Nurturing the needs of children with issues

Northumberland Pupil Referral Unit.' A class shot
Northumberland Pupil Referral Unit.' A class shot

IT might be seen as a school for naughty children, but reporter HELEN MILLICHAMP found out that Northumberland Pupil Referral Unit (NPRU) has had huge successes in helping children with behavioural issues.

TUCKED away in Hepscott Park, NPRU looks like any other council building.

Northumberland Pupil Referral Unit.' l-r Headteacher Tom Dexter, Jayson Miller, eight, Connor Brown, 10, Connor Hart, seven, Conor Doolan, 10, teaching assistant Alex Gates, Ryan Ingram, 14  and teacher Mark Phillips.

Northumberland Pupil Referral Unit.' l-r Headteacher Tom Dexter, Jayson Miller, eight, Connor Brown, 10, Connor Hart, seven, Conor Doolan, 10, teaching assistant Alex Gates, Ryan Ingram, 14 and teacher Mark Phillips.

But the work that goes on inside can help to change a child’s life forever.

The unit has been in place for 14 years and takes children who are at risk of exclusion or permanent expulsion from school, because of behavioural issues, from across the whole county.

In the past, the unit only accepted 12 to 16-year-olds, but under the direction of headteacher Tom Dexter, it is now taking in children as young as seven to try to eradicate problems.

“You can actually spot children in first schools who have behavioural problems,” said Mr Dexter.

“We have a new Key Stage 2 unit which opened in November and we’ve seen results already.

“We’ve had 14 people go through and while some have still had problems it has been very successful and we have seen massive improvements in behaviour when putting the children back in to mainstream school.”

A block of old garages which were used for storage at the site have been converted into the Key Stage 2 classrooms.

The youngsters have a kitchen, in which they have breakfast before lessons start, a classroom for teaching and a play area with sand and water pits as well as computers, a television and a sofa area.

Deputy headteacher and Key Stage 2 teacher Mark Phillips said: “Children come here with a lack of social skills and very limited development skills.

“What we offer here is a normal educational environment but we help develop those skills.

“They know they can make mistakes and they don’t feel under pressure if they don’t get something right.

“The children we have had here have made excellent progress so far.

“Some of them have gone back to mainstream schools and continued that progress as well.”

Pupils are referred to the unit for around 12 weeks, longer for younger children. After that time they are phased back in to mainstream school.

Staff at the unit use out-of-classroom learning to help the youngsters doing thematic and topical work and linking it to the curriculum.

Mr Dexter said that one of the most popular trips is visiting Whitehouse Farm Centre, near Morpeth.

“The children pick up on caring and nurturing animals,” Mr Dexter said.

“They learn about science and life cycles by watching chicks hatch, so it all helps with their education.

“The good thing is that it stimulates their interest and learning but it also highlights their lack of understanding.

“It is also therapeutic.”

Now he wants to develop a farm area at the school site.

Behind the unit there is a large area of grassed land with trees and shrubbery.

Mr Dexter wants to create a small farm there which the children will be able to look after.

He thinks it will help with their development as well as learning and he wants to continue their interest in nurturing animals.

“If we can do stuff on site it is obviously more cost-effective,” he said.

“It will be sustainable and it will bring lessons to life.”

The unit is appealing for anyone who might be able to help develop the farm area to get in touch with the unit.

Pupils at the unit are referred for numerous reasons, but while they might seem like they are just ‘playing up’ most have underlying issues which cause problems in the first place.

And Mr Dexter knows all too well the hurdles young people have to face.

He was expelled from school as a youngster and left education without any qualifications.

“I did it the long way round,” he said.

“If a teacher had shouted at me at school I would have picked up a chair.

“So I can relate to the kids and I can tell them that I do understand.”

Mr Dexter now wants to move on even further and take on outreach work with mainstream schools to help them better deal with children who have been referred once they go back.

“Here the children know every member of staff and every pupil,” he said.

“They aren’t in a huge school with hundreds of other children. Going back to that must be terrifying for them.

“None of the children want to fail. Nobody wants to be in isolation every day but they get in to a vicious cycle.

“When they go back there is a high level of anxiety.

“We want to do some teacher training and get people out to observe the students here.”

He believes that if teachers can see the work that is going on at the unit and how it can be done, they should be able to sustain it back in school to help with children’s development.

The pupils also show how proud they are when they achieve something.

When walking through the school with Mr Dexter, one youngster said: “Look at my writing sir, its’s got better, I’m really proud of it.”

Mr Dexter said that’s exactly the kind of attitude they want children to take.