Britain's most troubled pupils are getting a raw deal, according to an inspectors' report published this week. The Office for Standards in Education draws an alarming picture of the quality of education in Pupil Referral Units, which provide for pupils excluded from school, or who are unable to attend.
The chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, said the units appeared to be used as a dumping ground, "but they shouldn't be".
The report says that the units were often successful in improving attendance and behaviour but not, with some exceptions, in raising standards of achievement. "As a result, reintegration of pupils into mainstream education was often difficult or impossible. Lacking that central raison d'etre, the PRUs floundered in an unrealistic attempt to supply a quasi-permanent alternative to mainstream school."
The report, based on pilot inspections of 12 units during the 1994-95 year, points to low achievement, weak teaching, lack of planning, poor accommodation and inadequate support by LEAs.
The report stresses the importance of the quality of teaching in helping these pupils. But it was unsatisfactory in nearly half of lessons, regarded as a "cause for concern" by OFSTED. The curriculum was determined by the resources available, rather than pupil needs, and there was inadequate teaching time. Inspectors point to low expectations, but say work was better where specific targets were set. There was some exemplary teaching. But weaknesses were caused by insufficient subject specialists, work which was too narrow, classes where there were very large differences between pupils' attainments, and low expectations.
The Department for Education and Employment said local authorities have been invited to bid for an extra Pounds 3 million in grants for education support and training money for projects to improve practice in managing disruptive pupils.
The DFEE next year also plans to check on all LEA policies for education of pupils out of school.
The report makes clear that too many statemented pupils - 22 per cent of those attending - are in such units. "In some units the percentage of statemented pupils who attended the unit was over 25 per cent and pupils were placed in a PRU not as a short-term contingency while their statements were reviewed, but as an alternative to identifying an appropriate and secure special school place. This was generally inappropriate." These children had acute needs, and displayed highly challenging behaviour, and had been excluded from all other forms of schooling.
PRUs were formally recognised in September 1994, and OFSTED's pilot inspection of 12 units, out of a total of some 300, last year, formed the basis of the report. At least one unit has been found to be failing so far.
The report acknowledges the compassion of teachers, but says: "Compassion, however, is not enough and where it is combined with a belief that social problems need to be tackled before children can learn, it is self-defeating. "
The report concludes: "It is hardly possible to overstate the importance of the work that PRUs do. They deal with some of the most disaffected pupils within the educational system. As yet, few PRUs do so adequately, and few are appropriately supported to do so."
* The National Association of Head Teachers has written to the chief inspector to express concern that pupil exclusions are used as a factor in identifying failing schools. Unless OFSTED removes this factor from their list, it "makes a mockery of attempts by schools to improve standards", says the NAHT.