When turning pupils around comes with a cash reward

Behaviour tsar to trial plan to fund PRUs by results

Kerra Maddern

Providers of education for the country's worst behaved pupils will be funded by the results they achieve, according to plans to overhaul teaching for disruptive children.

Charlie Taylor, the government's behaviour tsar, has told education secretary Michael Gove that he will pilot the controversial idea with a group of pupil referral units (PRUs) during the next academic year. The trial is part of major reforms to education for pupils with behavioural problems, which also include PRUs becoming academies and schools retaining responsibility for the pupils they exclude.

Mr Taylor first suggested a payment-by-results system for alternative provision - which can be run by local authorities or private companies - in a report submitted to the government earlier this year. He has now written to Mr Gove to inform him that "detailed plans" are being developed, with the pilot to start during the 2012-13 school year.

"The payment-by-results trial will aim to improve the quality of commissioning and incentivise providers to deliver a better service to individual children," Mr Taylor wrote. "Detailed plans are under development, with a number of interested parties."

The plan has attracted criticism from teaching unions, which said it would lead to PRUs and other alternative providers "gaming" the system and particularly difficult children missing out on support. Mr Taylor has conceded that there is a danger that providers will only pick "low-hanging fruit", but he said the trial would address those kinds of issues.

Mr Taylor, the former head of a special school for children with behavioural problems, has been critical of teachers for sending children to alternative provision that is unsuitable. Some schools take "no interest" in the pupil's progress or their success while they are in alternative provision, he has said.

Details of what payments will be made to alternative providers are still being drawn up, but experts have suggested that payments could be based on improvements in attendance and behaviour, as well as learning and achievement. It is not clear whether the payments will form part of the core funding for PRUs or be bonus payments for good performance.

The pilot comes after the Social Market Foundation thinktank suggested payment by results for colleges. Under the proposal, reported in TES last week ("Tie funding to learners' earnings"), colleges would receive part of their funding based on the salary increase enjoyed by students after finishing courses.

In evidence to the Commons Education Select Committee at the end of last month, Mr Taylor said: "To sharpen up the commissioning process, payment by results may be very effective, but it is important that it is done as a trial to make sure that you do not get the unintended consequences."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said the trial would encourage "gaming" and would mean that some children missed out on support. "Payment by results incentivises providers to skew their intake to the pupils they believe have the greatest chance of securing the outcomes deemed to be satisfactory," she said.

"The referrals to alternative provision are often for highly complex problems. There is a high risk that the success criteria for providers will be drawn up in such a way that it will be relatively easily measured to maximise the payments to the providers, promoting a superficial approach to the identification of pupils' needs."

Jacky Mackenzie, secretary of the National Organisation for Pupil Referral Units, said it would be "sensible" for the government to judge the progress made by children.

"We have pupils of all different levels, some who might get five A*-C GCSEs and others who have special educational needs and are one to two years behind their peers," she said. "A good performance indicator would be to compare the level the pupil was achieving when they started at the PRU to the level when they left."

Anna Cain, who runs the Boxing Academy in East London, which offers alternative provision for children at risk of exclusion, also said that the government should measure the individual targets that children reached.

"I'm hoping ... it has flexibility built in to take account of the real-world context we work in," she said. "Results should include pupil well-being, attendance and academic improvement. The government must try to understand what we are trying to do for people."

News of the PRUs

- So far, 45 pupil referral units have expressed interest in becoming an academy and 15 have applied for academy status.

- According to behaviour tsar Charlie Taylor: "These pioneers are helping officials to get the conversion process right and are building the momentum that will mean most PRUs will have converted to AP (alternative provision) academies by 2016."

- Eight PRUs, all with outstanding Ofsted ratings, will train teachers from this September, with more expected to become involved the following year.

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