Student who spent years at Pupil Referral Unit in Milton Keynes gets in to Cambridge University
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A boy who could not cope with school and spent years at a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) is now flying high at the University of Cambridge, studying history and politics.
Part of The Stephenson Trust MK, the unit has an experienced and dedicated team of staff who are expert at working with children with SEND and SEMH difficulties.
George, who suffered from extreme anxiety in a mainstream school, spent four years at the unit – and attributes his success to the guidance, care and teaching he received there.
"The perception of a PRU is that it is full of naughty kids but lots of children there were like me and had mental health issues,” he told the BBC.
"The unit was tiny, there were 15 students there, and you could get so much attention from the teachers. My history teacher Dr Neil Barrett, who was also the principal, taught me one-on-one for four years in his office. All of my teachers were wonderful.”
At his city mainstream school, George had been so anxious that it made him feel physically ill.
"Any time I spoke to anyone my legs turned to jelly and a stone dropped in my stomach. It was a deep anxiety. It was indescribable and impossible to pinpoint why.
“At the age of 11 school just became impossible for me. At first people thought I was being a bit wimpy or that I just wanted the day off school. My anxiety became so bad that it was making me physically ill - I could not cope whatsoever.
"By Christmas of Year 7 I had been moved into an internal exclusion unit at the school, alongside pupils with poor behaviour.. .It was disastrous, I could not cope in a normal classroom and now I was in a room with really badly behaved, disruptive, children.”
In 2017 George dropped out of school for almost nine months. “I just could not face going,” he said.
He was then allocated the place at The Bridge, and says he was terrified at first of going to a PRU. But his mum and her partner persuaded him to take the opportunity..
They basically said "sit down, shut up and go" and that was the right thing. I was tremendously nervous but I quickly found it was the right place for m
"It took a while and with an anxiety disorder you are never fully comfortable and there were days when I found it very hard but it got much better for me very quickly… The unit taught me techniques to relax and clear my head.”
At the age of 14, George was officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. The same year, The Bridge teachers took him and his fellow pupils on a trip of Oxford, telling them there was no reason they couldn’t aspire to going to the top Oxbridge universities.
Now, a few weeks in to his first term at Trinity, George realises what a formative moment that was.
"To tell a child at a Pupil Referral Unit that they could go to Oxford or Cambridge was amazing,” he said. “To me, it just sums up how fantastic The Bridge was,” he said.
"PRUs can get such bad press. I really want to change that.”
George went back to his old mainstream school to sit his A levels, as the PRU only goes up to the GCSE stage.
"The system is held together with cobwebs and a bit of loose change - it is so poorly resourced but the Bridge teachers went over and above to help me.
I was very upset to leave. They get to know you so well but they helped prepare me to be ready to deal with returning to my old school where I managed to get an A* in all of my A-levels and full marks in history.”
He easily qualified for Cambridge, where already he is loving the uni life.
“I'm in this place where all these great people studied and now it is me, the write-off from a Milton Keynes pupil referral unit, and it is just the most tremendous thing,” he said.
“I used to make up that I had gone to a school somewhere else but I would forget the name... now I'm just honest about it.
“There is no chance I would be at Cambridge without the fantastic teaching I received at the PRU.”
“I have been given this amazing opportunity in my life and if I can do anything to get another person through the system, that is all I hope for.”
A spokesperson for The Bridge Academy said: “We are a school with big aspirations where we ensure your child will be treated with care, respect and helped to re-engage with their learning so that they can either return to mainstream education, successfully transfer to more specialist provision or develop the skills to transition into a successful adulthood.
"Our children are encouraged to explore and discover through exciting learning opportunities. We provide a calm, safe and inclusive environment where positive behaviour and mutual respect is modelled.
"Our curriculum is built to stimulate participation and support their holistic wellbeing by ensuring your child has access to relevant learning challenges and opportunities to flourish.”