The Education Act of 1993 established pupil referral units for children who might otherwise receive no schooling. Often chronically under-staffed and poorly-resourced, they still try to re-integrate their charges into mainstream schools. Jonathan Croall reports on a mixed success story
School refusers, victims of bullying and abuse, pregnant school girls, excluded or statemented children, dyslexics, and children with emotional and behavioural difficulties of any age from 5 to 16 and all under one roof.
It sounds like an assignment from hell. Yet this is precisely the kind of challenge that faces many teachers working in pupil referral units (PRUs), the recently established off-site centres that now cater for hundreds of pupils who might otherwise receive no schooling.
With such a mixed intake, and often chronic under-resourcing, it's not surprising that some units are struggling. "Many of them don't know what they're supposed to do," says one experienced worker in the field. "As for reintegrating pupils into mainstream schools, when that happens it's a miracle."
PRUs were set up 18 months ago, following the 1993 Education Act. Though classified as schools, they are not required to teach the full national curriculum. They are run by local authorities, but have no governing bodies.
Among the 315 now in existence there is enormous diversity. Some were previously special units for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, others have been newly created. They may contain just a dozen pupils, or as many as 180.
One disturbing feature is the large number of children in PRUs who are statemented - in one case as many as 93 per cent. Often children with acute and highly specialised needs, who may behave in a challenging manner, have been placed there for lengthy periods, instead of an appropriate special school.
In spite of their comparatively short life, pupil referral units have already come under fire.
Just before Christmas a highly-critical OFSTED inspectors' report (see the box on page 4) found that both teachers and local authorities were generally failing in their duty to provide children in the units with an adequate education.
While acknowledging the compassion and dedication of staff, the inspectors stated: "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."
Some PRU heads have taken issue with this assertion. Others believe the small sample inspected was not necessarily representative of the work being done. "It's incredible that they should draw hard and fast conclusions from looking at just 12," says the head of one Home Counties unit.
There is a view that the inspectorate has failed to recognise the daunting nature of the task facing teachers who have to work with disaffected, aggressive or disturbed children, often in inadequate accommodation.
One PRU, at the Brent Tutorial Centre, was especially criticised. The inspectors said the quality of education was unacceptably poor, the curriculum narrow and badly planned, the behaviour of pupils often disruptive, and levels of re-integration low. Support was lacking from the local authority, and special measures were needed to avert continuing failure.
Trevor Bryans, Brent's director of special educational needs policy, points out that the unit was originally set up to help 20 children who were on the point of exclusion, but by the time of the inspection there were nearly 100 on the roll. "With so many pupils on site, and local schools overwhelmingly grant-maintained, re-integration was almost impossible," he says.
Some PRU workers accept that a few units are stuck in the mould of the 1970s "sin bins", when such places were widely if sometimes unfairly seen as places where children were contained rather than educated.
"There are a few rotten apples left over from the bad old days, when you just gave the children a pool table and videos," admits Bob Wall, treasurer of the Association of Workers for Children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties. "But they're just a tiny minority now."
The better PRUs, such as the Trinity Education Centre in Wiltshire (see page 3), provide a reasonably broad and balanced curriculum, and ease a good proportion of their children back into mainstream school. But success clearly depends on ensuring that the unit is not working in isolation.
Increasingly, PRU staff are working in mainstream schools, supporting individual pupils andor teachers. This notion of a more integrated service is at the heart of many of the projects attracting new government funding (see box).
In North Yorkshire, for instance, mainstream teachers will be working part-time in a new PRU. "As specialists they'll add to the curriculum spread, " says Alan Milburn, head of pupil and parent services. "They'll also be able to see how problematic youngsters can respond positively in a different setting. "
With Year 11 pupils who are unlikely to return to school, PRUs often work with local colleges. In Derbyshire they're going one step further, and setting up a PRU within a college. "Once you take pupils off-site, you fill up a unit, and your problems double," says Stephen Pugh, head of behaviour support services.
While PRUs still vary greatly in their structure, aims and practices, many who work in them believe the idea of a "revolving door" for some of the most challenging children in the system is meaningless, unless they are seen as a part of a continuing spectrum of support.
Next week: A Roman Catholic solution