If it wasn’t for the security St Matthias Park, with colourful posters on the wall and photos of students on a recent trip to an activity centre, would seem like any other school.
But as the head Aileen Morrison takes me on a tour each door is unlocked and locked behind us.
“We have some very volatile young people and they sometimes need to be separated so we do have aspects of security,” she explains.
But any stereotyping about the school and its pupils stops there.
“There is not one particular type of child who ends up with us,” says Aileen. “Often when you listen to the young person there has been some sort of trauma or family trouble made it more difficult for them and things don’t go so well at school.
“Some young people slip through the net and mainstream education becomes very challenging for them. For others they’ve been bullied for years and haven’t told anyone; one day it gets too much, they retaliate and are excluded.”
St Matthias Park operates on two sites in Fishponds and Brentry to provide education for pupils aged 11 – 16 who have, for a variety of reasons, struggled in a mainstream school and have been at risk of permanent exclusion.
“There is a reputation about coming here,” says Aileen, “wild stories which bear no relation to reality; on the whole most see it as a positive chance.”
There is not one secondary school in Bristol that hasn’t referred a young person into the care of the expert teachers at St Matthias’s Park.
“Some schools in more challenging areas refer more young people to us but more to do with catchment areas and levels of deprivation rather than how they manage it – schools try everything they can to make it worth but it just doesn’t work,” adds Aileen.
Across the country more than 30 pupils a day are excluded from school and 15,000 are in pupil referral units – that’s up 10 per cent from last year.
Permanent exclusions in Bristol were high, particularly in schools in the south of the city, and it led to a new initiative, the Pushed Out Learners plan, which was launched last March. By June all secondary schools in the city signed up to a Bristol Exclusion Panel agreement and instead of excluding young people after a crisis, mainstream schools instead make a 12-week referral to St Matthias Park.
Chair of the Bristol Secondary Heads Association and head at Redland Green School Sarah Baker said the Bristol Inclusion Panel “means we work together to prevent students being permanently excluded from schools”.
“We have reduced the number of permanent exclusions from 29 for this period last year to zero,” she added.
“For a lot of young people it can be really positive,” says Aileen, “it gives them time away from the melee of mainstream school to take some time and make positive choices.”
“The focus is for young people to end up back at their mainstream school or another mainstream school,” she says. “In the past four years all we have had all but one young person go into employment, education or training…we are really proud of what they have achieved.”
15-year-old Joey spent six weeks at St Matthias last May before being found a transfer to Redland Green School. This year he is siting his GCSEs including history and design and technology.
“I definitely got more attention at St Matthias as the classes are a lot smaller. It made me focus on what I wanted for the future and now I feel more motivated in school.”
Fellow pupil Beth agrees and says the school has helped her manage her temper: “I think I have changed because my anger has settled down a bit.”
Staff passionately believe they can make a difference to disengaged students. Teaching children that mainstream schools are unwilling or unable to handle is no mean feat but there is optimism as well.
“We are small – very dedicated and care deeply about the young people who are here. We work to rebuild trust in adults that young people have lost,” says Aileen.
“It can be very challenging and hard work; young people have had years of disengagement and reengaging them can be tough but the classes are small and we know them and talk to them and understand them – help them make positive choices.
“We were last chance but now we hope families see us as a positive step when things go a bit wrong.”
Read more: Returning to education