When I left a permanent teaching post in a special school to work in a pupil referral unit (PRU), I was told by a colleague that I was committing "career suicide".
This view, born out of a lack of awareness about the role and remit of PRUs and alternative provision (AP), was one that I faced throughout my 12 years in the sector.
This was highlighted on one specific occasion when a school requested that we take a nursery pupil who had just turned 3, knowing full well that we did not have the capacity to meet their needs and that the pupil would be in a mixed age group with peers up to Year 4.
This lack of understanding has led to widespread issues that continue to influence the way such schools are viewed. The recent report by England’s children’s commissioner highlights this, as the sector is often cast in a negative light by those in power – such as in recent comments by London mayor Sadiq Khan or reports from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime.
This creates a discourse in which all PRUs and APs are presented as inadequate and not safeguarding the needs of pupils. However, in 2016-17 Ofsted inspections, 71 per cent of PRU and APs were rated "good" or "outstanding", and the settings have the same requirements in terms of safeguarding as any other school.
Part of the issue is the tendency to talk about PRUs and APs as a homogenous group. This means that stories about knife crime or gang culture in a few settings automatically become the tales told about all. This is not the case. PRUs and APs vary considerably in terms of size, location and pupil backgrounds. For example, my setting in the North had a very high Traveller and rural-pupil population, with the majority of pupils having a white British heritage, whereas other settings have an over-representation of pupils with Caribbean heritage.
Our setting was large, with well over 100 pupils across key stage 1 – whereas others might only offer KS3 and be based in an inner-city area. The types of PRU and AP settings are vast and varied as are the pupils they cater for. This, therefore, means that any issues they face around criminality will largely be influenced by where they are sited and the communities they serve; pupils do not suddenly become "at risk" the moment they step over the threshold. The risk is already present in their excluding schools, homes and local streets.
This general lack of understanding about what PRU and AP settings are is often accompanied by a lack of understanding about what they are for. All local authorities are required to offer "Day 6" provision for permanently excluded pupils under the Education and Inspections Act 2006. Although this does not have to be in a PRU or an AP, the majority of the time it is. PRU and AP settings also help pupils at risk of exclusion through intervention placements or packages of support in their mainstream school. Most PRUs are short-stay settings, especially for KS1-3, although the reality is that many pupils stay longer than they should owing to the challenges of finding suitable mainstream or special school places. Each PRU and AP will have its own unique offer.
This variety in role and remit goes hand in hand with the type of building the PRU or AP has. When my former head declined a place to the nursery pupil mentioned above, I was supportive because I knew that the building my classroom was in could not accommodate the needs of such a young early years foundation stage pupil. However, this is not the case for all PRUs and APs, as a purpose-built school or a setting dedicated to EYFS and KS1 could successfully include a young pupil in a safe, stimulating and positive learning environment. It is true that many older establishments are not fit-for-purpose, but that is also true of many mainstream and special schools and cannot be used as a judgement against the sector as a whole.
This is why groups such as PRUsAP are crucial, as they are seeking to change the narrative and inform those in education and government about the reality of being a teacher or pupil in a PRU or an AP. At long last, there is a movement from staff within such provisions to want to have their voices heard and address the misconceptions held by many. Working in a PRU or an AP is neither an easy option nor the end of your career. Staff in the sector are dedicated and highly skilled and need to be viewed as such.
Ultimately the pupils in PRUs and APs are the responsibility of many others before they end up in the sector. PRUs and APs do not seek out the pupils in their schools nor advertise for places. They support and include any pupil who needs them. Maybe now is the time for there to be more of a balanced look at PRU and AP provision and for a wider view to be taken at how well inclusion is working in mainstream schools.
Dr Helen Woodley is a senior lecturer in Department of Social Work, Education and Community Wellbeing at Northumberland University