Pupil referral units do not focus enough on classroom education and are currently “designed to meet the needs of the system” rather than the pupils, the head of a leading alternative education provider has said.
Pupils often have to take time off during lessons to attend youth offending, social work and mental health appointments when they should be focusing on class work, said Chris Wright, chief executive of the Catch22 charity.
“We should be putting the focus on the classroom,” he said in an interview with TES, “ but you see a system designed to meet the needs of the system.”
But he said that pupil referral units (PRUs) had to be “tough” to achieve a classroom focus and that they should insist that vital appointments to deal with their pupils’ many issues did not cut into students' learning time.
“You are often taking youngsters from a very low base. The last thing you want is for kids not to be available to you,” he said.
“One of the problems they face is that the amount of time teachers get to engage with the children can be limited; kids are in and out, but there needs to be consistency.”
Mr Wright said that PRUs also needed to engage better with parents and the wider community.
He added that units should not merely be used to "house" children and that their time should be used “as productively as possible".
It was possible for the system to have “particularly low aspirations” for pupils, he said, calling it something that “can become a self-fulfilling prophecy”.
Mr Wright spoke out after his charity was given the go-ahead to sponsor PRUs that are being converted into academies. It hopes to take over two in the next 18 months.
Catch22 – which has its roots in the 19th-century Royal Philanthropic Society – runs six alternative schools, including the Pupil Parent Partnership in West London and a group of five private schools. It works with a further 300 schools across the country, helping young people at risk of dropping out of education.
Mr Wright said that allowing PRUs to become academies and break free from local authority control would allow their managers to “think differently” and generate more engagement between teachers and pupils and their families.
In 2012 the government unveiled a series of reforms aimed at improving standards at failing PRUs, including taking them out of local council control and putting them in the hands of private sponsors.
Government behaviour-tsar Charlie Taylor said that by 2018, PRUs should only remain in local authority hands if it “added value”.
The decision was not welcomed by headteachers’ leaders, who said that it would not solve the schools’ issues.
Government figures show that the vast majority of pupils fail to gain five GCSE passes at any grade after being put through PRUs.