Education & Family

The school for children others excluded

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Media captionNathan calms down after becoming angry at not holding the school chickens

Springwell Special Academy teaches children other schools have deemed too difficult, with 80 pupils who have all been excluded from mainstream education. The Victoria Derbyshire programme has gained exclusive access.

"I saw [other children] looking at the chickens and picking them up, so I asked the teacher if I could pick them up but she said there wasn't much time left. So I got a bit annoyed."

Ten-year-old Nathan - who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) - has stormed off through the classroom, slamming doors and kicking chairs as he heads to the sofas to calm down after not being allowed to handle the school chickens.

After a few minutes, one of the behavioural specialists approaches him and offers to play a game with him in what they call a "post-incident learning process", where they talk through the incident and discuss how Nathan could better deal with his feelings in future.

Classical music plays softly in the background as they stack toy chairs as high as possible without toppling them over. Shortly, Nathan says he is "calm and settled" enough to return to class - with the promise he can visit the chickens if he completes his maths work.

Image caption Nathan holds a trophy he had been given for his good behaviour the day before

Nathan is one of 80 children from the Barnsley area that attend Springwell Special Academy, one of about 400 such schools in the UK - often known as pupil referral units.

Its youngest pupil is just four years old, the eldest 17 - though a large proportion are of secondary school age, and 95% boys. They have all been excluded from mainstream education because of their behaviour, some more than once.

As head teacher Dave Whitaker explains, many also have "diagnosed conditions, or social and emotional mental health problems that manifest themselves in really challenging behaviour".

'We can't exclude them'

The pupils come to Springwell following a referral from the local council and rarely go back into mainstream education once they arrive. The aim, instead, is for pupils to reach average attainment levels by the time they leave.

A place at Springwell costs the local council £20,000 per pupil, per year - compared with about £4,000 in a mainstream school - and Mr Whitaker is keen to stress that "this isn't just some place where you send naughty boys, this is actually a genuine school".

"There's nowhere else [for the children] to go from here, we can't exclude them," he adds.

There is also no shortage of children - Springwell has a waiting list of pupils mainstream schools want to move on.

This is because, as University of Cambridge Prof Maurice Galton explains, mainstream schools hope that by pushing children with special educational needs towards schools like Springwell, they can improve their own performance in league tables.

Prof Galton's report, released by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in February, suggests such children are being overlooked by a growing focus on academic achievement.

"Schools are not supposed to discriminate on the grounds of disability in their admission procedures, yet it would seem that some academies and Church schools don't take a proportionate share of these pupils.

"It is a conspiracy which needs looking into by the appropriate committee in the newly formed Parliament."

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Alternative techniques

Many lessons are unconventional. For Year 10 - consisting of 14- and 15-year-olds studying towards their GCSEs - the day starts with a board game to ensure pupils are in a settled mood and ready to learn.

When it's time for literacy class, it's surprising to see some of the pupils head to the sports hall. They take part in an obstacle course that sees them collect letters in an attempt to make the longest word.

"Active Phonics is like circuit training for reading," Mr Whitaker says. "Instead of sitting in the classroom to do phonics and the children refusing to do it, we stick it in the sports hall and do it in an active way."

Image caption The school uses pupils' enjoyment of sport to teach them literacy

Particularly for older students in the very early stages of learning to read, I'm told, these lessons engage pupils to a much greater extent than traditional teaching methods.

What also quickly becomes apparent are the small class sizes - 10 pupils, one teacher and two teaching assistants.

When one of the boys pulls a face at 11-year-old Amy while she is tending to the chickens, she lashes out and swears at him - but a member of staff is soon on hand. Amy came to Springwell having been excluded from her primary school for repeatedly disrupting classes and becoming violent.

"The relationships between the children and the staff are second to none," Mr Whitaker says. "The staff eat lunch and spend break times with the children. The children have to believe that the staff believe in them."

Exclusion statistics

  • 4,630 pupils were permanently excluded in England in 2012-13, according to the latest Department of Education statistics
  • Pupils are most commonly excluded between the ages of 12 and 14
  • Persistent disruptive behaviour is the most commonly cited reason for exclusion, followed by physical assault against a fellow pupil
  • Boys are three-and-a-half times more likely to be excluded than girls

Source: Dept of Education

'Complete turnaround'

Five years ago it was impossible to get the whole school together for an assembly - the risk of bad behaviour was too high. Now, everybody files into the hall to sing Tracy Chapman's Talkin' Bout A Revolution, and Amy steps forward for a solo.

"It's a complete turnaround," says Amy's mother, Vicky. "She's growing in confidence. At one point she would sing facing the back of the room, but now she turns around and will sing in front of people. That's how much confidence she's gained while she has been here."

"In 38 years of teaching, I don't think I've gone home so often feeling so overwhelmed by children's achievement," adds teacher Kate Reid, beaming with pride.

Academically, the aim is to get each child up to average attainment levels by the time they leave Springwell. Mr Whitaker has a graph that shows each child is improving towards that.

He does admit to having concerns that some pupils will leave and not find work or further studies, but the school does all it can to support them. He emphasises the importance of the work they do on the children's more basic social and behavioural needs.

"If we can give them something to be proud of, if we can boost their social and emotional state and give them that self-esteem, they're more likely to be successful," he says.

The children certainly don't lack ambition. A quick survey reveals aspiring musicians, footballers, wrestlers, a magician and a jockey. Amy would like to be a vet but couldn't bring herself to put down a sick animal, so she's aiming to become a zookeeper instead.

Nathan can't decide whether to pursue a singing career or become a professional chess player. As other children head outside to play at break time, he pulls out the chess set to play against his teacher. It helps stop him "getting too giddy", he explains.

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