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BAME Students: Pupil Referral Units

Volume 802: debated on Monday 23 March 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the experience of BAME students referred to Pupil Referral Units; and what steps they are taking to ensure that any such students are able to re-enter mainstream education.

My Lords, 27% of pupils in PRUs, alternative provision academies and AP free schools are BAME, compared with 32% in all schools. There is variation among different groups, however, and it is important that we seek to understand those differences. We are committed to improving outcomes for all pupils in alternative provision and will build on the good practice identified by our £4 million AP innovation fund. Three of the projects focus specifically on reintegration into mainstream education.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. In the last few months, the Evening Standard has been running a campaign to raise funds for young people who have been excluded from school, so that the school can keep them and educate them within its premises instead of sending them off into PRU units. As we all know, young people are very vulnerable and are exposed to gangs once excluded from school. We know that the trap exists for young people who are not in mainstream schools. Do the Government have any policies for reducing the numbers of pupils in PRUs and getting them back into mainstream schools? As we all know, the majority are young black boys. Also, with the partial closure of schools that we have now, are there any thoughts on excluded children?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising a number of issues there. If I may begin with the current policy, yes, AP is included within the request to schools, so that, if at all possible, head teachers should keep that provision open. We believe that about half of the pupils within AP will qualify under the definition of “vulnerable” but we trust that the head teachers will make the correct decisions on the ground. It is of course correct that education is one of the strongest protective factors for young people, and it is this Government’s ambition that there should be an expansion of alternative provision and that being excluded from mainstream education settings should not be an exclusion from excellent education. We have the same aspirations for those in the AP sector as we do in other educational settings.

My Lords, Diane Abbott said many years ago that once you have excluded a black child from school you can almost put a time and date on when they will turn up in prison. That is still true today. According to the excellent coalition of BME education practitioners, there should be no more exclusions. School exclusions cost the taxpayer an eye-watering £2.1 billion a year. Many children go to pupil referral units, but only 1% of them go on to achieve good GCSEs. However, two-thirds of pupils in PRUs will at some point go to prison. Clearly PRUs are not fit for purpose. Does the Minister agree that we should stop all school exclusions, as some places do, such as Northampton? I witnessed that when I was a children’s commissioner. Given that BME and other disadvantaged children are more likely to be excluded, I say, as I did last week, that we must recruit more black teachers and teachers from other disadvantaged backgrounds, including Roma, Gypsy, Traveller and white working-class. I apologise for going on.

The noble Lord makes an important point. We are aware that educational outcomes for students in alternative provision are not high enough, but last year 85% of all state-funded schools did not permanently exclude any pupil. The Government support head teachers having the power, as a last resort, to exclude pupils, but that should not be a ticket into education that is less than excellent. In fact, 83% of alternative providers were judged by Ofsted to be good or outstanding. That is only slightly less than overall for schools, which is 86%, and more than for secondary schools. Although there are issues, I pay tribute to the workforce in the alternative provision sector, who are doing an excellent job dealing with behavioural and educational issues.

My Lords, is the Minister willing to consider a mandatory physical check-up—particularly of teeth, eyes and ears, for example—for excluded students, not only BME ones? I speak as a former foster parent of a BME student. I recall well the wish not to be difficult and therefore not to talk about having, perhaps, a simple pain which could be sorted out.

The noble Baroness raises an interesting issue. Children in AP settings will often have been placed there by the local authority, which has various safeguarding duties. If a student in its care cannot be educated due to health reasons, I would expect it to take the appropriate course of action.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that certain hidden or non-obvious conditions, such as dyslexia, tend to be even slower to be picked up among the BME community than in others, usually due to things such as it being more commonly working-class, and that many of these conditions are seen to be white, middle-class problems which are identified by the parents and then fought through the education system? When are we going to get better provision in schools to sort this? Having more working-class and black teachers would help.

I am grateful to the noble Lord. On the recruitment of teachers, a £2 million project with the diversity hubs is aimed specifically at increasing the diversity of the workforce, which is an important factor. On non-diagnosis, for every child who is not meeting the requisite attainment standards, graduated action on their attainment gap should be taken by teachers and SEN co-ordinators, regardless of a diagnosis. We are aware that 81% of the children in alternative provision also have special educational needs and disabilities, so we need to intervene earlier. That will be part of the SEN review, to avoid this correlation.

My Lords, I am not clear on what the Minister said in response to my noble friend Lady Lawrence. Can she make it clear whether, in the current circumstances, all pupil referral units will remain open and take in all the children who have been to referred to them for treatment, care and education? If not, will those children be admitted immediately to mainstream schools to ensure that they are not left out, because they are among the most vulnerable?

The noble Baroness will be aware that some pupils who are in a pupil referral unit are still on the roll of a mainstream school and are in alternative provision on a part-time basis. We expect alternative providers to remain open because we are aware that just under half of their cohort will qualify under the definition of vulnerable. We trust head teachers presented with somebody who might not technically be within the letter of “vulnerable” to make that decision, and we will support them in doing so if they view the young person in front of them as vulnerable; for instance, if they had contact with them two or three years ago, they can make that decision.

My Lords, in the other half of the statistic mentioned by my noble friend Lord Woolley and the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence, lie numbers of Muslim young boys, in particular, as well as those who are autistic. That statistic makes them vulnerable students and pupils. Some of them may be vulnerable to county lines, about which we heard last week, and sexual exploitation, about which we have heard many times. Given the crisis that we face, what will the Minister do to ensure that local authorities take seriously the gaps that may begin to emerge, with these young people falling through the system because they are not classified as vulnerable children?

My Lords, any child who is not in an educational setting should be. We do take action. We recognise that they are particularly vulnerable to the phenomenon now called “county lines”. The Government have provided £20 million to fund more national co-ordination on county lines. Since September 2018, four weeks of criminal justice interventions have led to 2,500 arrests; more importantly, they have resulted in more than 3,000 people being identified as having safeguarding concerns. We are doing what we can and taking action to deal with these issues.

My Lords, I understand noble Lords’ concerns over adjourning the House for five minutes. With the leave of the House, I will stick with five minutes for today but we will reassess this practice later today so that we can perhaps have shorter adjournments between Questions tomorrow. I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 3.03 pm.

Sitting suspended.