Guest Post: Spiralling exclusions and the scapegoating of PRUs

Amidst outrage over rising exclusions, off-rolling and knife crime, Pupil Referral Units are being framed as the fall guy. In reality, they provide a vital safety net for children who have fallen through the cracks of an education system at breaking point argues Alex Boyce, Organiser of ‘Save the Pupil Referral Service’ campaign group in North Yorkshire. 

What is a PRU?

Pupil Referral Units educate some of the most needy children in the country. Their purpose is to provide a temporary placement for children who have been permanently excluded or are at risk of exclusion. They also carry out in reach and outreach tuition for children who cannot attend school for medical reasons. The majority of these children have SEND, mental health problems, Social Services involvement and many are in the Youth Justice system. Put simply, they are children with very complex needs which are challenging to meet.

What’s happening with exclusions?

Current DfE figures show that in England permanent exclusions rose 67% from 2012-13 to 2016-17 and fixed-term exclusions rose 43% over the same period. The Education Policy Institute recently released a report which suggests the real numbers may actually be much higher with 55,000 ‘unexplained pupil exits’ or incidents of ‘off-rolling’ in the year group finishing year 11 in 2017. The practice of isolating students in mainstream schools, or ‘internal exclusion,’ is also widely reported to be overused. In summary, there is an epidemic of exclusion under various guises.

What is causing the rise in exclusions?

Here are the top 10 contributors which need to be tackled:

  • School Cuts – Since 2010, 91% of schools have had per-pupil funding cut; 80% of schools have had to cut staff. In March the ASCL stated that the school funding shortfall in 2019-20 will be £5.7billion.
  • SEND underfunding – The overall cut to SEND funding since 2015 is 17%. The 2018 Education Committee report ‘Forgotten Children’ found that nearly eight in ten children in schools for excluded children have recognised special educational needs. Indeed, those with a recognised need are seven times more likely to be excluded than their peers without SEND.
  • The lack of SEMH and SEN provision – The Children and Families Act of 2014 has put many councils in the dock as insufficient funding means insufficient provision and so more and more parents are taking Local Authorities to tribunal and winning. From 2011-12 to 2015-16 the number of tribunals has doubled and 89% of parents were successful. Many councils simply do not have the resources to provide for the SEND children under their care and are often forced to rely on private out-of-county provision which comes at great cost.
  • Cuts to support services – Early intervention, family services and youth services have been cut by around 20% per child. Without these essential services, more pressure is put on schools to manage children with very difficult home lives who are getting into trouble in the community.
  • The increase in child poverty – Figures from the Trussel Trust show that food bank use has increased year on year and the Social Metrics Commission last year stated that 4.5 million children are living below the breadline.
  • The increase in children ‘at risk’ – The Institute for Public Policy Research’s 2017 ‘Making a Difference’ report states “the number of children identified as requiring a social services assessment more than doubled from 2010 to 2016, to over 170,000 children.”
  • The adolescent mental health crisis – A 2019 NEU teacher survey found that 83% reported witnessing a rise in the numbers of children with poor mental health. Increasingly, social media plays a poisonous part in this crisis. The result is that more students disengage from schooling and their mental health continues to deteriorate.
  • The failure of the ‘Fair Access Protocol’ – This is the mechanism by which excluded pupils are to be moved out of PRUs and into new schools. Senior school leaders meet regularly to discuss where students can be placed but, with schools struggling themselves and SEND provision sorely lacking, the spirit of collaboration has all but collapsed. This means that children remain in PRUs for years, not months. The static population means that PRUs have little or no capacity to take on ‘Preventative’ placements for students at risk of exclusion. The result is a bottle neck in the system and an increase in challenging behaviour back in mainstream schools.
  • The increasingly academic curriculum in schools – With league tables putting pressure on schools and students to achieve at least 8 GCSEs, there are currently precious few viable alternative routes through secondary education for those students whose chances of success would be much higher in vocational subjects.
  • The rise in so-called Zero-tolerance behaviour policies in some schools – This has created “school environments where pupils are punished and ultimately excluded for incidents that could and should be managed within the mainstream schools environment.” (Education Committee Report ‘Forgotten Children’)

Exclusion – a barometer for pressure in the school system

The rise in exclusions is a clear sign of a system under severe strain. The causes of exclusion listed above make it plain that this is a nationwide, systemic crisis which can only be tackled at government level. The rise is a symptom of growing societal problems not, as some would have it, a cause of societal problems.

Of course we should not expect exclusions figures to fall to zero; exclusion is a last resort but it must remain an option to Headteachers faced with a stark choice: the needs of the individual or the needs of the many. Schools have come under increasing scrutiny for their use of exclusion but the vast majority of schools do their very best to be inclusive and OFSTED has recently changed its framework to ensure that this is monitored.

Tackling the many contributors to exclusion is no doubt a challenge. So, for those looking for short cuts, scapegoating PRUs is very tempting.

PRUs – part of the solution…not the cause of problems

When funded sufficiently and run correctly PRUs provide a one-stop-shop for intervention which mainstream schools value greatly. They offer a nurturing environment with therapeutic support at its heart and a broad, hands-on curriculum with personalised learning its key principle. As a short-stay school, PRUs can and do turn students around, re-integrating them into mainstream or diagnosing unmet needs and speeding up the process of finding special school provision, all the while supporting the family and co-ordinating other support services.

Unfortunately, there is a frustrating tendency in the media to gloss over the varying qualities of PRUS across the country and to portray them all as the same. One would never suggest one school was the same as another, at the other end of the country, with a different intake, different systems, different staff and different funding. But somehow for PRUs, perhaps because few people really know what they are, the simplicity of saying “PRUs this…” and “PRUs that…” as if they were one homogenous group has slipped into casual use. In actual fact, (surprise, surprise) some PRUs are poorly funded and poorly run; some PRUs are properly funded and properly run. The difference in the impact is immense.

Some have deliberately disregarded the importance of quality and tarred all PRUs with the same brush: the brush of failure, the brush of exclusion. Perhaps because PRUs are the educational ‘end of the line’ their names can easily be dragged through the dirt. They are inextricably tied into exclusion which society recognises as undesirable and so, in our soundbite culture, exclusion = bad, therefore PRU = bad. This enables politicians on a local and national level to skirt round the real issues and hang PRUs out to dry. Call it lazy; call it cynical.

The academic output of PRUs is often rubbished but this fails to recognise the extreme challenge some children present; the priority of PRUs is safeguarding the child and re-engaging them in a school system which they feel sorely let down by. No one makes the comparison between what grades a child achieved in a PRU and what they would have achieved had they remained in mainstream; no one quantifies the impact of continued disruptive behaviour in mainstream classrooms if the child is not removed; no one considers the fact that the small numbers who sit their GCSEs in a PRU usually only had a few months on roll there – they simply cite bare, decontextualized, often erroneous numbers.

Furthermore, National debate has recently rubbished PRUs by drawing totally misleading links to knife crime, framing exclusion as the key cause of crime and portraying PRUs as breeding grounds for gang culture and criminality. But, as Amanda Spielman recently stated “It seems just as likely that [knife crime and exclusion] are symptoms of the same underlying problems, exacerbated by cuts to Local Authority children’s services.” Of course, many excluded students are often already involved in highly destructive behaviours before they are excluded; without properly funded PRUs there to intervene, the likelihood of children being coerced into criminal activity only increases. Counter to the ‘PRUs to prison’ narrative, effective PRUs then actually play a vital part in preventing crime.

With national discourse at such a facile level, PRUs are in an impossible position: cut back and badmouthed because they care for a rising number of excluded children. This is rather like criticising a hospital for looking after a rising number of patients; illogical and utterly infuriating.

When exclusions rise to unsustainable levels as they have today, PRUs can be overwhelmed. Staggeringly, the solution from some councils is not to tackle the root causes of exclusions, but to threaten PRUs with closure in favour of ‘Alternative Provisions.’ 

Alternative provision – part of the solution…when run right 

Increasingly, councils are using misconceptions about PRUs as an excuse to turn away from them and to direct their funds to small, vocational schools called ‘Alternative Provisions.’ As a preventative approach to exclusion good-quality, LA-governed Alternative Provision is, and always has been, essential. Indeed, before they were overwhelmed with permanent exclusions with nowhere to go, the main responsibility of PRUs was to provide such preventative placements. Good APs provide a supportive, close-knit community and a varied and exciting curriculum that enables students to succeed.

Nationally, OFSTED have stated that 80% of state-funded registered APs and PRUs are rated Good or Outstanding. But with PRUs and APs inundated with referrals, OFSTED have expressed great concern about a growing black market in education; unregistered, private APs offering a ‘back door’ for exclusions.

Last year, Amanda Spielman repeatedly expressed concerns about “the number of children disappearing from the formal system and into unregulated, unregistered provision. That includes much AP, which does not always have to be registered and therefore is subject to no independent scrutiny – despite the fact that a lot of AP caters for some of our most vulnerable children.”

The House of Commons ‘Forgotten Children’ report found schools, with their own severe resource pressures, often ‘lack the capacity and specialist knowledge’ to commission and monitor appropriate placements leading to a ‘fragmented approach and a lack of oversight and scrutiny.’ It is little wonder then that illegal AP has sprung up to exploit the position schools find themselves in. With a lack of good-quality, affordable options, and a lack of funding to pay for and monitor them, schools often have little choice but to exclude by the front door, or the back.

Some councils admit schools are in a desperate position because of the funding crisis and have lobbied government for more money, others have peddled the myth of a ‘market-led’ solution to this crisis in education. Either way, the result is that schools are forced to use the cheapest, rather than the best, education providers available, even if these may be illegal. This is because “Alternative Provision does not operate like a traditional marketplace.” (AP market analysis by ISOS partnership for DfE, Oct 2018).

North Yorkshire – a local picture of a national crisis 

In North Yorkshire the council is facing a growing deficit in the High Needs Budget, currently over £5.5 million. The council are looking to save around £2 million by reducing funding to PRUs and switching to an Alternative Provision model. Exclusions have risen 42% in the county since 2015-16, reflecting the national trend. Council officers have cited a wish to reduce exclusions, rather than a wish to make savings, as the motive for their changes. However, over the past 6 months it has emerged that the council do not have a clear plan to back up their principles. They are simply leading schools, and the county’s most vulnerable children, off a cliff edge, in the naïve hope that ‘the market’ will rescue them.

To the disbelief of education professionals, parents and the public, the council’s first step was to make massive cuts to the county’s PRUs before alternatives were put in place. In April 2019 the PRUs lost around 25% of their total budget; next year they will lose a further 25 to 40%. The blanket cuts are so swift and so devastating that they will mean a reduced service for all, and closure for some, within the year. All of North Yorkshire’s PRUs are currently judged Good or Outstanding.

Across the county there has been an outcry at the pace and severity of the cuts. Senior education leaders have voiced obvious concerns about the extreme scarcity of Alternative Provision in the county, the lack of clarity about the quality and costs of the little AP that is available and the totally unknown fate of children currently attending the PRUs and of any future excluded pupils. They have also been shocked by the paltry amount of funding being offered to their schools to reduce exclusions. Some were misled into thinking the money taken from the PRUs would simply be transferred to mainstream schools but, of course, the council had to take their share. One Headteacher deemed the funding “a negligible amount…not even enough to place one student in AP for a year.” To compound the crisis further, SEND and SEMH provision across the county is also in short supply after the council closed special schools in 2013 (only to put out to tender a contract for a new school this month!).

The result is a perfect storm: a lack of provision and a lack of funding at a time of rising need.

The consequences for North Yorkshire are sadly predictable:

  • An increase in truancy
  • An increase in students ‘missing from education’ or so-called ‘off-rolling’
  • A consequent increase in child exploitation and coercion into criminal activity (including so-called ‘County Lines’)
  • A worsening of the current adolescent mental health crisis

Facing this awful future, the ‘Save the Pupil Referral Service’ campaign group was forged to challenge the council. A petition of 5500 signatures opposing the proposal was submitted in January and campaigners addressed councillors at every opportunity to warn them of the impact it would have. At every step they faced stern, simplistic rebuttals. The full council meeting on February 20th was the final chance to convince the council to change their course of action. Libdem and Labour amendments were put forward to delay the cuts to PRUs for a year to allow for proper consultation and planning on a district level. However, with a comfortable Conservative majority, the amendments were voted down and the cuts approved.

All this, despite North Yorkshire County Council sitting on unallocated reserves of £70 million, despite council taxes rising 5% this year and despite councillors giving themselves a pay rise of 2.6%. It truly defies belief.

With all protests falling on deaf ears, across the county, and across the country, parents and campaign groups are turning to lawyers for help.

Legal action –  The local picture 

In North Yorkshire the ‘Save the PRS’ campaign group started a legal challenge against the council through Simpson Millar Solicitors. It is now being led by several parents and has widened its remit to challenge all 3 proposals voted through by the council on February 20th: Proposal 1 concerns a new banding system which will change the funding for students with special needs; Proposal 2 concerns the cuts to the PRS; and Proposal 3 concerns a reduction in the educational entitlement of students with special needs after the age of 16. Unless the council reconsiders its position, the result will be a worsening of SEN provision across the county and an increased risk of the most vulnerable children falling out of schooling and into ill health and exploitation. 

Ultimately, dialogue is still taking place between the council and school leaders but the only real chance of overturning the budget cuts is through this legal action. Simpson Millar solicitors hope to submit an application for a judicial review in the coming weeks. The case will then be presented to a judge who will make a ruling on the lawfulness of the council’s actions. Should the legal action fail, or prove too slow to save the PRS, the last hope for these children is an increase in funding to North Yorkshire’s High Needs Budget from central government.

To support the parents in their legal action please donate here: Weʼre raising £2,000 to Stop the cuts to SEND Services in North Yorks; standing up for all children with EHCPs; ‘Save the PRS’ and ‘Save SEND in North Yorks’ 

Supporters can also follow this campaign on Facebook: search ‘Save the PRS,’ and Twitter: @savetheprs 

Legal action – the national picture

The ‘Save The PRS’ campaign group has been helped by ‘Save SEND North Yorkshire,’ a campaign group which is supporting the national case for a judicial review against the Secretary of State for the underfunding of High Needs Budgets across the country. This case is being brought by the ‘SEND Action’ group through Irwin Mitchell Solicitors and is set to be heard at the High Court in late June.


It is a sad and desperate state of affairs when families, on a local and national level, feel they must go through the courts to get what they are entitled to for their children. This is not through misfortune, or chance, but through the wilful ignorance of councillors, MPs and Ministers.

We await news of the legal challenges at local and national level. In the meantime, let’s stop the scapegoating of PRUs, let’s have some open, honest debate about tackling the real roots of exclusion and let’s raise our voices to the people in power who can bring about the change our children desperately need.

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Categories: 1st POST, Budgets, Fundraising, Guest Post, Learning, Local authorities, Mental Health, Primary, Safeguarding, Secondary, SEN and Teaching.


  1. Anonymous

    This is an excellent analysis of the current state of affairs regarding PEX students and the role of PRUs. Remove PRUs from the system at our peril- we will truly regret doing so as existing problems will be significantly exacerbated. PRUs are safety nets for so many young people and should be valued and invested in. It is a fact that the situation experienced in North Yorkshire is nationwide and we should address the many causal factors, including those in the educational administrative systems, rather than scapegoat PRUs. The staff in PRUs are simply special and perform heroic tasks in hugely challenging situations. We should back them and their leaders and recognise that they are very much part of the solution, not the problem.

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