“A good pupil referral unit is an empty one,” says Debra Rutley,
deputy head of the Wycombe Grange unit in Buckinghamshire.
Unfortunately, there’s little chance that many of the units have
been empty in recent years.
Official figures show that the number of permanent exclusions
from schools in England and Wales rose 6 per cent in 2003-4 to
nearly 9,900 children, and referral units are their most likely
But an Ofsted report last year found that the educational
support and quality of provision for pupils not in school was
unsatisfactory.(1) Although there were “pockets of exemplary
practice”, too many young people were “in danger of being lost to
the system, becoming disaffected and underachieving”.
The importance of support and alternative education for
permanently excluded pupils is highlighted by a study from the
University of Birmingham published in 2003.(2) Only about half of
the 141 young people they tracked were in education, training or
employment two years after their permanent exclusion. Those who
offended before they were excluded continued to offend, while
others started to do so. The study also pointed out that the
service attended by the young people was typically determined by
local vacancies rather than a “careful matching to appropriate
This report was, however, based on research carried out before a
major government drive kicked in. Since September 2002, local
education authorities have had to make suitable education or
training available to permanently excluded young people and there
is a belief that this has led to big changes in provision.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads
Association, believes the situation has improved greatly over the
past three years.
“There are now more places in referral units,” he says. “It used
to be the case that too many children were excluded and then
received no education.”
There are about 450 registered referral units in England,
educating nearly 14,500 pupils – not all of them excluded – and
employing 3,360 teachers. The government has doubled the number of
places in recent years and the Conservatives want to expand
provision again to create “turnaround schools” for disruptive
But Dunford is wary of their proposals. “We want to avoid
dumping grounds,” he says. “The primary objective should be to get
these young people back into normal society. To do that they might
have to spend some time out of school.”
The range of options available for permanently excluded pupils –
and the variety of agencies involved in their lives – is
highlighted in a study carried out by the independent National
Foundation for Educational Research in July 2004.(3) As well as
statutory agencies, such as the police, youth offending teams and
social services, young people can gain support and provision from
organisations running activities ranging from arts and music to car
mechanic training, work placements and sports.
The referral unit can act as the commissioning body in these
situations. At Wycombe Grange, Rutley says young people are offered
a large number of activities because keeping them in a classroom
all week would be too intense.
The unit also carries out preventive work. “As soon as a student
starts to show signs of vulnerability, a school makes a referral
and tells us what they want from us,” Rutley says. This may involve
outreach work, where one of the unit’s staff visits the student at
their school, or students attending the unit part-time. Schools can
also refer students directly to the unit if the child is past
Rutley says students are assessed when they start attending the
unit to identify gaps in their learning and any special educational
needs. However, she feels its emotional support is as important as
its education. “The biggest thing we can offer here is a safe place
to come and talk to somebody.”
The quality of Buckinghamshire’s referral units was highlighted
in Ofsted’s report on provision for pupils not in school. It said
the units enjoyed a close relationship with schools and offered “a
seamless continuum of support to vulnerable children and their
teachers”, adding that the “pay-off” was a year-on-year reduction
in permanent exclusions.
Steve Edgar, Buckinghamshire Council’s senior adviser on school
improvement, says this was achieved by focusing on more managed
moves for disruptive pupils to other schools, despite there being
no let-up in the number of referrals.
Although good practice does exist, there are still concerns
about the government’s direction. Jacqui Newvell, head of the pupil
inclusion unit at children’s charity the National Children’s
Bureau, says that although there is a lot more provision in
referral units she is “not necessarily convinced” that it offers
the best educational experience for many excluded young people.
She is also worried about the effect of increasing the number of
places. “I think the referral units are like cupboards,” she says.
“The more spaces you have, the more you are going to find somebody
to fill them.”
She wants the government to rethink its approach. “Pupils in
referral units are probably the most at-risk young people in the
community. For some, it’s an issue of disaffection with education
but others have huge social and emotional needs.”
Newvell believes the Conservatives’ plan to create turnaround
schools is “taking it back a century”, and says local education
authorities need more resources to provide alternative
“It’s not good enough for the government to say there’s a
statutory duty to make sure children get a full-time education,”
she says. “We talk to a lot of young people and many have had long
periods out of school after exclusion. There needs to be a coming
together of the Every Child Matters agenda and the education and
- Out of School: A Survey of the Educational Support and
Provision for Pupils Not in School, Ofsted, December 2004
- Study Of Young People Permanently Excluded From School,
University of Birmingham, March 2003
- Good Practice in the Provision of Full Time Education for
Excluded Pupils, the National Foundation for Educational Research,
“There is no alternative”
Although the government has made it a priority to tackle
persistent disruptive behaviour – a major reason for exclusion –
some feel its plans should go further.
Think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research has just
published research showing many teachers believe there is no
alternative to exclusions, and has made several recommendations on
tackling poor behaviour.(1)
Jodie Reed, report author and research fellow at the institute,
wants fewer children to be ent to “one-size-fits-all” pupil
referral units. She says it is unrealistic to expect them to suit
every type of child with challenging behaviour.
She argues that more emphasis needs to be placed on developing
relationships between schools, pupils and parents at an earlier
stage in children’s schooling.
To achieve this, the think-tank wants primary schools to make an
effort to pass on their relationships with parents and children to
Reed says this should involve a handover meeting between a
child’s parents, primary teacher and secondary teacher at
- Towards Zero Exclusion, IPPR, September 2005.