Skip to main content

Covid-19: Pupil Referral Units

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 22 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what support they have given to students in Pupil Referral Units during the COVID-19 pandemic; and whether such students received the same treatment and prioritisation as those in other education settings.

My Lords, it will be no surprise to noble Lords that, on the 28th anniversary of the death of her son, Stephen Lawrence, the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence, is here asking a Question on behalf of others, and I pay tribute to her for that. The Government recognise that education is a key protective factor for vulnerable students, and we therefore prioritise those in alternative provision. These settings remained open throughout the pandemic. Support included last summer’s £7.1 million alternative provision transition fund for year 11 pupils to make a successful transition to post-16 education, additional support through the workforce fund and, most recently, increased levels of funding for mass asymptomatic testing.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for talking about my son, Stephen. Since the pandemic, have pupils in pupil referral units been supported and prioritised, as those in other educational settings have? What is the impact on their education? Are they being monitored to return to mainstream school? As we know, the majority of people in pupil referral units are boys from the black community.

The Government were keen to ensure that alternative provision got additional support, so the Covid catch-up fund was triple the amount put into mainstream provision—£240 per pupil rather than £80. An additional £730 million has been put into the high-needs budget this year. The Government are acutely aware that in these settings are some of our most vulnerable young people. I also draw attention to the amazing staff who, during the pandemic, did much to protect them.

My Lords, I salute my noble friend Lady Lawrence on Stephen Lawrence Day. In a statement at its recent conference, the NEU said that it is a symptom of poverty and racism that the majority of those in pupil referral units are working-class and black students. Does the Minister agree that, as the pandemic has laid bare the extent of racial inequality, to begin to tackle this in education schools need resources to prevent exclusions, including smaller classes and engaging a flexible curriculum, and much more investment in pastoral systems?

My Lords, the cohort within alternative provision is incredibly mixed, and only just over 40% of those in such settings have been permanently excluded from mainstream education. Of those, 70.7% are white British, an overrepresentation, since 65.4% of the population is white British. However, the noble Baroness is right that 3% are of black-Caribbean heritage, while they represent only 1% of the population. Also, 3.7% in alternative provision are Asian, while 11.4% of pupils are of British-Asian heritage. Who is currently in alternative provision is a complex picture.

My Lords, we welcome the increased level of catch-up funding for pupil referral units, but will the Minister tell the House how the Government will ensure that the funding alleviates the pressure on staff and students that they faced during the pandemic?

My Lords, as mainstream state-funded provision, the staff costs are still paid regardless of attendance. The initial feedback is that the £7.1 million in transition funding, which enabled the staff to ensure that AP ends at 16 and there is a successful transition into post-16, was successful. We are looking at whether that can be extended for a further year.

My Lords, Stephen Lawrence’s memory should be for a blessing. I commend JW3’s Gateways programme, which provides integrated education and vocational provision for vulnerable young people and those experiencing mental health challenges within the Jewish community. Additionally, the trustees of JW3 should be congratulated, since they are in the process of establishing the first PRU in the Jewish community after consulting a wide range of Jewish schools in north-west London that are desperate for such a PRU to exist. Can the Minister consider how the department could assist the trustees to ensure that the new PRU becomes a centre of excellence?

My Lords, it is pleasing to hear of that kind of community response to these issues. Noble Lords may remember that there are, of course, non-maintained special schools, which apparently include some alternative provision. Many of those that remain are Jewish or Catholic in their religious ethos, but it is open to any community to open a registered provider within the independent sector. I will be pleased to write to my noble friend to outline how that might be possible within the state-funded alternative provision sector.

My Lords, PRUs cater for some of the most disadvantaged, disturbed and sometimes dangerous students. I taught in one for a while, and it was an unforgettable experience. The NEU found that there was a 17% rise in the number of pupils with education, health and care plans in pupil referral units last year. How are the Government ensuring that every child with an EHCP is being educated in the most appropriate setting for them?

My Lords, there is a very high level of those with not only EHCP but SEND generally. Around 80% end up in some form of alternative provision. The AP settings are part of the SEND review so that they can be considered together. We recognise that this is often not the most appropriate place for young people to end up, and we will look at how to change the dynamic that is operating.

My Lords, given the proven likelihood that PRUs can be highways to hopelessness, driving vulnerable young people towards long-term criminality, what is the Government’s assessment of why PRUs tend not to lead to successful educational and social outcomes? Also, given the opportunities of the Oasis Restore secure school, funded by the Ministry of Justice and opening in Medway next year, how involved will the Department for Education be in defining and inspecting the curriculum, as well as underpinning the well-being of all those educated in this new, remarkable school?

My Lords, our aspirations are the same for all young people, regardless of where they are being educated, but it is true that some young people who end up in alternative provision are, for instance, of secondary school age but with only a primary school reading age. Therefore, the classic traditional measures of educational performance must be looked at in terms of the progress which that young person can make. Many of the AP settings are acutely aware of the safeguarding of their students. Many work closely with the 18 violence reduction units to safeguard their pupils, and I will write to the noble Lord about the first secure school, which is within the Ministry of Justice’s provision.

My Lords, I add my tribute to my noble friend Lady Lawrence of Clarendon, for the great strength of character that she has shown following the callous murder of her son, and for the work that she has done in establishing the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.

Many pupil referral units have been forced to cut services for vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils because of the severe reduction in funding following the drop in referrals during the pandemic. There is real concern in the sector that the increased level of recovery funding for PRUs announced by the Government is unlikely to be sufficient to meet the anticipated surge in demand. Does the Minister accept that the Government must heed those concerns and review the per-pupil element of the funding formula to ensure consistency and parity of funding with mainstream schools?

My Lords, obviously some young people are dual registered, so they are mainstream as well as AP funded. During the two formal lockdowns when schools were closed, the guidance from the department to local authorities was that they should pay the top-up element that they pay to these provisions. If a pupil referral unit that is still an LA-maintained unit is in financial difficulty, obviously it goes to its local authority; in relation to the other alternative provision—the just over 40% of the sector that is academised—I can assure the noble Lord that we are keeping a close watch on the financial situation of that provision.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many children who end up in these units come from backgrounds where they do not have supportive families and people who are keen on education? Does the Minister also accept that these are the groups in which undiagnosed special educational needs—I remind the House of my declared interests in this field—do not get spotted until much later, if at all, and probably in the prison system? Do the Government have any process by which to pick up on the backlog of identification caused by the pandemic and the missed school experience?

My Lords, it is precisely for those reasons that we must consider AP in the context of the SEND review and work out why some conditions are not being spotted early enough. For instance, it seems that in an all-through setting—we now have some all-through schools—spotting it in early years or reception is vital to the educational progress of those young people. As I have outlined, we need to look at why so many young people with these needs are ending up in alternative provision and with late diagnosis of conditions.