It’s every teacher’s worst nightmare, the unmanageable student who disrupts the class and ruins the learning experience for everyone. They won’t respect authority and will ramp up their anti-social behaviour – shouting, tantrums, swearing, violence – until they finally must be removed from the classroom.

At best, they make the teacher’s life hell and infringe on the education of their fellow students. At worst, they are a danger to themselves, other students and the staff. When their behaviour gets completely out of hand, mainstream schools can’t cope with them and they get excluded.

Students who are excluded multiple times often find themselves unable to find a place in a mainstream school. Local authorities still have an obligation to educate them, so they provide “alternative provision”, education outside of schools, often in a “Pupil Referral Unit” (PRU’s). This is a part of the education system that most people know very little about.

In a PRU, low staff-to-student ratios are imperative, so they tend to be very small. Many teach only a handful of students and they generally range from 10-30. There are however some anomalies, like The Limes College in Sutton, South-west London, which has around 100 students. PRU’s range hugely in quality and in their approach to teaching and learning.

In my hometown of Hull, I became intrigued by an “alternative provision” free school called Aspire Academy, almost like a PRU writ large, it is one of only 16 in the UK. It’s situated in one of the most deprived areas of Hull, a city which – despite some promising signs of regeneration in the wake of the 2017 City of Culture designation – has deep rooted social and economic problems. This is most evident in its sprawling estates, like Preston Road estate adjacent to the school, much of which is dilapidated or derelict.

Aspire Academy is a free school which was opened in January 2015 by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who said at its opening:

“It has been said you can judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable members and Aspire is an Academy that seeks to support those most in need in its learning community.”

Aspire is attended by the most troubled and disruptive students that Hull has to offer, children that no other school could cope with. I met with the Principal Chris Mulqueen to find out more about a remarkable school based on a seemingly mad idea fraught with risk.  “As you can imagine, the Department for Education got kind of twitchy when they found out that we were going to have 150 of them,” he says.

Yes, you read that right. One hundred and fifty kids that have been excluded from mainstream education, mostly due to their anti-social behaviour, in a school for the unteachables. What could possibly go wrong?

“They got very, very nervous about how we were going to handle 150 of this type of student all in one place,” says Chris Mulqueen. It takes incredible commitment, thick skin and a special kind of toughness to work in a AP school of this size. The staff, which is made up of mainstream teachers, all buy into the ethos, care for their students and are in it for the long haul.

Mulqueen, who has the look of a burly former rugby player about him, leads by example and oozes passion for his school’s social purpose. But I’m astounded by the sheer scale of this endeavour. If one of these types of students in a mainstream class can make a teacher’s life hell, surely managing a whole school of them must be incredibly stressful?

“Yes, but not necessarily stressful for the same reason as other schools. We don’t get stressed about our results, it’s not our main priority – we get stressed about making sure the kids come to school. So, when there are kids who haven’t been to school for two years, we have to think about how we are going to get them to school or sometimes kids will just disappear. I mean literally disappear.”

Aspire Academy is not like other schools. It has its own unique challenges and obstacles that it must overcome to engage and educate its students.

“Many a time we’ve rang a parent and they’ll say, ‘oh we haven’t seen them for a week’ and we ask them ‘have you not reported them to the police as missing?’ and they’ll say ‘oh, he’ll turn up eventually’.”

Chris Mulqueen has been in education for twenty-five years. As a deputy head for ten years he had experience working with “inclusion units”, where children were not excluded but put into an environment that was more suitable for their needs. Aspire was built on the idea of creating a free school to formalise and expand these arrangements.

With the opening of Aspire Academy, children in Hull who were previously out of school, permanently excluded with nowhere to go, had a school to go to. Not just any school, but one that tailors the learning experience for their specific needs, taking an innovative approach to teaching and learning to ensure they make progress.

They take in students that no other school could manage, who arrive at a chaotic time of their lives. These are children of poverty; they often lack stable homes and supportive families; they can be surrounded by violence; many are traumatised victims of abuse and neglect. In response, they have all acted out in various ways, not just the severely disruptive behaviour in school that led their exclusions, but violence, crime and drug abuse.

“We had a student who had no home, his mum would tell him where he could sleep each night. We have had occasions when students have turned up after a weekend of drinks and drugs and they’re worse for wear and we had to deal with that. Making sure they were safe and taking them to hospital. We had a student who found her own mother dead.”

It’s for these reasons the school has a clinical nurse on staff, and the school has access to a wide network of services and professionals to support their students. They have onsite visits from doctors and work closely with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and the social services.

The students arrive at different points in their education and stay for varying lengths of time. Some have been at Aspire for two years or more, others arrive a mere two months before they are due to sit their GCSE’s. “When they arrive, we look at the day they will leave, and think, how much time have we got? And what can we achieve on that time?

The number one goal is to get their learning back on track, so their life doesn’t continue to falter and break down. “We want to send them onto college, further education or employment so they can be productive members of society.” To achieve this, they must first meet the daily challenge of managing each student as the consequences of their life experience unravels.

Aspire will have received some information about each student, but Chris prefers to offer students a fresh start, for many it will be their last opportunity. Chris analogises the process as unwrapping a present. Sometime after their arrival, through activities, individual work and conversation an “incident” will happen.

The incidents are various forms of drama as their deep-seated anger and resentment plays out; shouting, arguing, threats and tantrums. Sometimes they may have to be physically restrained – which staff are trained to do – to prevent them harming themselves or others.

“The incident is the first layer of wrapping being removed. Then we have a conversation and learn a little bit more about their life and what they’ve been through. We will try to fix that and move on, but rarely is there only one layer of wrapping”.

Their behaviour is a response to their trauma and a defence mechanism. These are young minds struggling to process more difficult emotions than most people will ever have to deal with. Aspire facilitates that process while ensuring they continue to learn. When they initially lash out, much of the time they are reacting against hearing something they never hear anywhere else…. The word “no”.

“The word no, they only ever hear from us. Their parents don’t say no because it’s easier to not challenge them, or they’ve lost the will to after five or six years of this behaviour and grief from schools. The criminal justice system doesn’t say no like it used to, except maybe some individual policemen.”

With 150 of these kids in one place, it’s easy to image complete chaos with the students arguing and scrapping, but it isn’t like that. At Aspire, there do not seem to be fights. The concept of “top dog” doesn’t apply, say the staff, because everyone is too wary of each other.

“The first winter it snowed, all the students went out at lunchtime and made snowballs,” says Mulqueen. “Nobody wanted to get them in, so I went. I was shocked to see that not a single child had thrown a snowball at any other child. They only threw them at the building. They just don’t know how unpredictable the others are.”

Chris reckons the sweet spot is twelve weeks, this is when the torrid period ends and the student stops kicking back so much. Relationships are being built and teachers and various professionals have engaged with the child and their parents to resolve the issues they can help with. The last layer of wrapping is removed, and the learning process can intensify.

The tutors at Aspire develop close relationships with their students and get to know them inside and out, this is key to eliciting a positive response. They can read their students mood and respond accordingly, as soon as they walk through the door, they know what kind of day they’re in for. Tutors stay with their small form group all day, with teachers coming to them to teach a maximum of eight students.

The school takes an innovative approach to educating its students, delivering mainstream education, but not in a mainstream way. As in one of the government’s “free school”, they are given the autonomy they need to experiment and take different approaches to inspiring their students. Lessons are dynamic, and students receive a lot of individual support. There’s even a home education team who deliver lessons in the student’s home to help draw them back into the world.

Every student does English and Maths and the aim is to help them achieve at least 5 GCSEs. The school also offers a range of functionals skills qualifications and vocational courses, as well as the opportunity to attend training courses ranging from food hygiene to first aid. The facilities in the £3.2m school building are excellent, with well-equipped workshops where students can learn skills in art, photography, joinery, machinery, construction and hair and beauty.

A range of enrichment activities and trips are on offer outside the school, from rock climbing to residential visits overseas. For kids who rarely, if ever, leave their housing estate or do things with their family, this is a very big deal.

The day before my visit, a whole range of animals were brought into school, including an 8ft snake. They can’t go to the zoo, so they brought the zoo to them.

They point is, the pupils are seeing things they wouldn’t normally get to see and learning things they never thought they could do. This is the core of the school’s philosophy, to stoke their student’s aspiration. Crucially, it seems to be working. The commitment of its staff, the innovative and tailored methods of the school and the leadership of its principal are paying off.

“Most kids buy into what we’re trying to do, and we see ourselves as the cutting edge of education and individual development.”

He has the results to prove it. In 2018, 31% of students received 5 GCSEs at grades 4-9 (the new measure). To put this into context, for alternative provision institutions nationally the results were 4.5% of students receiving 5 GCSEs graded 4-9. This mad experiment is working wonders.

Even more impressively, all students left with a GCSE in English and Maths and a minimum of 5 GCSEs. The average number of GCSEs or equivalents achieved by students was eight. At Aspire Academy, they do things a little differently, but the evidence shows that they are definitely doing something right.