Becky Durston, president of the National Organisation for PRUs, writes:
I recently posted on our forum the following question: “Currently, what are your three major concerns?”
One poster simply wrote: funding, funding, funding. Others invariably included it in their list of three. This came as no surprise.
Historically, local authorities (LAs) were completely responsible for providing education for young people out of school who might be at risk of exclusion, permanently excluded, anxious, sick, pregnant, seeking asylum and so on. This is still largely the case, although the waters are muddied.
Most PRU headteachers (I was one for nearly 30 years) were given a sum of money based on the tried and tested method - think of a number, subtract 17 and add 10% - to buy books stationary and apparatus.
Gradually, some of us were given total control over our staffing appointments and, therefore, the bulk of our budget.
This remained the same for some time. PRUs were never part of the earlier LA escape routes: ‘Grant Maintained’, ‘City Technology’ or ‘Foundation’. However, a few have recently plunged into Academy status or become Free. About 18 at the last count.
Those PRUs left (about 400, although the numbers change daily) are now required to have a delegated budget.
The Department for Education, in its wisdom, has concluded that a place in a PRU should cost about £8,000. How they came to this conclusion is a mystery, as at the time the cost per place ranged from £9,000 to £26,000 with the majority hovering around £18,000.
When we questioned the decision, we were told that there were plenty of private companies who could provide a good education for £8,000.
We haven’t met one yet.
Babysitting? Yes. Five A-C GCSEs, a range of vocational options with good ‘social, emotional, and behavioural’ back up, all of which the best PRUs provide? No.
LAs also questioned this decision and were told they could and should ‘top up’. Some do to reach the historical budget, some give a small top up and some don’t top up at all. This has created an air of uncertainty for everyone in an industry where the ‘sword of Damocles’ has always hovered.
Funding now appears to range from £11,500 to £22,000 per place and many are worried that the ‘top up’ might reduce or disappear. In addition, some PRU headteachers are required to add expense responsibilities traditionally left with the LA, such as insurance.
In some cases, headteachers are ensuring their PRU is full on September 1 to attract the full funding. They are therefore unable to respond to a new sick child or newly excluded student over the year. Their revolving door is jammed.
Others have been able to convince their LA that they should be funded on a full capacity basis and that numbers vary throughout the year, flexibility being the key.
It is exceptionally difficult for a headteacher to plan and recruit to this traditionally ‘Cinderella’ area with this level of uncertainty. Inequalities are huge and so students are not being offered the same type of programmes nationally.
Meanwhile, all alternative provision is judged by the same Ofsted criterion and, incidentally, this is largely the same criterion as mainstream schools. It is, therefore, an indication of the stamina and hard work of the staff that so many PRUs get Outstanding/Good in inspections.
In my day, it was all relatively simple: an LA accountant would visit from time to time to discuss one’s budget lines, during which the disinterested headteacher (me) could safely glaze over. Now it all takes so much time and effort trying to acquire ‘Maslow’s hierarchy’ for the PRU and this is time not spent trying to acquire it for the kids.