Disruptive behaviour leaves excluded pupils’ units in England ‘full to bursting’
Referral units for children who have been excluded from mainstream schools are warning that they are full to bursting because of unprecedented levels of disruptive behaviour across the country.
Providers that take children excluded from mainstream schools say that after a lull during the pandemic, the situation has deteriorated, and they have seen permanent exclusions rising across the country in the past year. The situation had appeared to be improving with the latest government data on permanent exclusions in England showing that they fell in the spring term last year to 2,200 from 2,800 in 2019.
Many councils have pupils permanently outside the general schools system with nowhere to go, and they are asking pupil referral units (PRUs) to take more despite being full.
Steve Howell, headteacher of City of Birmingham School, one of the largest PRUs in the country, which takes children from five to 16, said the situation was becoming “dangerous”. Many local authorities are asking PRUs to “double stack”, meaning to take more children than they have space for, according to the PRUsAP, the umbrella group for the sector.
“Double stacking places isn’t OK,” said Howell. “It risks the quality of provision, the safety of the children and staff and has consequences that run deeper for leaders when Ofsted comes around.”
He said that there had been some spare capacity in the system, because schools were closed during Covid and exclusions dropped, but this “has eroded with alarming speed”.“There is no space left,” he said. “I don’t think there will be anywhere near enough space for next year.”
Anne Longfield, former children’s commissioner for England and chair of the Commission on Young Lives, said: “Schools are buckling under the pressure of children with increasingly complex needs and being almost the only ones left in the system to deal with them.”
She added: “These schools don’t want to exclude vulnerable children, but the kind of serious incidents they might have seen every month or two they are now seeing frequently, and they are getting more extreme.”
After years of cuts to public services, she said, “when schools look around for support or referrals, too often there is no one there”.
Warning that being pushed out of the mainstream was a “disaster” for many vulnerable children, Longfield called on the government to invest in youth workers and educational psychologists to help schools support children at risk of exclusion.
“This isn’t going to go away. It’s only going to get worse, and it can’t wait for another parliamentary cycle,” she said.
Emily Carr stepped down as head of a PRU in Stockton recently and is developing training programmes to help teachers in mainstream schools to deal with challenging behaviour.
She said: “I’ve had children spit at me, kick me and swear at me. If you haven’t had experience of dealing with that sort of behaviour it can be really daunting.”
She said that PRUs used to take children with behavioural issues on short outreach programmes to try to improve their prospects, but they were now so overloaded that this was rarely happening.
“What was supposed to be a revolving door is becoming a bottleneck, and children are coming to PRUs too late to re-engage them in mainstream education,” she said.
Carr, who is on the executive board of PRUsAP, agrees that permanent exclusions have been rising across the country, but she doesn’t blame schools: “They are seeing more and more disruptive behaviour, but if there is no outreach offer and they can’t access any mental health support what are they supposed to do?”
Many PRUs already struggle to hire teachers in the present sector-wide recruitment crisis, and it can be difficult to attract applicants to settings seen as very challenging. Carr worries that councils aren’t giving them enough time to hire staff to manage extra pupils.
“PRUs used to be described as dumping grounds, but they are places of hope which can reignite a love of learning,” she said. “But we need smaller groups and a higher ratio of staff to pupils to meet the needs of our children.”
Dave McPartlin, head of Flakefleet primary school in Lancashire, said: “The additional need we are seeing in schools is absolutely unprecedented and everyone is seeing more behaviour problems.” He said complex needs were emerging much earlier too, with children in nursery and reception exhibiting emotional, social and communication issues.
“I worry that some children with special needs are ending up in PRUs when that is the wrong place for them and they need more specialist support,” he said.News TIOB News