What schools leaders can learn from the work PRUs do

For Jack Williamson, time spent on the SLT of a pupil referral unit has taught him some valuable leadership lessons that he believes could transfer well to mainstream schools, especially when it comes to dealing with exclusions and mental health
8th January 2021, 12:05am
What Can Mainstream School Leaders Learn From Pupil Referral Units?
Jack Williamson


What schools leaders can learn from the work PRUs do


Carl did not have a great start to his education. He has autism spectrum disorder that was diagnosed late, so spent much of his time at mainstream school struggling to communicate with staff. 

It wasn't until he transferred to a pupil referral unit (PRU) that things began to change. A student like Carl can gain a lot from the specialist provision of a PRU, but there is also much that school leaders can learn from working with students like Carl.

Last year, I quit the familiar comfort of mainstream in favour of spending the next two years working in a PRU, as part of the Difference Leaders programme, which offers specialist training and a two-year post in the senior leadership team of a pupil referral unit.

I was expecting to welcome the challenge of doing something new; I wasn't expecting the extent to which working in a PRU would teach me about school leadership - and how my view of the leadership choices we make in schools would change as a result.

So, what has my first term of PRU leadership taught me? Here are five lessons I think could transfer across to mainstream school leadership.

1. The value of a daily debrief

In alternative provision (AP), whole staff teams will often come together at the end of each day to give people a chance to flag any concerns or issues that have come up over the course of the day.

While daily whole staff briefings aren't always possible in mainstream schools, I know some senior leaders who have adapted this policy to bring together staff working with vulnerable pupils on a daily basis, as a way to piece together what is going on for those learners. 

Where this is not possible, weekly or daily department or year team debriefs are an excellent way for staff teams to spot any patterns in behaviour that could be indicative of a deeper problem. Encouraging all staff to share what is happening with the pupils we are most worried about helps to ensure that everyone in a team recognises and acts on safeguarding responsibilities.

2. Distribute trust

Just as it was for many schools, the autumn term was particularly tough for PRUs. While much alternative provision has remained open during the pandemic, attendance has been a challenge and the changes in routine and new rules have naturally led to behaviour incidents. 

With management tied by Covid-related red tape and logistics, clarity on behaviour principles - and trust in the professional judgement of staff to implement those principles - has been more essential to the day-to-day running of the school than ever.

I know now how crucial it is that behaviour policies are clear about the level of severity of incidents that senior members of staff will get involved in, and the point at which they will get involved. 

It is also crucial that all staff are trained in de-escalation; this means that pupils can return to learning quickly and valuable teaching time won't be wasted waiting for SLT to solve any problems that arise. Instead, SLT can trust that staff are able to deal with most matters on their own.

3. Make time to talk about mental health

Current circumstances mean that all schools are likely to be supporting an increasing number of children coping with anxiety or bereavement. Talking openly about mental health is more important than it has ever been before - and this is something that AP is already good at.

At our PRU, we have put in place several initiatives that contribute to those crucial whole-school conversations about mental health. Though it often feels that timing is already tight, we have been trying to give more rather than less time to this topic. 

We run nurture breakfasts and build reflection time into lessons, which, alongside our PSHE curriculum, provide valuable opportunities to involve our students in those conversations. 

Continuing professional development is a really important part of the process here.

As a Difference Leader, I receive monthly supervision from a trained psychotherapist to support me in coping with extreme behaviour and my emotional responses to situations.

I can, in turn, use this knowledge to support the colleagues who I am responsible for. 

If your budget allows, a similar arrangement would be a great way for any school to support staff wellbeing, particularly the wellbeing of the safeguarding team.

4. Value kindness

The more pupils talk about and understand school expectations and can see the school community's values, the more pupils will feel that they belong. With everything that is going on in the world, the value of kindness is a good place to start. 

Staff work hard to help pupils acknowledge kindness between one another, and to "shout out" each others' successes.

Encouraging staff to focus on the positive choices that pupils make is key. Support your team to devote their energy towards celebrating learning and reinforcing pupils' positive identities as learners. 

Remember that celebrating progress and capturing success is the foundation of building a positive school culture.

5. Focus on behaviour prevention, not behaviour management

The experience of working in a PRU has really made me reflect on the use of exclusion in mainstream schools. We may operate a "zero tolerance" policy, or a "three strikes and you're out" rule, but do we really know what is on the other side of that experience for the young person in question?

I am now more aware of the way in which exclusion utterly alters a child's sense of self, their sense of belonging in society and, ultimately, their life chances. 

Children or young people who have additional needs, access free school meals, or have been involved with a social worker are already more likely to be excluded. And in a climate where families are experiencing less job security, and children are subject to internet and food poverty, is it fair that factors beyond their control put them at even greater risk of being excluded from their school? 

If and when I return to mainstream education, I know that it will be a priority for me, as a leader, to try to ensure that fewer children reach the stage of permanent exclusion. This will involve a shift in how I think about unwanted behaviour in school, approaching it as something that we need to prevent rather than as something we simply need to "manage". 

Jack Williamson is a senior leader in a PRU

This article originally appeared in the 8 January 2021 issue under the headline "Leaders can learn a lot from the work PRUs do"

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