“My first teaching practice was in a really challenging secondary school but it was brilliant because of the nature of the kids that were there.
“Ex-coal mining town, challenging cohort, kids with massive character. I just loved working with those sorts of kids.”
When Dave Whitaker talks about a school having a challenging cohort he does so with a positive sense of excitement. And he describes these pupils as being “at the top end” rather than the bottom.
As the director of learning at Wellspring Trust he is now responsible for an expanding group of special and alternative provision academies with, in his words, “hundreds and hundreds of challenging kids”.
Since it was set up the trust, which also operates 11 mainstream schools in the North of England, has never permanently excluded a pupil.
Now it is helping to support a project that aims to make mainstream schools more inclusive and find ways of dealing with children with challenging behaviour. Whitaker and the Wellspring Trust are backing The Difference programme, which is just about to launch a scheme in the North allowing aspiring mainstream school leaders to gain valuable experience of pupil referral units. They will get to work in PRUs for two years to learn how they support their pupils before going on to mainstream school leadership roles.
Kiran Gill, founder of The Difference, hopes it will support leaders in schools to find ways of being more inclusive. Whitaker is a big supporter of the programme. He believes it should be funded by government because he says some pupils are not having their needs met by the way behaviour is managed in some mainstream schools.
And it is meeting those needs, of challenging pupils, that Whitaker says has been his most rewarding work in the classroom.
“Saying kids are challenging is not writing them off," he says. "It’s the other way round. I love them. Loved working with them. It's the best job. The challenge is managing their personalities and their characters.”
He recalls how at both his first placement at the Priory School in Barnsley and his first job at Kingstone School in the same South Yorkshire town that he had found his calling.
“When I had that job in Kingstone, I was teaching 30 kids in a class. You very rarely had a teaching assistant and there was no behaviour structure or system that was there to rescue you. When the door closed behind you you were on your own. You didn’t have a behaviour structure to support you.
'I had to earn the respect of the class'
“What I had to do is earn the respect of the class, teach really, really well. And if those kids were running around on the desks I had to get them down on my own with my personality and they needed to want to get down off the desks.”
He describes the experience as being daunting but he also believes it is where he learned what he considers is essential to managing behaviour – building up relationships with the pupils. And he worries that some of this is being lost in mainstream education.
“What happens now is that if a kid runs around on the desk there is a button you can press and someone comes and takes the kid out. At the risk of sounding controversial I think we are at risk of deskilling.”