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Child and adolescent mental health

Working in a Pupil Referral Unit – Jodie Gornall

8 March 2019

With a long-standing interest in mental health and helping others, I was looking for a job opportunity that would offer me variety, outside of my background in the care industry. I came across the role of a Special Educational Needs Teaching Assistant (SEN TA) with an agency firm, fulfilling my desire for something I hadn’t explored. My application for Mental Health Nursing had been submitted, and I wanted to be able to talk at interviews about care being delivered in untypical environments. When the opportunity for a week’s work in a Pupil Referral Unit came about, I thought it would be ideal, incorporating education, specialised care and support. The experience ended up shedding light on a system completely unbeknown to me, and many others.

Pupil Referral Units (PRU) are a last resort for challenging students. For children living with difficult behaviours, exclusion, special needs (possibly undiagnosed), those needing re-integration, and other such circumstances, it is sometimes the only option for them to be provided with an education. PRUs are the most commonly used alternative for those who are mainly educated other than at school (EOTAS).

There are 2,188 pupils registered as having their education outside of a mainstream school in Wales, of which 778 are enrolled into a single PRU (some may be dually registered). Of these 778, 60% are 14/15 years old. There are six students under the age of five. 86.8% of those EOTAS have acknowledged special educational needs.

Managing 14 – 16 year olds, this PRU has classes with a maximum of six people, each with one teacher and one teaching assistant. Taxis are arranged, and paid for, to pick the students up from their homes, or other living arrangements, and bring them directly to the school. Six 45 minute lessons make up the day; the average PRU in Wales has 23.8 hours scheduled a week. This includes the basic National Curriculum subjects for later life: English and Maths, and the subjects which cater to the students’ practical, creative side: Art, PE, Photography and Welsh Baccalaureate.

These are the lessons where they can express their personal experiences. The pieces they think of are original and inspiring. Their innovative, artistic creations reflect their intelligence, and highlights that modern debate of the importance of these types of subjects, compared to mainstream academia. The students get an unfamiliar taste of educational success, and an admirable few use this to fuel their second chance.

What struck me most is that for the students, it’s not cool to care. The amount of times a day they will say ‘I don’t care’ could be described as ‘bare loads’. They are their own worst enemy. Staff look at them, reflecting on our own upbringings and adolescence, feeling too helpless. Trying to phrase responses in an empathetic way by comparing their experiences to yours, will just rattle their cage further. Why should they take advice from someone who they perceive is another generation to them? And yet I’m only 20.

Aggression is very common; daily, hourly, every minute. Verbal aggression is frequent from most students towards staff members. Calling them names, insulting them, giving their usually negative opinions about how they do their job, asking them to “leave them alone”, but in a much more profane manner. This behaviour may result from the frustration of school, also experienced by mainstream education students. It is an outlet for them. Lack of patience, motivation and self-belief all lead to resentment for a subject and its teacher. On the other hand, these outbursts could also be a symptom of their mental health.

Due to their upbringings, living with depression, anxiety, ADHD and/or eating disorders is unfortunately understandable. This unexhaustive list of mental health diagnoses, common in adolescents, can mean the management of school psychologically is overwhelming. Whilst the PRU will provide a supportive atmosphere and 1:1 guidance, the use of this is at the discretion of the student. If they become overridden by their mental challenges, hospitals will provide inpatients with education.

Many students at the PRU will have casual conversations about drugs, alcohol, sex, abuse, bullying, police interviews and even prison. At such a young age, it’s harrowing to hear. Talking about others, within the school or outside, is an elite sport for them. It’s hard to differentiate what is truth and what is utter fabrication. Who has the best story? Who’s going to let that secret slip first? It’s a show of trumpets blaring and blaring until we’re all deafened.

Most want instant gratification. They find it difficult to see benefit in long term goals, because they don’t believe they have the ability to develop. Teenage years are the time of discovery, experimentation and testing boundaries. Live in the now, no consequences. That adrenaline high of the instant decision they make. Having a job, a stable income, supporting a family… these aren’t on their minds. Should they be?

Some plan to live with their Mum, Dad or guardian for the rest of their lives, saying their pocket money can get them by. Little do they know. Others will continue their existing careers in the drug industry, as drug runners or dealers, without understanding the mathematics behind profit and expenditure, but moreover not understanding the possible ramifications of involvement in such a “job”. A lot of these kids place an emphasis in their futures of wanting money: for them, it is the epitome of happiness. The deprivation of wealth, the absence of stability and something reliable in their lives may explain their desire for money, with nearly 40% of those EOTAS entitled to free school meals.

A good education is arguably an important, if not the, step to a good quality of life, and though we question why we even help when it’s shoved back in our face a lot of the time, this is all we want for them. We’ve been reduced to exasperation and fought to the death with patience, but we wouldn’t want to deny them a fulfilled future. We all have that time during adolescence where, maybe, we realise our past actions and behaviours haven’t been helpful, in fact, they haven’t gained us much. Would it have been better to put effort into that coursework? Should I have spent more time exploring the opportunities that colleges and apprenticeships offer? Even University? Their goals should be realistic, but their potential, seeing past their disguise, should also be realised. The total number of pupils having education other than at school has decreased by 15% in the past five years, showing an improvement in both management of challenging students at mainstream schools, as well as the success of facilities like PRUs. Don’t disregard their unique gifts, just because it is unconventional. Being able to be expressive in alternative arts like clay moulding and rap lyrics, this is something the majority lack. They can be considered equally as intelligent, if given the right stage.