Thirteen-year-old Maria* used to turn up at her pupil referral unit in the mornings already drunk on vodka.
She had slipped through the cracks in the support system. Her mum had learning difficulties, and her stepdad, who had fathered her sister’s baby, was molesting her.
Niki Panayiodou, a SENCO at Orchardside School in Enfield, north London, was the first professional in Maria’s life to advocate on her behalf.
She compiled evidence to bring Maria’s case to the attention of social workers, and to get her an education, health and care plan (EHCP). The day before Panayiodou gave birth, she attended a complex needs panel calling for Maria to be placed in a therapeutic home for sexually abused girls.
The insights she gleaned through her experiences with Maria became the guiding principles of the framework Orchardside uses to uncover “complex and co-occurring needs” in pupils who join its short-stay Turnaround provision. So far, the programme, which launched in 2019, has impacted the lives of 96 children.
What is Turnaround provision?
Turnaround exists at pupil referral units across the country as a means of short-term provision for children from mainstream schools that show behavioural difficulties. What makes Orchardside’s six-week programme different, according to Celeste Fay, the school’s headteacher, is its emphasis on providing specialist support to help diagnose pupils’ unmet learning needs.
Each cohort consists of six to eight year 7 and 8 pupils from 19 schools in the borough. They get access to specialist teachers and a higher level teaching assistant, as well as a speech and language therapists – and Panayiodou as SENCO.
The school, a secondary local authority-maintained PRU, is able to provide this support because it has a multi-agency team, including NHS and social care partners, in its buildings as part of a £30 million Department for Education pilot to tackle youth violence.
One in four pupils who go through Orchardside’s Turnaround have EHCPs identified, which are then used by their schools to hire in more support staff.
One local secondary was able to secure an EHCP for each of the 12 pupils it has so far sent to Turnaround, enabling it to employ three additional support staff.
I don’t like that word respite, it’s a partnership placement
Fay spent 22 years in mainstream before moving to Orchardside and her first headship in 2018. She wanted to “do something different” with the Turnaround facility– not just provide “respite” for mainstream schools.
“I don’t like that word respite, it’s a partnership placement,” she says. “The children come here still part of their own school, they wear their own school uniform and there’s lots of contact with the school. But we do lots of baseline and speech and language assessments, so pupils get something different, rather than just having had six weeks off down the road.”
Fay believes that getting those assessments, or indeed any time with an educational psychologist, is now “really difficult in mainstream schools”. Which is why schools “like using the Turnaround referral route”; every one of Orchardside’s Turnaround cohorts has a waiting list.
The PRU charges what Fay describes as a “minimal payment” of less than £1,000 per pupil for its Turnaround programme, compared to the £200 a day “most other places” charge.
“I wasn’t in the business of running this place for any kind of profit,” she says.
The number of permanent exclusions in Enfield has dropped since Orchardside’s programme began, and Panayiodou believes fewer exclusions means police savings for the “serious youth violence” that happens more often when pupils are permanently excluded.
Changing the narrative of exclusion
Fay left the mainstream sector after seeing “a lot of permanent exclusions” that “never really ended well for those kids”.
She was warned at the time that a move to the PRU spelt “career suicide”, but she was convinced her knack for “dealing with naughty children” was better suited to that environment.
She cringes as she recalls how, when she was deputy head of a mainstream school in St John’s Wood, she used to threaten unruly pupils with “you’ll end up in the pupil referral unit”. She now looks back and curses herself: “’Why in the name of God were you saying that?’ Actually, there’s some great stuff that goes on here.”
But she acknowledges schools have “got to use something as a stick” and that “of course, there is a place for exclusion”.
Turnaround pupils are placed in a separate part of Orchardside to prevent them “absorbing some of the behaviour of the other” pupils. But seeing those pupils from afar “does act as a bit of a deterrent” for them. (Orchardside has a total roll of 48, according to the government’s Get Information About Schools website.)
Teaching at Orchardside
Fay says teaching was at “rock bottom” when she arrived. But she brought in teachers on the Difference Leadership programme, which posts high-flying educators into the senior leadership team of pupil referral units for two-year placements. Three such teachers now lead the school’s Turnaround provision, which has helped Fay to “raise the bar” of teaching quality at her school.
“I was able to stand up in front of all the old staff and say, ‘this person left their job in a private school to come and work here. Their lessons are great’. It turned the tide quite quickly.”
Fay is “proud” that Orchardside “very, rarely” has to rely on agency staff – which is “not indicative across the sector”.
But she admits the needs of the children being taught there are “far more complex” since the pandemic and cost of living crisis. The morning of Schools Week’s visit, a pupil’s mum came in with her baby asking for food vouchers because she had “nothing in her fridge”.
The school day for Turnaround pupils
Fay describes the Turnaround approach as “very therapeutic”. There is an emphasis on teaching interpersonal skills, which Fay claims “sometimes don’t get taught” in schools. “In a class of 30, that’s going to be really hard. But in a room with six or eight children, it’s actually really easy.”
Like all Orchardside pupils, those attending Turnaround are searched with a metal detector when they arrive. But Fay claims it is “not a hostile environment. It’s ‘right, hand over everything, all your weapons’ – we joke about it, and it just becomes part of what we do.”
Pupils and staff make breakfast together, and one pupil is delegated the task of ordering food for break times. Turnaround’s dedicated nonteaching support assistant Sandra listens in to their phone call and “remind[s] them of their manners”.
Fay believes that “a lot of the pupils’ issues are with not being able to share, or antagonising other kids. So being able to interact over little things like, ‘who’s in charge of the washing up?’ Or ‘who’s making the toast?’ is really useful.”
When Schools Week visits, Sandra is teaching pupils a game to show them how to wait their turn to eat. Although “a lot of them have never washed a plate”, she makes it clear they need to clean up after themselves.
“I want them to gain that life skill also to support their families,” she says. “Some of them have siblings with special needs, or things going on at home. If they learn how to do basic things, that’s providing mum or dad with support.”
The programme also includes “school readiness time” to prepare pupils for their return to mainstream.
It takes Turnaround pupils some time to open up; for the first week, “the whole room is silent,” Sandra says.
“When some of them come in, they’re so closed up – like they’ve never had a teacher they’ve responded well to or don’t feel part of a school community. Then they come [here] and they feel so much love. You start seeing progress with some of them who wouldn’t even hug you or let you be anywhere near them. As crazy as it can be, it is so rewarding.”
Attendance is “always between 95 and 100 per cent” with some children not wanting to go back to their schools.
But many pupils also leave Orchardside with a newfound appreciation for their school. “A lot of them go back with a different mindset. They realise their teachers aren’t that bad,” says Sandra.
Fay is opening a year 9 Turnaround provision soon, and eventually would like to open it up to key stage 4 pupils too – although that is “trickier” in terms of providing “continuity with the curriculum offer”.
But the programme does not always result in a happy ending. Orchardside’s feedback from schools shows that while 100 per cent were happy with the Turnaround service, 20 per cent felt that “some of the strategies suggested” were not “feasible to implement in mainstream school”.
Fay explains how these suggestions could include advising that a pupil “might need to be withdrawn for a few lessons” to focus on set tasks, but this could be “difficult” for schools without the right learning support in place to facilitate that.
“That’s about the policy within the school, which I don’t have any sway over,” she says. “And sometimes that’s why they’re here – because they don’t fit into that policy.”
*Maria’s name has been changed