We need better solutions for out of school learners

3rd July 2009 at 01:00

The National Behaviour and Attendance Review, which I chaired, called for an investigation into the number of pupils who are not enrolled at any school in Wales. This included those that are being educated in pupil referral units (PRUs), alternative curriculum centres, or are being home tutored or home educated.

The Welsh Assembly government responded by agreeing to look at Education Otherwise Than at School, including the use of PRUs.

This is not an easy task, as no one can be fully confident of the numbers of pupils who may not be in school every day, especially as these numbers can be swelled by unofficial exclusions, fixed or permanent exclusions and the use of entertainment licences - not to mention truancy. But, for reasons of child safety alone, such details are required.

I think the time is right to re-examine the work and role of PRUs within local authorities.

In the wake of the 1993 and 1996 Education Acts, local authorities were required to make educational provision for children and young people who, for whatever reason, were not in school. Pupil referral units became one way in which local authorities could discharge their statutory duties in supporting students who were permanently excluded from mainstream school because of, for example, difficult or disruptive behaviour. In theory, they replaced other units - both off and on-site. They are supposed to provide a broader continuity of learning. But, the reality is that there is little pattern to existing out-of-school provision in Wales. Some local authorities do not have PRUs or equivalent organisations partly because of where they are, issues of size and the lack of demand. Other authorities have several, some at different key stages. In North Wales, for example, some authorities send their disruptive pupils to sites in England or to neighbouring authorities.

Some PRU buildings are antiquated, cramped and lack an ethos suitable for learning. The type of pupil within them also varies: some cope with disruptive pupils only; others contain young sex offenders, violent pupils and those with special educational needs.

In Wales, the PRUs are funded through local authorities, but in England they are directly funded. The level of funding in Wales varies between local authorities, depending upon many factors.

Estyn has a responsibility to carry out appropriate inspections of registered PRUs. However, in its survey conducted in 2005, only 30 PRUs were registered. A further 50 or similar organisations were unregistered, and so out of reach of the Welsh inspectorate.

Complicating matters further is the use of managed moves. Managed moves or managed transfers occur when pupils are helped to change from one education setting to another in a voluntary manner. Sometimes, managed moves are referred to as fresh starts. The reality, however, is different. In some local authorities in Wales, managed transfers are one strategy used to avert permanent exclusions.

Placements in PRUs and alternative education settings are expensive. At the moment, once pupils are sent to PRUs and other out-of-school settings, they are rarely successfully reintegrated. Pupils' learning and academic progress normally deteriorates and they often leave without any formal academic qualifications. Many PRU-educated pupils tend to drift in adult life and frequently change jobs. A high proportion end up engaged in a life of crime.

It was for this reason that our attendance and behaviour review suggested that the government should introduce guidance on the use of managed moves and transfers as an alternative to exclusion. We felt that this protocol should include guidance on the removal of pupils from school sites, pupils' rights, reinclusion strategies, funding arrangements for managed moves and the role of the teacher-in-charge and the local authority in the process. In some authorities, it exists only in underperforming schools that participate in the managed moves syndrome.

The government should use the review of Education Otherwise Than at School to consider whether there is a case for establishing some second-chance schools in Wales, especially in urban areas such as Cardiff, Swansea or Newport. This would allow pupils who are failing in their first school to transfer to a specialist second chance or a different school. Some local authorities in England have also established second chance centres for pupils aged between 16 and 19 to return to education to study a mix of core academic andor vocational subjects with a view to developing career pathways.

At present, most permanently excluded pupils or those who are PRU-educated, face bleak futures. It is time for the review of Education Otherwise Than at School to produce some fresh thinking. It could start by conducting a proper in-depth examination of life inside PRUs and other out-of-school provision, including how they are funded, their management, staff training needs, curriculum, social composition and role in managed moves and transfers. The results might prove interesting.

Professor Ken Reid Deputy vice-chancellor, Swansea Metropolitan University, and chair of the NBAR review.

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