As part of my teaching training course at The OAKS, Keele University (link), I often have to write a set of reflections based upon my experiences in different situations. One set of reflections was from my time at a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU). PRU accommodates students who have been excluded or are at risk of exclusion from mainstream secondary high schools. The PRU that I visited was just one of a number of Units that exist across the Local Authority that I belong to. It was noted by the Head Teacher that to bring students in via taxies to the Unit can cost the Local Authority up to £25,000 per academic year, which is an extraordinary amount of money once you start thinking that there are an ever increasing number of students attending PRUs.
One of the very first tasks the students had to do upon entering the building was to hand over any phones, headphones, and other personal items to be locked up and kept safe until the end of the school day. What was surprising was that students also had to pick up a uniform. It was noted by the Lead Teacher that for some students, they were given a set of clothes, as presents, on their birthday (perhaps by their parents, guardian, carer etc.) and then wore those clothes for the rest of the year, as they did not have access to any other clothes. Often the background of the student’s challenging life meant that washing their clothes was not performed, or even their first priority. In addition, some students did not know how to clean their clothes, as they have never been taught it. As a result, one of the purposes of the uniform was to allow the staff to clean and dry the student’s clothes and return it to the student before the school day ended.
The Lead Teacher mentioned early on in the day that, for the vast majority of the students attending the Unit, their chronically under privileged background often meant that they left their homes without breakfast, without a packed lunch or even the money to buy a sandwich. Consequently, all students were asked and given a breakfast. At break time, the students were given sliced fruit (or whole fruit if they preferred) to eat and some water. At lunch, all students were given a nutritious hot meal. Again, the Lead Teacher mentioned that this could be the only hot meal the students have all day.
Each student had their own individual timetable, which was tailored to their needs, whether that’s behavioural, emotional or academics. The timetable was also set to prevent any clashes of students who disliked each other, for child protection reasons, or simply the student was not able to cope with a full timetable. When in scheduled lessons, for some students, however, they appeared to be free to engage with the lesson or not. One of the class teachers mentioned that, unlike in a mainstream secondary high school setting, the young people who attended the Unit were free to make the decision as to whether they engaged with the topic of the lesson or not, providing that they were:
- Arrived at the Unit according to their timetable,
- Attended each and every scheduled lesson, and
- Not disrupting the other students in the classroom or other classrooms, if present.
Deep down, my feelings were that it appeared that the Unit was more inclined to ensure that the young person attended the Unit, was safe, well fed and watered, cared for. It was important for the Unit to ensure that each student understood that there was someone in the Unit that was looking out for them, had a lot of consideration and time in their interests and needs, rather than making them participate in the lesson.
The experiences that I have had whilst at the PRU proposes some moral questions, which can be difficult to find the answers to…
- When does the parental responsibility of a child end and the Local Authority, and perhaps the Welfare State, start?
In other words, at what point does the Local Authority, and perhaps the wider Welfare State enter a family life to ensure that the upbringing of a child is as good as it can be? Where are the checks and balances?
- Why are children being sent to school in such a deprived way, i.e., not being fed and watered? Why are these children being exposed to such a terrible way of life?
The Government’s child protection tag line, “every child matters”, seems to be missing. The Local Authority can only do so much with what appears to be an ever-declining amount of financial resources. If allocated funds are kept at real terms, or in other words, if cuts are still being made to financial budgets, at what point do Local Authorities reach the tipping point? Economies are being made to every part of a Local Authority’s budget and the ever increasing amount of pressure on Local Authorities to provide services to the communities that they server is being stretched to breaking point.
- Why has it, over the last decade, and perhaps longer, become acceptable for parents to ‘neglect’ the emotional, physical and psychological development of the child?
Sending a child to school without breakfast, or even providing food at home for them for their evening meal, should be morally unacceptable and we as an educated, highly privileged, financially secure western society, should be tackling these issues as our main priority.
Thinking about the society as a whole, we benefit from having an educated populous. We make better choices, prosper, reach financial stability quicker, less reliant on governments to provide our basic needs, and generally much happier. We do not live in a country that can support young people with a low skill set, and to further complicate matters, there is little to no industry that is able to accept these young people. This leads to an interesting point, if there is little to no employment for low skill workers, how can they support themselves in their living expenses, how can they get up and improve their quality of life.
The Conservative mantra is that “…those that can, do…”, but we’re in a situation where those that can are not able to, owing to many barriers that they face. Surely it is the responsibility of the Welfare State (National Governments) to provide a safety net for parents, i.e., to catch them and their children when they fall? Is that not the whole point of a having a welfare system? The fact that we are paying our taxes each month should ensure that, both locally and nationally, this money is designed to pay for the social services that we all use, regardless of how financially stable a family is.
In summary, the day at the PRU truly opened my mind to the harsh reality of those who are, through no fault of their own, significantly disadvantaged and cripplingly underprivileged. The teachers and support staff who work at the Unit have exceptional patience and really do care about each and every single young person who attends the Unit. The staff really do work tirelessly with what appears to be very limited funding to ensure that each young person gains the most out of the school day and achieves their absolute best.