In our society when a child becomes ill we reach out to them, we instinctively keep them close and look after them. This response is sadly not always the case when children become emotionally distressed, especially when this distress is communicated through violence and aggression. Rather than being helped, children in difficulty are often pushed away and ignored. Let’s look at the numbers, only 1.4 per cent of pupils who go to PRUs leave with five good GCSEs, that is one fortieth of the percentage for children in mainstream school. The Ministry of Justice in research after the riots revealed that 86 per cent children in the criminal justice system had been in alternative provision.
Don’t get me wrong, these children can be extremely difficult to manage and they take an enormous toll on their teachers and their classmates. Many cannot, nor should remain in mainstream school, but we must have a system that gives them what they need to change. If we don’t then we will all pay a heavy price as we saw last summer.
In September last year as a result of the riots, Michael Gove asked me to conduct a review into Alternative Provision (AP) including Pupil Referral Units (PRUs). Many of the children in the riots had been excluded from school and were growing up on the streets. Children like these who crave boundaries and companionship look elsewhere for it, and for many, a local gang provides the structure and a sense of belonging that has been missing at home or school.
In many cases schools send pupils who are in danger of exclusion to an alternative provider. This provision can be anything from a day a week doing car mechanics to a full-time college course. The best are terrific, but in my travels round the country for the review I was been shocked by what some schools are doing. They find the cheapest provider, irrespective of quality. Sometimes they pay less money than they receive from the government for each pupil.
There is virtually no accountability in the system for the way schools use AP. With a lack of incentive or direction from schools, the worst alternative providers are little more than holding pens to keep children quiet until they leave school. They become prolific at pool or sit on Facebook all day, without making academic or any other meaningful progress.
Commissioning is piecemeal, there are no follow up meetings and no targets set for the alternative provider or the pupil. The message is pretty clear - “I don’t care what you do with this pupil as long as I never have to see him again.”
Children who are excluded from school usually end up in a PRU. The best PRUs do a remarkable job of engaging their pupils, helping them to change their behaviour and providing outstanding teaching which helps the pupils to move successfully on to the next phase of their life.
But many are bleak, depressing places where children fail to make any meaningful progress.
Often these PRUs are the council’s provision of last resort for children who, for all sorts of reasons, aren’t in mainstream education. There is a one-size-fits all approach that means that children with severe behavioural issues are in the same unit as, for example, a girl who has been severely bullied.
PRUs are often remote from the schools from where they have inherited pupils. There is not sharing of expertise from PRUs to schools on improving behaviour - or from schools to PRUs in improving learning.
Schools fund their local PRU through a top slice of their Dedicated Schools Grant whether they use it or not and irrespective of whether it is any good.
The Government is trying out a new approach to exclusions whereby schools remain responsible for the education of children they permanently exclude, but they, rather than the local authority receive the funding.
Cambridgeshire has developed this approach and the results have been impressive. The PRU has fallen in size from 700 places to just 150. Schools are using the money to make early provision for children before they have gone so far off the rails that exclusion becomes the only option.
This policy provides great opportunities for academies, they can now open alternative provision free schools in order to support these children. In September, East Birmingham Network free school will open. A group of mainstream schools have got together, pooled resources and expertise in order to provide for their most challenging children. What a fantastic, creative solution - imagine the possibilities nationally: the best academies bringing their academic rigour and first class teaching combine to create bespoke, effective provision for their most difficult and vulnerable children. They know their pupils, they know what they need to flourish and they will create free schools that will make a significant difference to the life chances of these children. More applications from groups of schools and academy chains to open alternative provision free schools are in the pipeline as head teachers begin to realise the possibilities.
From September this year the first PRUs will convert to become alternative provision academies. They are going to follow a range of routes from multi-academy trusts, to sponsored solutions to stand alone academies. In PRUs there are some of the best leaders in the education world and as academies they will be able to grow and adapt to the needs of their pupils and to those of local schools. No longer will they have to be pushed and pulled by the whims and priorities of local authorities as many currently are. They will sit in the heart of their communities using their expertise to help schools to help our most difficult children to succeed.
This government is changing the education world in England, the opportunities are limitless. We are already seeing how academies are transforming the lives and the life chances of our children. But as we head onwards we must not leave our most vulnerable children trailing in our wake. By setting up free schools or supporting or sponsoring their local PRUs academies will ensure that truly no child is left behind.