How can schools reach out to challenging pupils? Suzanne O’Connell looks at the government’s response to the problem of challenging behaviour, from a leadership perspective

Back on Track: A Strategy for Modernising Alternative Provision for Young People is the government’s response to the dilemma of the challenging child. This white paper, issued in May 2008, builds on the Children’s Plan proposals and aims to improve the quality of alternative educational provisions for those excluded from mainstream schools. It will affect all alternative provision commissioned by local authorities and schools, but is particularly linked to provision in pupil referral units.

PRUs have a difficult job to do. Receiving disaffected children of all ages who suspect that society is giving up on them, PRUs are expected to bring these individuals back into the fold. Although inspected by Ofsted, PRUs have been able to adjust the curriculum more flexibly than mainstream schools. It is anticipated that different types of provision are needed to support children who mainstream schools can’t cope with. Back on Track seeks to make the work PRUs do more accountable and to measure the value they add. Sound familiar?

The white paper encourage those involved to:

  • begin with what works best for each young person, taking account in consultation with parents and carers of their different needs
  • secure a core educational entitlement for all young people in alternative provision
  • provide better planning and commissioning of alternative provision at an area and individual level
  • hold local authorities to account for outcomes from the alternative provision they deliver or commission
  • provide professional support, and better accommodation and facilities for those in the sector
  • improve partnerships working between alternative provision, other parts of the education sector and other agencies and services working with young people. This will facilitate early intervention and ensure an integrated approach to meeting the young person’s needs
  • learn from the best and support innovation.

Increased accountability
To begin with, it is suggested that a new name is needed for PRUs. Pupil referral unit isn’t the most inspiring of titles, so a change is perhaps justified.

The DCSF wants the PRUs and other forms of alternative provision to be held more accountable for the education they provide. They propose doing this through:

  • releasing data annually on attendance
  • piloting the collection and publication of educational outcomes data for the pupils at the end of KS 4
  • investigating how best to gather progression and value-added data for pupils
  • consulting on the application of new school indicators on pupil well-being to PRUs
  • strengthening the secretary of state’s powers to intervene when PRUs fail, and increasing the role of Ofsted in taking account of PRUs in special measures in LA area assessments
  • encouraging competition between potential providers
  • publishing information about alternatives to PRUs.

The overall implication is that there is not enough sharing of information about how PRUs perform, both with parents and on a wider level. PRUs do not currently have anywhere near the same level of responsibility in terms of tracking performance as schools do. The white paper wants to see this change.

It is ironic that just at the time when publication of data seems to be an emotive and controversial issue, this paper is suggesting the adoption of similar approaches to alternative provision. It is to be hoped that this increased emphasis on results does not lead to a narrowing of opportunities in the same way as we have seen in mainstream schools.

The paper does recognise the difficulties there are in collecting data due to the mixed economy of provision that children receive, and that some cases involve relatively short-term placements. There is acknowledgement that the quality of wellbeing should also be taken into consideration when monitoring performance, and it is proposed that new school-level indicators could also apply to PRUs.

Developing staff
The white paper highlights the issues of the pay and working conditions of PRUs. Resources generally are recognised as an issue, and there is a commitment to improving the building stock through the Building Schools for the Future programme. The DCSF reaffirms the intention to build or refurbish all PRUs with the same timescale as secondary schools.

It is indicated that staff working in PRUs and other provision should have the opportunity to be part of a local network. The intention is to address issues of isolation and provide professional, collaborative dialogue. CPD is to be encouraged through the Master’s in teaching and learning qualification and leadership training for PRU staff through the national programme for specialist leaders of behaviour and attendance.

Local behaviour partnerships and prevention
Back on Track proposes increased collaboration between secondary schools and PRUs working together in local behaviour partnerships. The local behaviour partnership is endorsed strongly in this document and is hoped to be instrumental in reducing exclusions. In fact, the expectation is that all secondary schools must participate in such a partnership and take their fair share of challenging pupils.

The white paper also asks for clarity about the extent to which devolved budgets include money for behaviour support (as everyone needs to be aware of who is responsible for what). Here, the school behaviour partnership has a role in ensuring that there is sufficient funding available for preventative work. The proposals suggest that schools should be able to make more use of alternative provision as a means of early intervention before young people are excluded. In some cases this already happens. However, difficulties with limited resources and dealing with children who have already been excluded can prevent this from being a more frequently used opportunity.

Working with other agencies
The white paper recognises the importance of specialist children’s services professionals for the children receiving alternative provision. It encourages the development of links between different types of provision and the family with the aim of supporting them in an integrated way. The extended school is considered to be a key part of the strategic approach to disaffection, with its access to specialist health, social and other services, parenting support and family learning support being available.

Local authorities are required to secure access to positive leisure time activities, consult with young people and publicise what is available. The DCSF acknowledges that many of these leisure opportunities will be provided by third sector organisations and has instigated a new Youth Sector Development Fund to help support them. There may be issues here given the difficulties with maintaining consistency, availability and accessibility when groups are funded through short-term contracts.

The alternative curriculum
At the moment there is no minimum curriculum for pupils in alternative provision. Back on Track endorses the use of a personalised education plan with a proposal for young people to carry a standardised information passport when moving between places of education. The personalised education plan should include information about attainment, attendance, behaviour, SEN (where applicable) and the pastoral support plan (where one is in place).

The plan would support the smooth transfer from mainstream to PRUs and address the five Every Child Matters outcomes. It is acknowledged that looked-after children will already have a PEP and where they are also in alternative provision this should be reflected in their plan. For pupils in Key Stage 4 the plan should also include their post-16 progression aspirations.

PRUs are required to offer a broad and balanced curriculum but much of the remaining detail isn’t specified and PRUs have been allowed the luxury of largely determining their own curriculum in liaison with the schools they work with. It is still anticipated that they should enable the child to fit in with the school curriculum where a return to mainstream is likely. However, the DCSF is planning to develop a national minimum standard of provision which would include:

  • a minimum curriculum entitlement
  • the number of hours of education and training that should be available
  • minimum standards for the length of waiting time before being placed.

The recommended curriculum would require the PRU to enable all young people to become:

  • successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve
  • confident individuals who are able to live a safe, healthy and fulfilling life
  • responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society.

They fall short of suggesting that the full national curriculum should be delivered, accepting that this might be not be appropriate for all children who find themselves in alterative provision. Instead, they invite opinions on whether this minimum entitlement should consist of a core offer of skills or a reduced version of the national curriculum.

Broadening of provision
In most LAs the PRU is considered the main practical alternative when children and young people get to a certain point in their misbehaviour. Sending a pupil to the PRU is often done with a sigh of relief – if also one of regret. Back on Track places more emphasis on mainstream schools maintaining some of these challenging children within their number. However, this duty should not fall, as it often does, on a small number of schools. It is recognised that all schools need to take their share of the responsibility as part of the local behaviour partnership.

The DCSF wants to see a broadening of the provision that is available. Through this document they invite local authorities and schools to run up to 10 pilots to test a range of models to deliver alternative provision. They are also publishing a toolkit on commissioning alternative provision for children’s trusts and have launched a national database of providers in September. They are very keen to extend the market in alternative provision, with some providers expanding according to demand. There is criticism that LAs tend to use a limited number of providers and don’t sufficiently focus on the needs of the young person. The white paper proposes that children’s trusts should have a greater role in the commissioning process and consider the use of the voluntary sector and private organisations.

On the right track?
From my own work with PRUs, I have nothing but respect for the hardworking staff who do their best in extremely challenging circumstances. I know how they struggle to deliver anything close to a core entitlement for all kinds of different reasons. It is to be hoped that the resources really are made available for them to fulfil the increased expectations reflected in these proposals. It would be detrimental if legislative changes prevented them from responding to the needs of the pupil in a bid to demonstrate success against specific and limiting targets.

Suzanne O’Connell is a former headteacher