What is a pupil referral unit?

Schoolboys in the classroom
We explain what to expect if your child is referred to a pupil referral unit (PRU), an alternative to mainstream school.
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We all like to think that our children will have an easy ride through school, but some young people struggle with mainstream education.

Attending a pupil referral unit (PRU) could help them continue to get an education while their problems are addressed. Around 16,000 pupils are currently educated in PRUs, and while the majority are secondary school age, these units can also provide a solution for primary school children who are having difficulties at school.

What is a pupil referral unit?

PRUs are a type of school that caters for children who aren’t able to attend a mainstream school. Pupils are often referred there if they need greater care and support than their school can provide.

Children who attend a PRU might be:

Some pupils will have all their lessons at a PRU, while others split their time between the mainstream school where they’re registered and a PRU.

PRUs are not special schools, and pupils who have more severe special educational needs or disabilities should not be sent to a PRU as a long-term solution.

Why send a child to a PRU?

The local authority has a duty to provide a suitable full-time education to all children of school age. PRUs are funded by the local authority, and fulfil this obligation for children who, for whatever reason, can’t be accommodated in a mainstream school.

Pupils are typically referred to a PRU by their school, and you should be closely involved in the process as a parent.

Becky’s son Oliver, now 15, was sent to a PRU when he was in Reception. ‘It was clear that he had autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), but the psychologist and paediatrician had conflicting views,’ she explains.

‘His school wanted him to get a statement of special educational needs (now an Education, Health and Care Plan, or EHCP), and going to the PRU was the most effective way to do it.’

If a child is excluded from school, the local authority has an obligation to provide alternative education from the sixth school day of their exclusion. Many of these children will be sent to a PRU.

What will your child learn at a PRU?

PRUs don’t have to teach the full National Curriculum, but they should aim to provide a broad and balanced education that covers as much of the Curriculum as possible.

They should make it a priority to teach English, maths, science, computing, and personal, social and health education (PSHE).

What are the benefits of a PRU?

Although attending a PRU is often seen as a last resort, it can have great benefits for pupils who are having difficulties at school.

They tend to be staffed by highly qualified and experienced teachers, who have expertise in dealing with SEN, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Pupils often have access to support from social workers, educational psychologists and counsellors, who can help them with their problems.

Class sizes are typically small, allowing pupils more one-to-one attention.

Rather than receiving a one-size-fits-all education, pupils will have an education plan and timetable designed specifically to meet their needs. Extra support with literacy and numeracy is available, and older students might divide their time between Curriculum subjects and vocational studies or work experience.

This means that pupils tend to be more motivated and confident, which in turn improves attendance and attainment.

Teaching quality and effectiveness also tends to be very high: 14 per cent of PRUs are rated Outstanding by Ofsted, compared to just three per cent of primary schools.

Philippa is mum to twins Sam and Daniel, 11, who both attend a PRU. ‘Sam wasn’t coping with mainstream education due to autistic traits and ADHD, while Daniel had anger management issues,’ she explains.

‘The PRU has been the making of them, as it doesn’t just focus on academic study but has a more holistic approach, working on anger management, socialisation, behaviour and coping strategies.’

What are the drawbacks?

Despite the many benefits of PRUs, there is a stigma to attending them, which children can find it hard to escape.

The limited curriculum means that children can miss out on a broad education, and although staff are highly trained, disruptive behaviour is often the norm. This can be distressing to children who are attending a PRU because of emotional difficulties or problems with their home life.

The range of ages and circumstances of pupils, and the limited number of staff, can also make it hard to cater for each child’s individual needs. Indeed, in 2016 a senior Department for Education director admitted that the government needed to ‘do better’ for pupils in PRUs.

The future after attending a PRU

Some children will stay in a PRU until they finish their full-time education, including Philippa’s twins. ‘It suits them so well that the plan is to let them sit their GCSEs there; there’s no plan to move them back into mainstream,’ she says.

Generally, though, a PRU placement is seen as a short-term measure and the aim is to reintegrate the child into mainstream education as soon as possible. ‘Oliver integrated back into mainstream in Year 2, and has been there ever since,’ Becky adds. ‘His short time in the PRU helped him enormously, and he’s now about to take his GCSEs.’