There are clear flaws in the system of pupil referral units and alternative provision. The time is right for the government to lead a root and branch review.
The vast majority of disabled children, and those with special education needs (SEND), can and should be educated in mainstream schools.
The SEND framework ensures that where a pupil with SEND has such significant needs that the mainstream system is unable to provide a suitable education, there is a tightly regulated system in place for ensuring their needs are met through an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) and that they attend a setting that can properly support them. Children, young people and their parents are put at the centre of decision-making.
In comparison, placements into alternative provision take place with little formal consideration of their suitability, little input into the decision by parents or the child themselves, and, too often, little consideration of the child’s SEN.
So what are so many children with SEND doing in alternative provision and should they be there at all?
The Education Select Committee’s inquiry into alternative provision has been a chance to put this question firmly on the government’s agenda.
There are two main reasons that children with SEND end up in alternative provision:
- They are directed off-site by their school and placed in alternative provision to “help improve their behaviour”.
- They are permanently excluded and are placed in alternative provision by the local authority who takes on responsibility for their education.
The common factor here is a decision by the school that the behaviour of the child means they can no longer be accommodated, either temporarily or permanently, on the school premises.
Some children undoubtedly find themselves in such adverse circumstances that their behaviour is too challenging to allow the school to operate safely, and alternative provision can be the right place to provide a more therapeutic environment for them.
However, we also know that behaviour in school is intrinsically linked to good teaching and the ability of a child to access their learning. Children exhibit behavioural difficulties but in fact the issue can lie further back in a failure to meet their educational needs.
If greater emphasis were placed on looking at the underlying causes of behaviour, including whether there are unmet learning needs or unmade reasonable adjustments, fewer children would be excluded or referred off site.
It would be unfair to lay this issue at the feet of mainstream schools alone. This is not simply a failure of individual services; it is a failure of the whole system to adequately meet the needs of this group of children.
In particular, local authorities play a key role ensuring pupils have their needs met in the mainstream system. They do this in a range of ways, including by commissioning specialist SEN support services and providing top-up funding to mainstream schools.
However, cuts to education budgets and increased demand means that local authorities have reduced the support they can make available to mainstream schools, further undermining the mainstream system’s ability to be inclusive.
It is this dynamic that we can see playing out in the recent sharp rises in both permanent exclusions and the number of children in special schools.
Even where alternative provision is the right choice for a child, the quality and suitability of the education they receive in PRUs and alternative provision is weak. There is no agreement on what good progress in this provision looks like, and educational outcomes are poor.
Again, it would be unfair to say this was only the responsibility of individual providers: schools and local authorities often place children in PRUs and alternative provisions with no agreed targets, no systems in place for monitoring progress, and take little on-going interest in the pupil’s wellbeing or the success of the placement.
This is why, in evidence to the Select Committee, the Special Educational Consortium argued that the way alternative provision is currently utilised by both local authorities and schools is not fit-for-purpose.
The Department for Education review of exclusions expected this year should also include a root and branch review of PRUs and alternative provision, with a focus on better outcomes for pupils, better data, and better support for children with SEND.
On top of this schools need additional resources and capacity to implement the proposals in the Green Paper on mental health, so they can meet the needs of children with social, emotional and mental health difficulties.
Without urgent action to remedy a flawed system, teachers and pupils will be left with only poor alternatives.
This article was originally published in SecEd.