What’s a PRU to you? Busting the myths about alternative provision

with David Mills, Executive Vice Principal, Phoenix Park Academy & Sevenhills Academy

What's a PRU to you? Busting the myths about alternative provision

When a child is admitted to a pupil referral unit (PRU) the impression people often get is that they're so troublesome they couldn't be managed in a mainstream school and have been excluded.

However, PRUs are much more than that. Pupils who attend PRUs often do so temporarily for social and emotional issues, and often stay on their original school's roll and can be integrated back into their former or a new setting.

Today's guest writer knows all about the alternative provision given by PRUs. David Mills is Executive Vice Principal of Phoenix Park Academy & Sevenhills Academy, both in Grimsby, Lincs. David and I both sit on the Whole School SEND/nasen Expert Reference Group for SEND Leadership, contributing to helping school leaders and SENCOs learn how to embrace and apply the principles of the Children and Families Act 2014 in their schools and SEND teaching.

David writes here for us to demystify the alternative provision of pupil referral units and explains it's very far removed from a negative environment.

All about PRUs - busting the myths about alternative provision by David Mills

When I tell people about my role, I am often asked ‘what is a PRU?’ and ‘what it is like to work there?’ Unfortunately, there is almost always a negative tone to the question. The perceptions about PRUs are commonly informed by bad news and linked to press soundbites to fit a news story. On the contrary, I find PRUs remarkably happy places to be and wholly positive.

KS2 Welcome Sign at Phoenix House
KS2 Welcome Sign at Phoenix House

I have worked in PRUs for nearly four years after working in mainstream education for over 15 years. I moved into alternative education because I felt I could make a bigger difference to children and young people than mainstream allowed me. I believe that PRUs and alternative education are the safety nets of our education system and being a part of it was the right thing for me to do.

Class display at Sevenhills Academy
Class display at Sevenhills Academy

What exactly is a PRUs?

PRUs are Pupil Referral Units or Pupil Re-integration Units and local authorities have a duty to provide education to children and young people if they cannot attend mainstream schools due to exclusion. Often a PRU is termed a ‘short-stay school’ which I quite like because it signifies that a placement isn’t permanent and a destination school is expected. Broadly speaking, the government calls them PRUs or APs, as in Alternative Provision. Basically, anything other than mainstream.

I try to invite as many parent/carers and colleagues into each of our PRU sites as often as possible. We are not an island on the outside of mainstream education. Every visit is an attempt to build relations and show people how positive alternative education can be. Whichever PRU site I show people around, the most common feedback is surprise that it is so normal and school-like. At first, I used to be a bit disappointed by these reactions because to me, a PRU is a school and expecting high standards should be normal. Rest assured that PRUs are judged using exactly the same high standards by Ofsted as when they are inspecting mainstream schools and that the scrutiny is very rigorous.

The PRUs I work at cover Key Stage 2 up to Key Stage 4 and are split over three sites. Each site has its own head of centre and full staff team with qualified teachers, lunch staff, safeguarding and pastoral colleagues, administration, higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs), teaching assistants (TAs) and SEND professionals, including SENCos. There is no doubt about it, the staff to student ratio is high and it is expensive to run, but we believe our children and young people deserve the best. Just under three-quarters of our funding is spent on staffing and the majority of the remaining money is spent on interventions like educational psychologists, speech & language therapy and other activities to develop improved social, emotional & mental health (SEMH) outcomes.

Design & Technology at Phoenix House
Design & Technology at Phoenix House

Who attends a PRU?

Attending a PRU is more than likely a process that is 'done' to a child or young person. It's unlikely as a parent/carer, that you have decided for your child to go there. More often than not, an extraordinary event has happened leading to a placement. When these events do occur, we take great effort to reassure those involved and try to understand the issues at hand. Sometimes this is straightforward and at other times it can be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. What we don’t do is judge.

Wall art at Phoenix House
Wall art at Phoenix House

A child or young person will join us as dual-registered or single-registered. Single-registered means that they join us as a student on our registers only, usually after a permanent exclusion. To be dual-registered means the original school still has involvement and responsibility for the child or young person, but they need time away from mainstream school. When this is the case, we are keen to put timeframes into place for a return, or with parent/carers input, seek other mainstream schools to start over with. This is termed a ‘managed move.’

Park House library
Park House library

How is a PRU different?

Any child or young person joining us benefits from very small class sizes and plenty of pastoral support. These are two key elements that mainstream schooling really struggles to afford and is what, I think, makes PRUs and alternative education in general, such an effective intervention. Students study a basic national curriculum including English, maths, sciences and topic work around humanities. P.E is also an important part of the curriculum. We also offer GCSEs and vocational qualifications to KS4 learners. Being so small, we can really get to know the individual while working to support them and watch them begin to thrive. Additionally, if needed we can support the family with a range of involvement from general support – as in someone to talk to, right up to supporting them with wider agencies.

A PRU student population can be ever-changing. We have 174 places and in one year, 300 different children and young people can be registered with us at different times. I joke with parents/carers that its constant movement is like an airport and that nobody stays too long. I think that this is a good analogy because it is not the end or permanent. Being there means a new onward destination is the next step in a child or young person’s journey. 

Reading dog literacy intervention at Phoenix House
Reading dog literacy intervention at Phoenix House

What does success look like at a PRU?

Like with most jobs, success is measured in results. However, in a PRU it is not as black and white as pure academic grades. Although grades are important, much of the success lies in the personal development and SEMH progress that each child and young person makes.

It may be that they successfully transition to a new school, alternatively, an individual may begin to embrace support or their attendance and engagement at school may improve. Whatever, this is what I value the most, being involved in helping a person turn their life around.

Find David Mills on Twitter

More on inclusive schools: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/14/inside-schools-that-havent-expelled-child-since-2013-exclusion

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Tania Tirraoro

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