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Last edition, we investigated the surge in pupil exclusions from Bristol’s schools. Daniel Fox argues that ‘pupil referral units’ are an untapped resource to support vulnerable young people.

Words:Daniel Fox
Illustration: Gordy Wright (

What would be your first impression if you heard someone had spent time in a pupil referral unit? Most people think of them as modern-day borstals for ‘naughty kids’ excluded from mainstream schools. Would that image colour your view of that child? Perhaps you’d be less likely to hire them if you were an employer? Now imagine what that negative image of PRUs does to the children themselves.

Alternative provision (AP), of which PRUs are the major part, is looked on negatively from the top down – expensive for taxpayers and ineffective for students. A government report, Educational Excellence Everywhere, published in March 2016, states: “By every objective measure, pupils who spend time in alternative provision do considerably worse than their peers.”

“Mainstream schools are simply not for everyone and they never will be”

As schools pay for PRUs out of their own meagre budgets, they usually try everything possible to prevent pupils being excluded, hoping that this is best for both school and child. After all, who would choose a PRU over a mainstream school? But perhaps we are looking at this backwards.

If properly-funded, PRUs give the potential to try innovative methods, offer more individual attention and provide better outcomes for students. “What can be achieved with a child one-to-one or in small groups is so much more,” says a former PRU teacher of five years. Is the extra expense worthwhile if it’s best for the child?

Right now PRUs have such bad reputations that it can take months for students to break down the feelings of failure they arrive with. The former PRU teacher told me: “All the kids come in with very low self-esteem – they could be really smart and able, but they get put off learning and get a negative perception of themselves from their experiences at mainstream schools.” So where does this negativity come from?

little-fellow sits sadly on a ruler's end while books and paper flys pastLook at it from an energetic child’s perspective: normal classrooms feel like prison; you want to burn off energy; perhaps you’re forced to sit and listen in a group of 30, some of whom you don’t like – naturally you get distracted. Then you get told off and get detentions. Arguing about it leads to more trouble. You feel like you can’t concentrate and work harder to keep up with the others. Eventually, there are meetings about you and you’re sent to a PRU for a few weeks or months to “get you back on track”.

Pupils are usually sent to PRUs for short periods, hardly ever more than a few months. The purpose is to make a child compatible with the more financially efficient mainstream.

But mainstream schools are not for everyone and never will be. The idea that all children should learn the same things in the same spaces, indoors, in big groups, is based on reducing costs, not on what’s best for all pupils. There will always be children who struggle in this one-size-fits-all approach and currently they are made to feel it’s their fault.

“The alternative is not necessarily the inferior,” says Chris Davies, head of alternative provision at Bristol council. Shouldn’t we consider alternative ways of teaching as positive, not punishment? A PRU could be a great move for a child, instead of a penalty for not fitting in. Part of that must be to make PRUs more than just a short-term fix. Wouldn’t a deadline of a few weeks to change your behaviour feel like a sentence to you?

Daniel Fox is a teacher and Cable member

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