Headteachers and local education authorities are faced with major problems if Pupil Referral Units are to provide effective support for their clientele. Some of these were touched upon in your recent leader (TES, December 29). Whether or not the local resources or the collective energy exist to tackle these issues remains to be seen. What is clear is that the present provision for resourcing and inspecting PRUs is inadequate and the needs of the PRU population go largely unrecognised. A first step towards clarity and proper planning might be to examine the intake more closely. What is the clientele?
For some teenagers, the clash between individuality and conformity to social mores leads to permanent exclusion. (One of my more affable clients still swears it was her nose stud that finally did for her.) These individuals have simply fallen foul of the very normal process of growing up in a culture which finds adolescence a particularly difficult time. They probably make up a fair proportion of the national PRU population.
Other pupils, ranging from five to 16, with profound emotional problems often expressed in bizarre, sometimes dangerous behaviour, may be excluded from special schools where they have been encouraged to "act out" repressed anger in a more favourably resourced environment. Or they may be craving love and attention, with a history of short-term fostering placements. Perhaps they are refusing school because of phobic anxieties stemming from family problems, or are depressed or suicidal. Others may simply be pregnant.
The heterogeneity of the intake reflects our inability to provide for children growing up, for whatever reason, outside the secure margins of safe and healthy behaviour. Yet for all their differences they have one thing in common they are all outsiders. Two further common characteristics of the group provide clues as to how PRUs might work more effectively. Members of the group almost exclusively come from families with a history of trauma "broken home" is no longer a fashionable term, yet it evokes the emotional wounding such an environment incurs. A sense of hurt is common as our clients, with encouragement, slowly learn to face their pain. Perhaps more importantly they all suffer from chronically low self- esteem, particularly those who are excluded. Exclusion is a powerful statement of human rejection.
The image of the PRU population as a group of individuals with profoundly low self-esteem is easily recognised by the mainstream, but sometimes lost sight of as a school faces the defeat of abandoning a pupil, of being finally unable to help. I believe, however, that it is accurate. The "reject" holds on fiercely to whatever aspects of the self remain intact, however odious they may seem to others. Pupils at PRUs are not often what they appear to be.
Moreover, as your leader suggested, reintegration procedures for these pupils are generally poor, so that the PRU itself can seem like the terminus on a journey of disaffection rather than a bus stop on the way to a brighter future. Properly enacted reintegration procedures take a huge toll on human resources because individual contracts need to be drawn up with mainstream schools as part of a service-led agreement alongside commonly agreed individual education plans. This takes time and seems a long way down the line for most LEAs.
For most of them, the first challenge is to support individual institutions in the effective planning of rich, broad and certificated curricular experiences as an essential step in building self-esteem. The second is to support PRU staff in creating institutions built on values of acceptance and unconditional positive regard, with clear boundaries so that clients feel valued and secure. For Office for Standards in Education teams, the challenge will be to apply the new framework and guidelines creatively as they begin their inspections this autumn. Amongst other things, they will need to disentangle dependency from professional care. The process of healing will be far more difficult to evaluate than academic success or financial efficiency.
Peter Davies is head of the John Ivie Centre (a PRU) in Salisbury. He is also a therapeutic counsellor and an OFSTED inspector. Wiltshire LEA will be hosting a symposium on the work of their PRUs in March.