Academy takeover reaches pupil referral units
In recent years, it has become standard for secondaries and primaries with poor results to be told to improve or face government action. Now, however, it is the turn of pupil referral units (PRUs) to come under ministerial scrutiny: education secretary Michael Gove appears likely to be granted new powers that will allow him to intervene if they underperform.
In addition, academy status is being introduced for the outstanding units this September. As a result, a consultation for the Department for Education has stated, "most PRUs" will leave local authority control over the coming years.
Enforced academisation has become a political hot potato in recent months. The decision by Mr Gove to compel Downhills Primary School, in the North London borough of Haringey, to change status sparked a backlash at the beginning of the year when its staff and governors decided to oppose him.
Despite these problems, the ideas of Charlie Taylor, government adviser on behaviour, have found favour with civil servants. Mr Taylor said that failing PRUs should be taken over by successful units, alternative providers or academy sponsors. Any that underperform, he said, should be removed from council control "where possible" and closed "where it is not".
Mr Taylor added that, by 2018, PRUs should only be run by a council if this "added value".
The education secretary already has powers to direct local authorities to close failing PRUs. Now, a DfE consultation has said that the units will be "treated in the same way as underperforming mainstream schools". In other words, where they are not delivering a good education for their pupils, Mr Gove will intervene to start the process of converting them to academies.
From this September, Mr Gove will be able to "direct" councils "to use their best endeavours to cooperate with the creation of an AP (alternative provision) academy" if they are being unreasonably obstructive.
The changes will also include a stipulation that if an authority wants to set up a new PRU, it has to first seek academy or free-school proposals. It will only be able to establish a new school if none are forthcoming.
"We believe that the measures set out above will lead to most PRUs becoming AP academies over the coming years," the consultation document said. "We are clear that it is even more important to intervene with underperforming PRUs, and we cannot continue to ignore those that are not delivering the expected outcomes for the most vulnerable children."
There is some enthusiasm for this process from the AP sector. Nine PRUs have voluntarily applied for academy status and another 42 have expressed interest.
One such institution, Barnsley PRU in South Yorkshire, is extremely positive about the idea. Josie Thirkell, headteacher at Barnsley, wants academy status so that she has more flexibility "to innovate". She hopes to convert by September, providing that complications regarding her Building Schools for the Future classrooms are settled.
"Some local authorities have really good provision because they have someone there who knows their stuff. In most local authorities that's not the case," she said. "They know all about mainstream education, but they don't always know what's best for PRU pupils.
"Politically, this wouldn't have been something I would have galloped towards previously. But we find ourselves in a situation where we could do something pretty wonderful. This is also an opportunity to make an impact in other PRUs."
However, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that removing PRUs from local authority control would not resolve their "issues".
"Whether they are academies or not is not going to make a difference," he said. "There might be PRUs that don't have the capacity to take on that level of responsibility and accountability.
"We want to ensure there is high-quality provision for all, not for this to be a way of academy chains getting their own PRU. What happens to the pupils in the area who are not in one of those schools? Who will run provision for them?"
Meanwhile, Sharon Wilson, president of the National Organisation for Pupil Referral Units and headteacher at the Children's Support Centre in Langdon Hills, Essex, was concerned that AP academies would have to turn away pupils who needed a place.
Ms Wilson was also worried about having to compete with other, cheaper providers. "The danger is that there will be providers who are undercutting; schools that are going to look around at what's available," she said. "I hope, if we have got a competitive market, I've built up enough of a reputation with headteachers in the area that they will send children to me."
1.4% of PRU pupils gained five or more good GCSEs including English and maths during 2009-10, compared with 53.4 per cent of all pupils in England.
14,050 pupils are in PRUs, according to figures from the 2011 census.