The Forgotten Few


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Sian Edwards

Sian is an education consultant. Her experiences and responsibilities are broad, ranging from being a mainstream Dance teacher and AST to being Deputy Head in a large and successful PRU. She is passionate about education and in particular, the learning experience for all children. It...
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What happens when a child disappears from your class?

When I pose this question, I’m not referring to the ever-popular avoidance techniques of going to the loo or to get a drink of water. I mean forever. One day they are there, quite possibly causing problems, and then the next they have gone. When you ask the Head of Year, or the most appropriate member of staff, you find out they have been excluded or moved on. That is if you haven’t already been told in briefing, which is sadly welcomed by a ripple of relief from many staff.

Gone to the PRU

In education the in-between space for children is the Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) because every child has the right to an education. A PRU provides continued education for vulnerable children and young people aged 5 to 19 who are not in mainstream education settings for a range of reasons. A PRU can also be known as ‘Alternative Provision’ and in some Local Education Authorities a PRU might also be called a ‘Learning Centre’ or ‘Pupil Re-integration Unit’.

The PRU is a melting pot of children that don’t fit the mould. The reasons a child may end up in a PRU are far and wide and excluded children actually make up only a fraction of the cohort. As Oscar Quine noted in an Independent newspaper report: “This is a branch of the education system that most people don’t know about, or perhaps would rather not think about. And if they do think about PRUs, they probably imagine them to be the last refuge of the worst “problem kids”, their task less one of education than containment, the essence of “underclass Britain”. The truth, it turns out, is not like that at all.”

According to statistics on education and training published by the Department for Education, the number of pupils in Pupil Referral Units rose by 3,900 (32.8 per cent) to 15,670 between 2012-13 and 2016-17.

Reasons a child ends up in a PRU:

  • Recently moved to the area/country
  • School refuser
  • Excluded from mainstream
  • Part of a managed move to a different school
  • Mental health issues
  • Sick children (in some areas this is overseen by the NHS)
  • Been placed in care somewhere away from their old school
  • Awaiting SEN assessment
  • Respite from their mainstream setting

The PRU could provide a long-term solution where the students stay until they have finished their GCSEs or it could be short-term like a couple of weeks. For many it is a stopgap before they move to another school arming them with some strategies and support to cope with the change.

For the more long-term students, the ‘lifers’ as they are known, they continue to have a diet of GCSE’s and in many cases they also get to study a range of vocational subjects, such as mechanics and catering. The class sizes are smaller than mainstream and the staff are highly experienced in working with troubled children.

Full Of Anger

When a child arrives at a PRU they are often very angry. Angry at the world, their last school, their teachers… everyone! You see, they feel let down, which is funny because no one asked them to behave the way they do. However, the truth is all children want to be normal but things happen that they can’t deal with. No child asked for the life they get and for some they experience difficulties like rejection, loss and abuse, all before they become a teenager.

Successful PRU’s develop a fine balance between a child’s education and their well-being. For many the primary focus is on student welfare because when this is addressed then the learning can happen. Most children that attend a PRU have outside agencies working with them from social services to youth offending and staff work closely alongside these agencies for the benefit of the child. When a child has a difficult life it is really hard to focus on learning and what a PRU does is supports and understands their difficulties to enable that learning to happen.

The Unteachables?

Many people think that life at a PRU is not for them. They have preconceived ideas that it’s not a great place to work and the children are unteachable. What I do know is that it couldn’t be more different. It is the most wonderful place to work where as a teacher or any member of staff you really feel like you make a difference to a child’s life. You get to turn things around for them. They are, in fact, often very calm places with no raised voices and that is because they have to be.

When aggression is met with aggression, well, there is only one outcome from that so the staff are highly talented at defusing situations and remaining calm in the face of adversity. Don’t get me wrong it is challenging, and some might say the toughest job in education.

Most PRUs welcome visitors and I strongly recommend arranging a visit as you could be pleasantly surprised. Maybe pop and see that student you taught last term. I know they will appreciate it as they do like to know they haven’t been entirely forgotten.


One thought on “The Forgotten Few

  1. An accurate little synopsis of the joys and challenges. I particularly liked the reference to de-escalation skills and the calm atmosphere. Many a headteacher visiting ours were astonished at the level of respect on display both towards children and from them and would share their desire for their mainstream schools to develop those characteristics. Our only rule was RESPECT. Simple, effective and restorative.

    Great stuff Sian!

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