Do PRUs normalise bad behaviour?

There’s a kind of internet rule which says that, when a question is asked in the title, the implied answer is always ‘yes’.

I don’t think I’m about to break that rule except inasmuch as my answer is a qualified yes.

PRUs are not prisons. Young people cannot be compelled to attend nor can they be forced to stay in lessons and pay attention once there. They cannot be made to behave. All we can do is work with young people and on our own practice so that they come to consider that the benefits of an education outweigh their desire to be doing something, anything, else. We do this through sanctions, rewards and relationships. It is hard. It is particularly hard with young people who do not think their future lies in mainstream society, if they think they have a future at all.

All this is to say that even in the best PRU you will find behaviour that most people would find unacceptable. In other words, bad behaviour is much more normal in a PRU than in most of the rest of society. Young people in a PRU see bad behaviour more often and it becomes less unusual. Staff become de-sensitised to it. We become habituated to bad behaviour. Bad behaviour is normalised.

There is a huge qualifier to this which I will come to soon but before I do I need to say that, for me, how important this is is an unanswered question.

Should we make a much bigger deal in the case of a young person whose behaviour is so challenging they can’t even get close to doing a whole day of highly tailored, expertly delivered and utterly bespoke education? By which I mean, should we really be very explicit with these young people and their parents that it is not normal and it is a very big deal. That to simply ‘manage’ it with a part-time timetable until they leave is not okay.

To make a bigger deal of it in this way risks stigmatising a young person even more than they already have been and risks losing them completely. Not doing so risks giving the impression that such damaging behaviour is fine, is perfectly understandable given the circumstances. It risks giving the impression that they have a right to expect that everyone else should work around their issues. It risks absolving them of any responsibility for their own behaviour.

Mainstream schools, while opinions differ about where they should draw the line, have a way of answering this. They can say we understand you have difficulties and we will do this, this and this to help. If that isn’t sufficient then you will go to a PRU. PRUs do not have that luxury (nor should they). This is why this is such a hard question to find an answer to.

Now the big qualifier to all this is that while bad behaviour may occur more often in a PRU and may therefore be seen as more normal that does not mean it is okay. It does not mean that nothing is done about it. Bad behaviour is always picked up, challenged and addressed. There are consequences. Those consequences, though, are never going to even begin to mimic real-world consequences. They can’t. If a student tells me to F-off (and they do, now and then) there is certainly going to be a consequence but that consequence is not going to be instant dismissal.

Complicated, isn’t it? That’s why my job is always so interesting.

Twenty Years a Teacher

It dawned on me yesterday that it’s 20 years since I qualified as a teacher.

During that time there have been nine education secretaries1 none of whom have really listened to teachers. All have vowed to sort out our terrible education system once and for all. Most have used their time in office to pursue some kind of personal prejudice2.

These 20 years have seen constant changes but little change. Each politician has been in office for a little over two years, on average3. This means that school leavers have had around six education secretaries since they started Reception. All of these have made drastic attempts to ‘fix’ the ‘broken’ system.

Yet throughout this English teachers have continued to teach Of Mice and Men and Maths teachers have continued to teach quadratic equations. Politicians have continued to blame teachers for everything, teachers have continued to blame politicians for everything and teenagers have continued to blame everyone for everything.

If there has been a trend is has been in the relentless de-professionalising of the teaching profession. We have suffered prescriptions from on high telling us how to teach everything from spelling to long multiplication. There has been an ongoing story peddled by politicians of all flavours that anyone, apart from, it seems, actual teachers, can teach, just by turning up and doing it. Particularly if they have been in business or the army but definitely not if they have been near any kind of institute of teacher training.

So in all these 20 years not an awful lot has changed. Until now. It says a lot about the kind of politician Gove is that we are all sure that the education system in this country is going to look completely different by the time he’s finished with it. Apart from anything else, it no longer makes sense to talk of an education system: we need to talk of education systems. It also says a lot about the kind of politician Gove is that although we are all certain that nothing will be the same again, none of us have much of a clue about what it will look like. Quite possibly not even Gove.


  1. In order: John Patten, Gillian Shephard, David Blunkett, Estelle Morris, Charles Clarke, Ruth Kelly, Alan Johnson, Ed Balls, Michael Gove. 
  2. From closing special schools (Blunkett) to closing almost all schools (Gove). 
  3. And most have failed to understand the fundamental truth of an average, which is that you can’t have everyone above it. 

Sensory Needs

I’m starting to think that unmet sensory needs could be behind many of the difficulties our students struggle with.

Last term we had some excellent CPD from Lucy Brookes, talking to us about how unmet sensory needs can manifest themselves and what we can do about it. Here are my notes from that talk.

Sensory needs

Analysing Progress in a Pupil Referral Unit

Pupil Referral Units are supposedly judged by Ofsted by the same criteria used to judge schools. This has meant that previous inspections have begun with half a day of going through exam results and attendance. I’ll use an approximation of this year’s results at my PRU to illustrate why this is problematic.

At the start of the Spring term, January 2013, we had eleven Year 11 students. Of these, all but one achieved five or more GCSE passes (grade G or above). A success rate of 91%. Only two of these got five or more A-Cs (18%). Is this good or bad? Well the best figures I have for PRUs nationally are 18.4% of PRU students gaining 5 A-Gs and 2.1% A*-Cs. So these figures look pretty good compared to those.

Unfortunately the national figures are from two different years (2009 and 2011) because there is no complete set of figures for 2011. It’s also not entirely clear where these numbers come from but presumably they’re an average of all maintained PRUs. So they’re an average of schools for excluded students, school phobics, young people in hospital, students attending both a school and a PRU and many other kinds of setting. Flattering as our exam results look against these national figures, the figures themselves are virtually meaningless.

It gets worse. We are dealing with such small numbers of students that one student leaving or another one arriving can make a huge difference. Between January and May we had six new students start. This meant our final results were 71% 5+ A-G. (Coincidentally, the A-C figure remained the same.)

A fall of 91% to 71%. Did we have a terrible couple of terms, full of inadequate teaching? Of course not. In fact we, teachers and new students, did very well to get the grades we did in such a short time.

Most PRUs’ rolls are so volatile that it’s meaningless to set percentage targets at the start of the year, it’s meaningless to judge overall effectiveness from percentages of exam results and it’s meaningless to judge year-on-year improvement (or otherwise) by exam results. Yet these judgments are the basis upon which inspections are built[^1].

So what can we do instead?

At my PRU we’ve always used 5 or more A-Gs as our starting point, rather than 5 or more A-Cs. This is because no matter who we have referred to us, they are all capable of passing GCSEs. Schools have always referred significantly lower numbers of A-C students than D-G students. Our A-C percentage has always depended at least as much on who is referred to us as on the quality of our teaching.

Using this as our benchmark, we have seen a huge and sustained improvement in our exam results. This is a good thing but it tells a very incomplete story. This figure alone doesn’t give any indication of how many students got Gs when they could have got Es; it doesn’t say how many students got Ds when they might only have been predicted Fs; it doesn’t say how many students ought to have got Cs or better but didn’t.

The only way of assessing success in terms of examination results is to look at individual students: look at each student’s starting point, look at his or her results and make a judgment. There is no alternative that makes any sense but even this approach is fraught with difficulties.

Which start point? Should we use end of KS2 results or the level at which the student is working when they start at the PRU (baseline assessment)? A lot will have happened between the end of KS2 and the student’s arrival at a PRU and it won’t have done his or her education much good, or they would likely still be in school. So baseline assessments often show that students have made no progress or have even gone backwards. However, education in a PRU is a lot more expensive than education in a mainstream school and, at least in part, this is because we are expected to make up this lost ground. At my PRU we use both start points. We aim for students to achieve what they would have done if all had gone well, based on their end of KS2 results. But we accept that for many students there is too much ground to make up. Baseline assessments are used in our planning so we know where to start.

Are exam results what we should be measuring anyway? I remember years ago that there was a common perception in many PRUs that PRU students shouldn’t be made to take exams at all. If they were going to be successful in exams, the argument went, they wouldn’t be out of school at all. It was cruel to put them through something that would damage their self-esteem still further. What they needed instead was care and understanding and to be helped to feel better about themselves.

The message students got from this was that they were right to think of themselves as educational failures and right to think that education had nothing to offer. It’s absolutely right that students in PRUs study for exams and leave with good, nationally recognised qualifications. It’s absolutely right that the focus of a PRU should be on teaching young people and giving them the knowledge, skills and qualifications they need to progress in life. It is also perfectly possible to teach subjects and put students in for exams whilst also boosting their confidence, caring for them and showing them understanding. In fact it all goes hand in hand.

But… many, perhaps the majority, of students who come to a PRU need a lot of help before they are ready to learn in a meaningful way. I firmly believe that this work can and should take place alongside (or even in) normal PRU lessons. This work can take months: often more time than we have with them. This means success for some students does not mean a C in English but instead means staying out of prison, staying out of care, getting his or her head straight or, sometimes, things just not getting any worse. This can’t be measured in terms of exam results. It can’t always be measured in any meaningful quantitative way at all.

What all this means is that it’s very easy for PRUs to make excuses. There is always a reason why so and so didn’t get the grades they might have been expected to get given their end of KS2 results. It also means that Ofsted and the DfE always have a stick to beat PRUs with. "Children in PRUs never get good qualifications." We’ve seen the headlines.

Where does this leave us? It means that heads of PRUs need to analyse effectiveness with honesty and integrity. Aim high and be realistic but don’t look for excuses. Have lots of detailed data but use it in the wider context. It means that Ofsted need to do the same. And that comes down to the individual inspector’s knowledge and expertise.

[^1]: The latest Ofsted guidance now specifically states that inspectors should take account of individual student circumstances in PRUs. They still seem to start with the overall figures though and it’s still worryingly reliant on your particular inspector’s whims.

In support of the Echo Chamber

You would not believe the tales I could tell. Even if you’re a teacher, if you’re in a mainstream school you still wouldn’t believe everything we have to deal with; everything the students have to deal with; the way out students are let down time after time by the people who ought to be helping them; and all the utterly insane things that happen day after day.

If I was blogging anonymously I could perhaps write about it all and even with my poor literacy skills I think I’d have quite a popular site.

I didn’t do that though and Old Andrew’s post about why he blogs anonymously has got me thinking about why.

The position I hold. As the headteacher I feel I have a responsibility to the students and staff to be open and honest with them about what I’m doing professionally. Would it matter if I wrote about them, as long as I made sure they could never be identified? Probably not, but it would make me feel uncomfortable.

Technical trepidation. I’m not convinced I could hide my tracks well enough to guarantee anonymity. I mean this in a technical sense as much as a ‘names have been changed to protect the innocent’ kind of way. If I’d been writing about students and I was found out, I’d lose my job and potentially hurt the students I’d been writing about. We’re a small centre, once the name of the centre was discovered it wouldn’t be hard to work out the identities of anyone I’d written about.

The purpose of the blog. Although I wasn’t too clear about the purpose of this blog when I started, it’s evolved into a site to promote the value of what Pupil Referral Units do. This is something I do in my day job too. I’m proud of the work we do and proud to be associated with it.

I wouldn’t have a problem if one of my colleagues was writing about what happened where I work as long as it was honest and as long as no individuals could be identified (which means the centre would have to be unidentifiable too). There would probably be the occasional story that might be embarrassing, we/I don’t have everything right all the time, but if you don’t want people knowing about what happens in the place you manage then you have a problem.

Old Andrew and other bloggers have been criticised for writing anonymously but it truly is the only way to honestly write about what happens in the classroom. And there is a need for people to do that. There is a gulf between what politicians and talking heads say happens and reality. Educational theory, management and policy making is based mostly on wishful thinking and teachers who disagree are denigrated for not wishing hard enough. But wishing doesn’t make it so.

Well done Old Andrew for setting up the Echo Chamber.

Perverse incentives

The core purpose of a Pupil Referral Unit is to either return students to school (or to prepare them for college or training if they’re older) or to keep them in school in the first place.

Since April 2013 PRUs have been receiving anything up to half their funding on a per student per hour basis (or some complicated variation thereof). Each student returned to or kept in school therefore means less money for the PRU.

This is a particular problem for small PRUs (which means most of them) because there are few economies of scale. A teacher costs the same whether they are working with one student or ten.

It is not in PRUs’ interests to perform their core purpose because to do so effectively could mean they are financially viable and so are unable to do their work effectively.

A perverse incentive.

Don’t be a compartmentalist

In a recent episode of Let’s Make Mistakes, Jared Spool started an interesting discussion about the differences between specialists, generalists and compartmentalists.

A generalist has a good knowledge of all or most of his or her professional domain. Generalist teachers can teach most subjects and are comfortable with teaching literacy and numeracy.

A specialist began as a generalist but then developed expertise in a particular field. Specialist teachers can still teach most subjects, literacy and numeracy but they also know an awful lot about, say, PE. These are the people you go to for advice and support when you need it.

A compartmentalist knows lots about his or her particular field but little about the rest of the professional domain. Compartmentalist teachers might be great Maths teachers but would never go near a literacy strategy.

It’s all too easy in secondary school to become a compartmentalist.

What I’ve learned from watching teaching

It’s a cliché (because it’s true) that it is a privilege to watch others teach. It’s an unfortunate inevitability that those who spend the least time teaching (headteachers, Ofsted inspectors) get the most time to watch other people do it. This is a terrible shame: watching good teaching is the best CPD there is.

This last year I’ve been fortunate enough to see lessons being taught in both PRUs and mainstream schools. I’ve seen English, Science, Maths, PSHE, Art and Design and Technology lessons. I’ve seen groups of thirty and groups of one; motivated students and extremely disaffected students; high ability, low ability and everywhere in between; and okay lessons, good lessons and truly inspiring lessons. What I’ve learned from all this is that, whatever the setting, the best teachers have several traits in common.

Good teachers value the work their students produce and they make sure that this is obvious to anyone who walks into the classroom. It’s not enough to just have work up on the walls. The work needs to be good quality and, more than anything else, it needs to be displayed with pride. If you, the teacher, take time and care to display your students’ best work beautifully, you show them that what they do matters. It matters to you and it will matter to them.

The same applies to marking. Good teachers spend time looking at their students’ work and this tells them that their work is important. Why should students spend time doing work that no-one cares about enough to even look at? (Who ever wants that? Who, other than me, would write a blog that no-one ever reads?)

Is it too obvious to point out that the best teachers know their students? They know what they’re good at and what they’re not so good at. They know what they’re interested in and what they are experts in. How do good teachers find this out? By asking questions, by listening, by reading their writing and by making the most of the time they get with them away from lessons.

The best lessons follow a plan and have a structure. I don’t mean they have lesson plans the length of small novels. That would make for a very poor lesson lacking in any opportunity for flexibility or spontaneity. I mean that the best teachers have thought about what they want their students to learn and how they can best learn it and they have found activities that will work. This applies both to individual lessons and to series of lessons. This used to be a lot harder than it is now, with Twitter and sites like TES providing a rich source of outstanding ideas and lessons.

Finally, the best teachers clearly love their subjects and like their students. There will always be some aspects of any subject that are harder to love than the rest just as some students are harder to like than others. There will be times, it is true, when you will have to bluff a little. But if you find you are having to bluff most of the time then you are either in the wrong job or the wrong school.

This all may seem very obvious and that’s because it is. But I’ve seen too many lessons where teachers who could be great aren’t because they don’t do these things. There is nothing here that cannot be done by an intelligent committed adult i.e. a teacher. There is no excuse for not being great.

Fund Raising

On Monday I went to a workshop about bid writing.

I know, it sounds awful. I went because, to be honest, we need all the money we can get, but I was fully expecting a very worthy but incredibly boring day. In fact it turned out to be one of the best CPD days I’ve been to and not just because of the lunch (which was incredible).

Bob Jennings knows his stuff and delivered it with passion and with heart. He related what he had to tell us to the reasons why we’re doing all this: to make our students’ lives better and to help them to learn more.

There are a lot of organisations out there who want to give money to young people and communities. If you don’t know where to start (and I didn’t) then I’d really recommend PTP Consultancy.

Here is the sketchnote I did of the day.

Fundraising Masterclass 130415 Sketchnote

Weathering the storms

Many of our students bring us chaos. They have chaotic lives, sometimes a consequence or choices they’ve made, more often a consequence of choices the adults in their lives have made. What ever the reasons, they bring their chaos with them.

Our students are like stormy seas: waves throwing themselves against the shore breaking whatever is in the way. There’s not usually a whole lot of evil intent. Just anger and frustration and lashing out. Chaos.

We have to be like the strongest sea wall: hold fast and weather the storm. We need to still be there when the waves subside.

Sometimes that can take a very long time and sometimes the lull in only temporary. But being there, still, is the single most important thing that we can do.

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