Referral units can offer the close attention that difficult pupils need.
Pupil referral units have had a mixed press. Sometimes described as holding pens for unruly children where little is done to advance their education, they are also seen by some as places of safety and hope. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but for certain children and young people, the expertise of teachers in PRUs is necessary and valuable.
Tower Hamlets' PRU in east London has been particularly commended for its high-quality provision. With the aid of local businesses it has developed a service which boasts high-quality buildings, a teacher:pupil ratio of 1:6, and work experience placements, with preparation for work skills and training in interview techniques, for the 15 and 16-year-olds who make up the majority of excluded young people. It provides a range of provision, from individual through small group lessons to large groups.
That an inner city area in which in l994 about 66 per cent of the pupils were eligible for school meals and around 20 per cent were from one-parent families, can do this is due in no small measure to the unique decision to seek finance for its PRU from large businesses such as Grand Metropolitan and Burger King.
Tower Hamlets' unit is registered as a single PRU operating on five sites. These vary but all are brightly decorated with the sort of wall displays and pictures found in any good school. Two have specialist rooms for computers, art, pottery, music and a dark room. One site organises hospital tuition; another caters for most of the children who are in Years 9 and 10; the others for pupils in the last four terms of statutory education. One unit is specifically for girls as some ethnic groups insist on single-sex provision (50 per cent of the borough's pupils are Bangladeshi) or because many excluded girls have been abused or have difficulty relating to men.
Most of the children and young people have either been permanently excluded or are long-term school refusers or truants. But if social or medical reasons make it the preferred option, pregnant schoolgirls and teenage mothers also attend. Other children in the PRU include pupils undergoing assessment for special educational needs whose needs can't be met within school, and young people with statements waiting for a place.
The first priority is to keep pupils at school, either the one which they are attending or an alternative, says Tony Crisp, head of the borough's out-of-school provision. But sometimes exclusion appears the only solution and the LEA decides to cater for the pupil in a PRU. "The unit is an attempt to repair things, to re-equip older pupils for society and younger ones to go back into mainstream or special needs schools."
"The priority is to get the child back into school, except in the last four terms when, realistically, our chance of getting them back is small. In these cases education is geared towards the young person leaving school. Reintegration then means moving to work, employment, FE college or work training, rather than back to school," he says.
But what is to keep a child, already alienated from education, in a PRU any more than in a school? And once there what gets him or her motivated? "Some children continue to truant and we pursue them actively. We notice regular non-attendance probably quicker than a school because of the small groups and we get on the phone quickly," says Tony Crisp. The unit also aims to establish a strong partnership with parents who receive weekly reports on attendance, achievement and who are involved in negotiating targets with and for their child.
But perhaps most important is the attention these often very needy children and young people can be given. "Schools generally try very, very hard," says Tony Crisp. "But they can't give the level of involvement we can because it takes too much from the other children."