, cheerful and generally well intentioned, but find it hard to focus; as the teacher is talking, Michael leaves the classroom without asking. “Where are you going, Michael?” He returns a couple of minutes later and sits at the teacher’s desk.
“Can I work here please?”
“I’ll do it really quick here.”
“I’ll pay you £3.”
“I don’t want £3,” she says, but in the interests of moving on with the class, she makes a compromise. “OK, you can have my chair,” she says, and she pushes him on the wheeled office chair across the room and back to his desk, where she has been trying to speed things up by writing out his objective for him. “Oh my fucking god, your handwriting is illegible,” he says.
“Michael can you please try to have a sentence without a swear word in it? I would really appreciate that.” He pulls the hair of the girl in the seat next to him. “Urgh, you’ve got greasy hair.”
Two of the girls are getting on quietly and trying to finish their work. McClean goes over to one and begins helping her, but the girl’s phone goes and she starts chatting to a friend on the phone. “Only take it if it’s really urgent,” McClean says. The girl goes on talking.
The class is over. Some of the pupils have understood the difference between discrete and continuous data, and this represents a significant achievement.
Sometimes the behavioural issues stem from a desire to hide the fact that they are struggling academically. School data shows that just over 50% of the students here have a three-year gap between their actual age and their reading age.
“A lot of these students have realised that their behaviour can hide their weaknesses … that with extreme behaviour they would [in their old school] be sent out of class and not have to do the work,” says Andre Bailey, the school’s assistant head.
“This is an exceptionally challenging place to work. A lot of these children are functioning at the emotional level of an eight-year-old, if not lower. They find it challenging, and they attempt to vote with their feet. The trick is to make it as accessible as possible.”
Because weakness in reading and writing are seen to be one of the key triggers of bad behaviour, children are given intensive support in this area.
“Reading becomes a fear zone for them – fear of the curriculum, of not being able to do something, fear of failure. They turn this fear of not being able to do something into verbal abuse of teachers, truancy, absenteeism,” says Barbara Earner, the school’s head of English.
Today staff are struggling to settle in Jamie, a 16-year-old Traveller child, who has missed out on most of his primary education – moving between London and Dublin, working a lot with horses – and who has been at the academy for around a year, but is still not turning up very often. He looks about 11, with a very sweet, pale, freckled face; he plays on his deceptively young appearance, the head teacher says, and it has proved useful. “Every police officer in Hammersmith and Fulham knows him.”
The school has put him on an intensive literacy programme to help him get into college. Jamie sits by himself in a classroom with Ian Patterson, an experienced, long-suffering English teacher in his 50s who radiates amiable, unflinching patience.
“We are looking at the 100 most commonly used words in the English language,” Ian says, pointing to a whiteboard, where a list of 100 words is lit up.
Jamie is looking at the laptop on his desk where he is playing a video of How Dare They by the rapper Giggs on YouTube at a reasonably loud volume. A teacher explains later that allowing the most resistant pupils to play music can be a way of making the classroom appear an appealing place to spend time, although here it seems possibly a distraction. Ian hands him a piece of lined paper and says: “What about ‘was’? That’s a tricky one. Would you like to try that?”
Jamie spells out w-a-s and continues watching the YouTube video.
“That’s right. How about ‘college’? What does that start with?” he asks, venturing beyond the 100-world list.
Jamie flicks his eyes from the laptop and writes k-o-l-i-n-g on the paper.
Ian asks him to read number 40 on the list on the board, and Jamie finds it, reads out “that” (correctly) and looks back down to YouTube.
“Can you give me a sentence with ‘that’ in it?”
Jamie looks at him, picks up his pen with resignation, writes something, pauses and says: “I’m not really able to do that.” Ian looks at what he has written. “Wot you going before me.”
It is suddenly quiet in the classroom because the internet seems not to be working any more, and YouTube is no longer playing.
“‘Wot’ – that will do for texting but it won’t do for English,” he says, before adding in a cheerfully constructive tone: “His writing is actually quite good. Jamie says he was finding reading and writing hard. I am betting him that he actually probably knows most of the 100 most common words.”
Jamie throws his Coke bottle across the classroom and it lands accurately in the bin.
“We are going to concentrate on the most commonly used words and each session I am going to give you some words you might need for your mechanics course. What kind of words might you need?”
“Car,” Jamie says, fiddling with the computer, which has suddenly started playing videos again. Then he gets up and leaves the room.
In the aftermath of August’s riots, there has been renewed focus on how we deal with troubled, disaffected young people (even though only 20% of those arrested were under 18), and the government has emphasised that it has no time for a soft, sympathetic approach to offenders. In a speech on moral breakdown given shortly after the riots, David Cameron announced a drive to “mend our broken society” and condemned a climate where individuals were not viewed “as the architects of their own problems” but as “the victims of circumstance”.
In this school, faced with some of the challenging pupils in the country, teachers tend not to see the children as the architects of their own problems and are inclined to look for explanations for behaviour. While they don’t view the students as victims, they clearly see mitigating circumstances that explain their difficult behaviour.
“With every learner there is a story that explains why they are here. Not an excuse, but a story,” he says. “I feel very moved when I see the kids coming in who still want to learn. Usually they have been let down by an adult.”
The immediate reasons why pupils are sent here are straightforward. Pupils may have been consistently rude to teachers, persistently disruptive, and possibly violent. They may simply have refused to attend classes.
“Academically he is weak,” a file on a new 13-year-old pupil states. “He is volatile, unpredictable, has a lack of empathy and social understanding. He is unable to think beyond his own needs and reflect upon concepts of good, safety, or danger. He is very emotionally immature. He runs across chairs and tables in a frenzy without thought for damage and safety. He uses extremely offensive language against those who seek to help him.”
But the longer-term reasons are much more complicated. Bereavement or illness of a parent often plays a part. “If you’re in a busy mainstream secondary school, a significant number of teachers wouldn’t know what has happened,” says Andre Bailey, the assistant head. “Children spiral into more and more challenging behaviour.
“We do home visits. Sometimes it is heartbreaking. When you hear about mental illness, drug abuse, you realise it is a miracle these children make it into school at all.”
Not every pupil comes from a poor background, but the majority do receive free school meals. Rita Rogerson, assistant head, says she has worked in this kind of school for the past 12 years and has yet to come across a middle-class student.
“It’s to do with life opportunities. I’m not saying that middle-class parents don’t have complex lives too, but they are able to cushion some of those complexities. I think that some of our parents don’t have those resources for extras like childcare or a more comfortable home. The young person might be sitting at home in darkness because you can’t afford to pay the bills,” she says.
In the afternoon, Gemma Dixon, the science teacher, welcomes in a first-year GCSE science class. She is accompanied by a learning assistant, and to begin with there are only two pupils, a girl and a boy. She begins by introducing herself to the boy, Lorenzo, as this is his first day at the school.
“Can I call you Dexter?” he asks.
“No. This morning we are testing school pizza to see what’s in it.”
A third pupil comes in, sipping Lucozade, shouting at earsplitting volume: “Yo, yo, yo, yo!”
He leaves the room again. “I’m happy to teach him, but he needs to calm down,” she tells the behaviour officer manning the corridors, who promises to find him again.
“The title of our work is up there on the board,” she tells her pupils.
“Yeah. I can see,” Lorenzo responds angrily.
The girl is cheerfully eating a lollipop. A second girl comes in, sits away from the other students, looks very miserable, doesn’t open any books, and scowls at the teachers. After about half a minute, she gets up, mutters, “I’m going for a walk,” and leaves the room. She doesn’t return. A staff member explains later that she has the reading age of a nine-year-old and is unwilling to be shown up as someone having difficulties; their policy is to encourage her, very gradually, to spend longer in class.
The other two students put iodine on a crumb of pizza to check for starch content.
The new boy sits on the table.
“Lorenzo. Please sit on the stool,” Dixon says.
He starts playing music on his mobile phone.
“Lorenzo. Phone away.”
“What’s your problem?” He turns the music down.
“Lorenzo. Turn it off please. You have done excellently so far.”
The girl dutifully continues with her work, but Lorenzo continues to sing along to his phone and refuses to pick up the pen.
“I told you I’m not going to do the writing.”
When Dixon asks him about the experiment that he has (cheerfully) conducted on the pizza, he turns his face to the wall and says: “Why are you talking to me?” He rests his head on his arms for a while, before getting up, picking up the white plastic gloves they’ve been wearing for the experiment, taking them to the tap and filling them with water. He looks much older than he is, and his forehead is heavily lined.
“No. Lorenzo,” Dixon says.
“Are you going to stop asking me questions now?” He returns to his seat and yawns a lot until the end of the session, but despite his deliberately provocative behaviour, neither the teacher nor the learning assistant has appeared in the least irritated; they have continued teaching and both students have learnt something about how to test for the presence of fat and starch in pizza, which is an important part of their GCSE coursework.
“This is a very needy group,” the Dixon says, but she feels she is making progress.
Teaching small classes, with an extensive support structure, is expensive, and the annual cost of educating a child in a PRU is estimated at around £15,000-£20,000 a year, compared with the £4,000 cost of a primary school. Oates says actually this is remarkably cheap compared with the £30,000 price of a place in a residential special school, or the estimated £150,000 cost of a child going through the criminal justice system.
He walks around the school, proud of what he is creating here, pointing out the new allotment, the therapy house where they have counselling and massage, a chicken coop in the playground filled with recently arrived hens. There’s a newly installed shed in the playground that will be used as a hair and beauty salon for pupils studying beauty, there are bicycle-maintenance facilities and a place where pupils can learn plastering and decorating.
In the corridor there are photographs of pupils who have returned to mainstream schools, with inspiring captions detailing how successful their new start has been. The primary goal is to return students to more conventional schools, but to make sure that a good education is provided for those who cannot be taught elsewhere.
As Friday afternoon draws to a close at the Bridge Academy, there is a sudden explosion of noise in the corridor and a computing teacher comes through the door with his arms around a 14-year-old boy, Andrew, pushing him towards the head’s room. There is a flurry of limbs and the head steps in and helps to push him to the quiet side-room, but the boy is resisting and braces one leg against the wall at waist level, across the head teacher’s stomach, hooking his foot around the door. They bundle him into the office, and sit on a sofa with the pupil between them, holding him down on each side.
Physical restraints like these are used as a last resort to control behaviour that is seen as potentially dangerous to a pupil, staff or other children.
“Restraint is used to help them to try to control their anger,” Bailey, the school’s assistant head, says. “It is really unpleasant for the staff and teachers involved. If they are being restrained, a learner will use all the insults they can. The child will be shouting: ‘You’re hurting me! You are hurting!’ It can look absolutely appalling.”
“When we see you are relaxed and calm, we will let go. When we let go, you will stay sitting down,” Oates tells Andrew. The IT teacher is so out of breath he can barely speak. The boy is sitting on the sofa and crying silently.
There has been a fight in the car park, and Andrew has called another student a “dickhead”. When he calms down, Oates checks he is not hurt, and consults the student’s personal file on his computer, which is updated by teachers after each lesson, detailing positive and negative behaviour.
Pupils are given targets to work towards, helping them cut down, for example, the number of times a day they tell a teacher to “fuck off”.
“You’ve got one positive today. No bads today? No bads. Overall you have done really well this year. Much better than last year,” he tells him.
“I’ve been trying all week,” Andrew says, still crying.
The other child is called. The skin is puffy beneath his eyes. Oates says later that he comes from a home where there is a lot of drug and alcohol abuse. There is a mediation session where the boys are meant to talk through what happened and apologise to each other. “Are you going to call him names again?” Oates asks Andrew.
“If he gets rude to me,” he replies.
“Are you going to call him names?” the head asks the other child.
“If he gets rude to me,” he says.
Oates says he deals with a lot of this “low-level childish nonsense”, but he is relaxed about it.
“I’ve been spat at, bitten, kicked. It’s part of the job,” he says. “I feel privileged to work with these kids.”
All pupils’ names have been changed. Photographs do not relate to the individuals in the article
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