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Prophets and Loss

Written by Paul Dix

The miracle prophets are touring the country with seductive promises. Headteachers are being told you exclude them today and, ‘We will take them the very next morning’. That we will, ‘Turn them around’ for £45 a day. Unregulated providers, with no OFSTED rating or inspection run by private companies for profit behind their false soul. At the end of the sales presentation a teacher enquires whether the staff have teaching qualifications. With pride the salesman tells his audience, ‘Oh no, we don’t use qualified teachers, our instructors are people with life experience’.

LIFE EXPERIENCE! I nearly choked on my qualifications. How does life experience make you a dedicated specialist in behaviour, child protection and emotional trauma? How many unqualified adults can skilfully ease Janice into picking up a pen knowing that her mum is trying to put her on the game, or can deal with Kyle who won’t get a Christmas dinner because the take away will be shut. How many know how to interest Darren in Maths, days after his father committed suicide or recognise the signs of ongoing abuse? Sure they could give it a go, blag it, experiment a bit. Hell, they might even make some headway with a few false promises. What about managing Leanne, who has to care for her dying mother and pretend that she is not angry? Or teaching Tyrone whose father has just told him to get out leaving him with a Hobson’s choice of crappy sofas or Care? I would like to tell you that these stories are rare exceptions. I wish I could. The truth is that Pupil Referral Units deal with the most damaged children from the most difficult circumstances. These stories are not exceptions but the lives of children, all of whom I have met in the last week. This is not a place for amateurs. These children need the consistency of expert teachers committed to the long haul. Not the random interventions of adults who naively think they can ‘turn them around’ in a few days. The lack of understanding would be laughable, if it were not so dangerous.

Will we only wake up to what is happening when someone gets hurt? Will it take a child or adult to face real danger? My experience in advising on restraint shows me that it can take the death of a child to wake society up to dangerous practices. Are we really ready to throw children with the worst life chances to unregulated providers who have no plan, improvised skill to a profit motive? What does that say about our humanity? We would never let the have-a-go-heroes into young offenders institutions or secure training centres. The results would be catastrophic. Yet many children in PRUs are in and out of custody, have emotional scars that most of us can barely imagine and live in dangerous poverty.

Experimenting on the most damaged, the most disadvantaged, with people who have qualities but no qualifications and virtually no regulation, is playing Russian roulette with childrens’ lives. It is a derogation of responsibility and places the most at risk children with well intentioned amateurs. We don’t allow unqualified staff in mainstream schools to deal with the most difficult behaviour or take charge of child protection cases. Yet in alternative provision it seems that the door is being held open for anyone to have a go.


The teachers I meet who work in PRUs with the most damaged children are experts in their field. They are not just amazing human beings, but have the right qualifications, years of training, bags of relevant experience, knowledge and skills that I am constantly in awe of. These people are rightly trusted to deal with the complex needs of children in trouble. You would trust them with your own children, you would trust them with your life. They are the uncelebrated, unloved and undervalued holders of the safety net that saves young people from criminality, addiction and repeating the mistakes of their parents. Teachers in PRUs are the real heroes. Yet we treat them as if they are entirely dispensable, replaced by unqualified low-paid “tutors”. It is disgraceful.

Are we simply going to allow our experienced, qualified and superbly trained specialist teachers to be sidelined in favour of the latest chance-it-Charlie? Are we really going to allow teams of specialists that we have spent years investing in to be disbanded in favour of faddish, fly-by-night alternative providers? If amateurs are really allowed to ‘have a go’, then next week I think I will be a doctor, maybe a lawyer, perhaps a policeman or surgeon. After all I have life experience, what more could I possibly need?

© Paul Dix

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