Practical Learning Officer Kathy Doherty gives an insight into ZSL’s work with Pupil Referral Units, and why the Zoo is a unique and valuable destination for these vulnerable young people.
The five years I’ve spent working with students from Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) have been some of the most rewarding of my career.
The students who attend these units are usually those who struggle in a traditional classroom environment, for a variety of reasons, and are disengaged from mainstream education. We run custom designed courses for these groups, loosely based on our Zoo Academy course, giving students an insight into zoo careers and working to re-engage them with the world around them.
The course focuses on experiential learning, linking to the National Curriculum as well as the recommended Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning approach (SEAL), encouraging the development of skills such as teamwork, self-esteem, leadership, problem solving and behaviour management.
We focus on kinaesthetic learning to ensure the engagement of the students and also encourage active discussion and questioning to help students gain confidence within their peer group.
The difference we’ve seen in some students between the beginning and end of the course is phenomenal. Students often come to us disinterested, some struggling with anxiety and others finding it difficult to control their behaviour, but watching their self-confidence and knowledge grow over the weeks is amazing.
Some have even said that their time with us has changed their lives! By showing them the interesting and enjoyable work that could be the end goal of their time in education, the course has empowered many students to return to mainstream education.
Our work with PRUs also includes a student mentor scheme which allows well-performing students to return to the course and mentor the new pupils. After taking part in the scheme, the father of one particular student, who had shown excellent behaviour and responsibility, informed us that the course had ‘given [his] son a purpose’, as he is now working towards a zoo-based career.
“At school no one worries if we fall out, we just argue and shout & don’t talk to each other, but Zoo Academy feels like a proper job, there is more at stake so we get on. […] It makes me feel older, like it’s a proper job”
– PRU student
Part of this inspiration comes from the unique work the students do here at the zoo, and the unique animals they work with. We always get a strong reaction when we take them to clean out the rhino house (“the smell!”) but the reward of encountering the amazing armoured animals up close as a reward for their hard work strikes them with a real sense of achievement. Particularly since some of them have only ever seen these animals in print or on-screen.
During our session focusing on domestic animals the goats over at our farm are always a winner. Being so close to an animal who is just as interested in them causes a lot of excitement, particularly as bonding with the animals they are working with helps them see the direct beneficial impacts of their work.
They also tend to love spending time close up with our chimpanzees, learning that they too have arguments and fall out, but have to live and work as a team so work around these issues.
These students constantly keep me on my toes, asking questions so far out of the box that it really makes me think - they constantly keep me learning!
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