ONE thing head teacher Gareth Caldwell wants to get clear is that Burton’s Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) is not ‘a dumping ground’ for unruly pupils.
The PRU, or the Alternative Route Centre as it is also known, supports up to 60 pupils at four sites across East Staffordshire who have either been excluded or at risk of exclusion from mainstream schools.
The PRU’s main site in Church Hill Street, Winshill, is supplemented by facilities in Waterloo Street, Curzon Street and Uttoxeter.
Since he was placed at the helm of the unit in 2009, Mr Caldwell and the staff have turned round the ailing fortunes of the unit.
First by taking the establishment out of special measures, and then by increasing the average leaving grade from a quarter of a GCSE to the equivalent of six.
“I don’t think it now has a perception of being a dumping ground. Being from Burton PRU is not a negative,” he said.
“When I came here it was in special measures, we got it out and the staff have been brilliant and responded fantastically.
“We then got a good Ofsted report and at the time we were the most improved PRU in England in the last five years.”
It would appear to be no mean feat given the challenges and barriers pupils face when they come under the guidance of the PRU.
Because of their situation, many youngsters can have low self-esteem, anger and confidence issues, Mr Caldwell said.
“They can see themselves as a failure because some of the students will have been excluded from more than one school before they get here,” he said.
“They will have had an experience of negativity for a high percentage of their life.
“They don’t feel that they are someone who wants to take risks because they might feel they might fail.”
Teaching staff at the PRU have adopted simple yet effective measures to help pupils prepare for life after education, or for the ‘big wide world’, as Mr Caldwell called it.
These include teaching groups of about six pupils – far smaller than mainstream schools – the flexibility to offer more vocational qualifications such as mechanics, and the assignment of a key worker to each pupil.
“The smaller groups mean there is nowhere here to hide so they have to take responsibility for themselves,” Mr Caldwell said.
“But if they get stuck there is someone on hand to help them to get the next stage.
“The ethos is that we want them to come here and the staff have to make the kids want to come back tomorrow.”
As a result, in the last two years every pupil who left the PRU had entered further education at college or had secured work placements within six months of leaving.
Deputy head teacher Janet Freeman-Smith said the strides made at the unit in the last four years now meant pupils leave with qualifications which puts them on a par with pupils at mainstream schools.
She said: “We have had massive success with students leaving with between six and eight qualifications and GCSEs, so that compares well to mainstream schools.
“The focus is always on accreditation, that is the aim of the PRU, but there is also the social and emotional aspect to consider because each child is different.
“Some come to us and they have had a terrible time and their situation means they suffer in approaching their studies at a basic level.
“But we have to help them overcome those problems and empower them to achieve. Once they find that confidence they are away.
“We give them the tools but they have to do the work themselves, but they are not scared of it.”