At age 14, Rory*, from London, began to find school unmanageable. “The teachers shouted at me a lot, for things like checking the time in lessons, knowing I had PTSD,” he said. On the advice of his therapist, Rory, who is autistic, left his school to attend a pupil referral unit (PRU) – a school designed for excluded pupils.
On his first day at the PRU, Rory said he encountered other students selling razor blades. “I witnessed students lash out at teachers and destroy property because they didn’t really feel like it was school,” he said. Now age 17 and attending college, Rory said he wishes he’d stayed at mainstream school. “[PRU] made me way worse than I was before.” Because PRUs offer a limited curriculum, Rory was only able to take four GCSEs – something he said has dampened his future prospects.
Rory is just one of a growing number of pupils who’ve been sent away from mainstream school. Pupil suspensions are now at a six-year high, with many local councils reportedly asking PRUs to take more children than they have space for. While permanent exclusions are not back to their pre-pandemic levels, suspensions can become de facto permanent exclusions if a child cannot be reintegrated back into mainstream school.
“The principal reason for suspensions and exclusions in England is ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’,” said Rebecca Wood, a senior lecturer in inclusive education at the University of Glasgow. “Teachers [are] expected to show – particularly during inspections – that they are in control of the class. [This is] significant for children who struggle with the school environment or find it difficult to follow the rules [and] who might manifest their distress outwardly in ways that school staff find problematic.”
The attitude and approach in England to behaviour has meant that students like Rory with special educational needs and disabilities are five times more likely to be excluded. Meanwhile, the “zero-tolerance” policies adopted by schools has led to students being excluded for minor offences. These include slight breaches of a school’s strict uniform policy or having the wrong stationery. By contrast, exclusion rates in Scotland have plunged, thanks to an approach which focuses on inclusions and positive relationships.
Institutional racism also inevitably shapes what a teacher or school considers to be acceptable or unacceptable behaviour. It is common for Black students to be unfairly punished for their hairstyles, wearing bandanas, ‘kissing teeth’ – and for their language. “People who are culturally aware will understand that language and know that it has a history,” said Jamila Thompson, a teacher and youth advocate at the charity Black Learning Achievement and Mental Health (BLAM). “Children might be walking around saying ‘wagwan’ and getting excluded, and there are children walking around saying ‘bonjour’ who are still in school.”
Racial bias has meant that Black Caribbean pupils are five times more likely to be excluded in some parts of England. Pupils eligible for free school meals are also much more likely to be suspended or excluded than those who are not eligible, and the rates are also higher for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils. And these statistics only account for part of the picture. “Informal exclusions” – a practice which allows schools to send a student off the premises without it being shown on school records – are also more likely to be experienced by BAME and GRT pupils.
“Exclusions should be a last resort, if ever you really have to do it,” said Thompson, referring to the government’s statutory guidance on suspensions and permanent exclusions. “What we’re finding is that schools have not exhausted all options.”
This has created a situation in which students and parents are being “hoodwinked” into accepting PRU placement. “Oftentimes, the parents or the carers are not fully aware of exactly what a managed move [to a PRU] is or for exactly how long it is,” said Thompson. “And sometimes, the information isn’t fully translated to them, so they end up signing up for things that they’re not really privy to.”
Rory described being made to feel “stuck” and as though “PRU was really the only option”. Had his school made him more aware of the consequences it would have on his future, Rory said he would not have gone through with it.
Slashed budgets are also contributing to the rise in exclusions, as schools are left without the resources to meet pupils’ special educational needs. There’s also the heightened pressure on teachers to boost grades, which has led schools to exclude students they perceive to be weaker just before exams. “There is the idea of behaviour being linked to academic attainment, when we know this isn’t always the case,” said Thompson. “There are lots of young people who have been excluded from the school and will be excluded from school who are academically gifted.”
For these excluded students, it is likely that attending a PRU will have a devastating impact on their academic outcomes. Research from 2020 showed that 96% of excluded students fail their GCSEs, compared to 36% in mainstream schools. Falling behind on their learning makes it harder for students, who may have been temporarily suspended for a minor offence, to be reintegrated back into mainstream school.
Sam Berkson, a former PRU teacher, said that the “therapeutic approach” taken by teachers at PRUs can be beneficial for students, as can the smaller class sizes. “We understand behaviour not as the problem, but as a symptom of problems – which is completely different from mainstream school,” he said. But according to Berkson, even with the best intentions, the environment at PRUs is not conducive to good outcomes for students.
“There’s a feeling [in PRU] of you having been a failure, and that this is a school for people who were rejected,” said Berkson. “It’s a hard place to be, socially. You’ve got a lot of other students who are also feeling a lot of anger and resentment. Some are dangerous and violent. It’s a hard place to make safe.”
Christian Nembhard, another former PRU teacher, made a similar point. “Ultimately, the young person will feel rejection,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much learning mentors or teachers will empower you or give you positive affirmations or tell you that you’re worthy. If you’re going into the world through the lens of rejection then it’s going to have an adverse effect on your behaviour.”
The phrase ‘PRU-to-prison pipeline’ has been used to refer to the fact that students from PRUs are at least four times more likely to be jailed in adulthood. Berkson said that “a number of students” he taught at PRUs have since been charged with homicide. “On some level, [PRU students] understand that they are a surplus population,” he said. “They’re excluded from the system you’re supposed to go through […] so what’s left for them? Gang life and criminality.”
Both Berkson and Thompson believe that the punitive approach to behaviour must change and that PRUs, and the exclusion system, should be abolished. “It perpetuates negative stereotypes of particular students,” said Thompson. “It’s not something that helps to reform people, and it’s not a place that helps to re-instil positive values […] it doesn’t meet the needs of young people.”