What is a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU)?

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There are some parts of the education system that just aren’t really talked about. This might be because they’re uncommon, because they are at a very specific level or area of study or simply because they only apply to a rather small proportion of students. The latter is true when it comes to pupil referral units, which is why you might not even have heard of them.

However, there’s no need to worry. By the end of this article, you will know exactly what pupil referral units are and much, much more.

In short, a pupil referral unit is a type of alternative provision, where students may be sent if mainstream education isn’t suitable for them. Pupil referral units may be used on a short-term or longer-term basis. This will depend on the child’s situation and what has been decided before the child starts at the pupil referral unit. Pupil referral units differ from regular, mainstream schools as they provide more support to students and are much smaller.

Continue reading for the full breakdown of what a pupil referral unit actually is. This article will take you through what pupil referral units do, why students might go to them and much more important information relating to pupil referral units.

What is a pupil referral unit in the UK?

Unlike other parts of the UK education system, a pupil referral unit isn’t mainstream and won’t even be available to every student. In fact, the vast majority of students could probably go the whole way through their education without even hearing about these, let alone understanding what they are or going to one.

In the UK, a pupil referral unit (PRU) is an alternative form of education provider for children, who aren’t able to go to school in the traditional classroom. These could be for a variety of reasons, which will be looked at in greater detail later on in this article.

While pupil referral units are a certain type of education provider, like other schools, they can be different types of school and are able to convert to a different type. For example, pupil referral units have the opportunity to turn into academies, making them into alternative provision (AP) academies.

You can learn all about what pupil referral units are by checking out this page on the government website.

What do pupil referral units do?

As previously mentioned, pupil referral units are a type of education provider for children who can’t go to mainstream schools. However, what you might be wondering is whether students end up learning the same things as they would if they were in a typical school.

Pupil referral units cater to students at compulsory school age. In the UK, this covers students between the ages of 5 and 16. You can learn more about compulsory school age in this page on the government website.

As a result, in a pupil referral unit, you may be doing either primary-level work or secondary-school level work, depending on your age and the suitability. Despite this, the majority of students that go to pupil referral units are at secondary school age.

At a pupil referral unit, they do not have to teach according to the national curriculum. This means that no, what students learn at a pupil referral unit won’t particularly be the same as what they would learn at a typical school.

However, while it may not be the exact same, it is expected that the PRU teaches a curriculum that allows these students to be in-line with and learning at the same point as their mainstream school counterparts. This means that students would still be taught in core subjects, such as English, maths, science and even IT.

Despite the fact that what is taught doesn’t completely line up with traditional schools, some students that go to pupil referral units will split their time between the PRU and a mainstream school. Although, other students will still have all of their lessons at the PRU and not split between this and another school.

You can learn more about all of this by checking out this article by The School Run. For more information about what is actually taught at a PRU, check out this article from York St John university.

Why would a child go to a pupil referral unit?

As mentioned above, there are a variety of reasons why a student might not be able to go to school in the traditional sense and thus may need to go to a pupil referral unit (PRU). While each of these situations and types of students are very different, the main common denominator is that they are all seen as needing more support than a traditional school would be able to provide.

Look at the following list to see some of the different situations/ groups of students who might need to go to a PRU.

  • Students that have been permanently excluded from their school due to behavioural issues.
  • Students who experience severe emotional or behavioural difficulties, such as with mental health issues, anger issues and school anxiety or even school refusal.
  • Students who have experienced severe bullying.
  • Students who have certain medical conditions, whether short or long term, that make going to traditional school difficult.
  • Students who have been diagnosed with special education needs.
  • Students who are pregnant or who have become teenage mothers.
  • Students who have missed out on a place at a traditional school.

You can learn more about this by checking out this article by The School Run.

Do you have to go to a pupil referral unit if you’re excluded in the UK?

In the UK, students may be excluded for a limited amount of time, or they may be excluded permanently. After this, the student and their parents will be brought in to discuss the next steps for the student. For more information about this, check out this page on the Childline website.

These next steps will obviously depend on whether it was a permanent or temporary exclusion and how long this would be for. If the student has been excluded on a temporary basis (suspended), they will not need to go to a pupil referral unit as long as it is for 5 days or less. In this case, the school is still responsible to make sure that the child is still getting schoolwork and that they are marking this so that the pupil’s education can continue.

If they have been temporarily excluded for 6 days or more, a pupil referral unit may be necessary. However, there may also be other options as it is in the hands of the local council to ensure that the student is getting suitable alternative education from this 6th day.

In the case of a permanent exclusion, a pupil referral unit once again might be necessary. If a child has been permanently excluded, then the local council will help to find the student a new school.

Legally, the local council will once again need to get the child placed at this new school by the 6th day of their permanent exclusion. To ensure this happens, the child may have to go to a pupil referral unit temporarily until they get a place at a new school.

Also, depending on the circumstances of why they were permanently excluded, a child may need to go to a pupil referral unit on a longer-term basis. This is because it may be better suited to them than a mainstream school.

You can learn more about all this by checking out this guide from Bradford Council.

Can you refuse a pupil referral unit?

In the UK, a pupil referral unit is still a type of school. While it obviously has some major differences to an ordinary school, there are also some things that are fundamentally the same, especially when it comes to the legalities.

Refusing to go to school or refusing to send your child to school can lead to some serious consequences, this applies both to a regular mainstream school as well as pupil referral units. Thus, no, you can’t just refuse to go to a pupil referral unit if you’re already registered at one.

In this case, parents/ guardians will be contacted about the student’s absence by the PRU that the student is registered at. They will try to offer support to help the child be able to come to school.

However, if it continues, leading to an attendance of 90% or less, the local council will then be contacted. This can have a variety of legal consequences, such as fines and potentially even jail time if it gets more serious and parents don’t comply.

You can read more about all this by checking out this Think Student article. For more specific information about PRUs, check out this guide by Just for Kids Law.

Despite this, both the child gets referred to a pupil referral unit, the parents or guardians and child themselves will be a part of the decision. This means that before the decision is finalised to send the child to a PRU, you can refuse for you or your child to go. You can learn more about this by checking out this page on the East Riding Council’s website.

What is the difference between a pupil referral unit and alternative provision?

When doing research into pupil referral units, there are quite a few terms that might get a little confusing and you might find yourself struggling to work out what the difference is between them. This is particularly the case for the terms “pupil referral units (PRUs) and alternative provision (AP).

In the UK, there term “alternative provision” is an umbrella term that covers different forms of education, included in these are pupil referral unit. Therefore, the difference between a pupil referral unit and alternative provision is that a pupil referral unit is a type of alternative provision among other types, such as forms of alternative provision that may be within maintained schools, academies and free schools.

You can learn more about this, by looking at this page on the government website. You can also look at the next section to learn a little bit more about exactly what alternative provision is.

What is alternative provision?

Alternative provision is education arranged by local authorities that is meant to provide children with suitable education, where their circumstances wouldn’t have otherwise allowed for it. It is also defined as the education arranged by schools to cover for a fixed term suspension as well as off-site education services, where students are directed to by their schools in order to improve their behaviour.

You can learn more about this definition by checking out this guide by the government.

Therefore, as you can see alternative provision is a form of education that is the responsibility of local authorities but also of schools, in other circumstances. This makes it a rather complex topic as there is so much involved in it.

As a result of there being so much involved, there are also many different forms of alternative provision as previously mentioned. While we’ll look at these in more detail in the next section, it can be good to see where pupil referral units stand in all this.

Out of all the forms of alternative provision, pupil referral units are the most common type. This is likely due to the number of pupils that attend PRUs at some point of the academic year compared to other forms.

For more information about this, check out this article by The School Run.

What are the types of alternative provision?

As previously mentioned, pupil referral units are only one type of alternative provision. In order to better understand pupil referral units and how they differ from alternative provision as a whole, we also need to look at some of the other types of alternative provision to see how they differ from these.

Look at the following list of examples of alternative provision. The following list was taken from this article by Progress Education.

  • Youth centre settings
  • Sports facilities
  • Outdoor learning centres
  • Forest schools
  • Animal-assisted therapeutic centres
  • Vocational and practical settings
  • Community centre settings

You can learn more about some of these in the following sections.

Youth centre setting vs pupil referral units

While it may sound like this type of alternative provision, is simply where students go to youth centres, it’s a bit more official than that. These youth centre facilities will most likely have their own alternative provision school.

Due to this, this form of alternative provision is very similar to that of a PRU. However, these are strictly short-term alternative provision types, not long-term as well, like PRUs. You can learn more about this, by checking out this page on the Spaces website.

Outdoor learning centres vs pupil referral units

As a form of alternative provision, an outdoor learning centre can help re-engage students in learning and build their self-esteem in their own abilities. There can also be literacy and numeracy embedded in outdoor activities so that the child’s education can still continue in this alternative form.

However, this may not be a full-time solution and students may also be attending a pupil referral unit or even a mainstream school at the same time. You can learn more with this page from the Groundwork website.

Forest schools vs pupil referral units

A forest school is a type of schooling approach, where the learning is focused on the child and children are able to get a hands-on learning experience in a natural environment. It is meant to be a longer-term form of alternative provision, unlike how PRUs can be either short or long term.

However, other than its intended timescale, forest schools are still quite similar to pupil referral units as both are official types of school. Due to both being nature-focused, it can also have some parallels to outdoor learning centres and is likely to be suitable to the same types of children.

You can learn more about these by checking out this article by Plymouth Marion University.

Animal-assisted therapeutic centres vs pupil referral units

As previously mentioned, alternative provision is meant to provide suitable education for students, where this wouldn’t otherwise be possible for them in mainstream education. While therapy doesn’t seem like it would count, it may be suitable and even essential for the child’s needs.

Animal-assisted therapy is a form of alternative provision that would particularly be for children with mental health issues of special education needs (SEN). You can learn more about it by checking out this guide by Huggle Pets in the community, an animal-assisted therapy company.

Therefore, it’s fairly different to pupil referral units as it is a much more specialised form of alternative provision and wouldn’t be suitable for all types of students who need alternative provision.

Vocational and practical settings vs pupil referral units

In mainstream education, vocational courses can be taught, where students are taught with a more hands-on approach. This can be in the form of BTECs, T-Levels and even apprenticeships. You can learn more about vocational courses in this Think Student article.

When it comes to alternative provision, the vocational learning isn’t just classroom-based, it can be in an actual working environment. These may include settings, such as a car mechanic or a hairdresser.

With a vocational or practical setting, students would be able to experience a vocational education within a specific area. This would enable them to develop more skills for going into the working world.

These are a very different type of alternative provision to pupil referral units as these aren’t official types of school. Thus, allowing students who get sent to this type of alternative provision, a very different kind of education.

How many students go to pupil referral units?

Pupil referral units are the most common type of alternative provision used in the UK. Due to this, you might be wondering just how common pupil referral units really are.

For the 2019/20 academic year, there were 15,396 pupils, who had attended a pupil referral unit at some part of the year in England. In isolation, this figure can be difficult to decipher.

Is it a high proportion? Is it quite a small proportion? Without the needed context, this is unclear.

For the same 2019/20 academic year, there were 8,890,357 pupils in schools in England. This applies to all of primary schools, secondary schools and special schools as well.

As this figure is so much larger than that of the pupil referral unit student numbers, it shows just how small of a proportion of students actually go to these schools.

However, this is also partially due to how there is a much smaller capacity for students as more support needs to be provided and so the ratio of teachers to students is also much higher than for regular schools. In fact, for the largest PRUs, the capacity is only around 120 students. You can learn more about this by looking at this article by The Independent.

Moreover, the mean average for the number of children attending pupil referral units for each region of England for the 2019/20 academic year was 1,711. To put this into context, this is lower than the total number of pupils in some schools.

This stark difference between the number of pupil referral unit students and the number of students in total is quite typical and not just true for that academic year. Look at the following table to see how the figures of pupil referral unit students in England compare to the total number of students in England between 2017/18- 2019/20.

Academic year Number of students in pupil referral units in England Number of students in total in England
2019- 2020 15,396 8,890,357
2018- 2019 16,134 8,819,288
2017- 2018 16,732 8,735,098

You can learn more about the figures of students in pupil referral units by checking out this guide by LG Inform. To learn more about the number of students in schools in England, check out this page on the government website.

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