Case study: Working closely with your PRU

Written by: Aileen Morrison | Published:
Never give up: The mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, during a recent visit to meet staff and students at the St Matthias Park PRU (Image: Barbara Evripidou)

Close working between secondary schools and local PRUs can have a big impact on exclusion rates – something which has been demonstrated recently in Bristol. Aileen Morrison, head of St Matthias Park, discusses how better relationships and a focus on working together is achieving success

In Bristol we hit “peak exclusions” last year, with numbers rocketing to the point where almost three out of four of students were coming to us through this route.

So far this academic year, we have had only referrals rather than formal exclusions from the city schools.

It is not that young people are no longer experiencing difficulties and crisis during their school careers, but that we have all become more adept at recognising that permanent exclusion is too blunt and harmful as a tool.

In the last 12 months, all Bristol schools have recognised that opportunities may have been missed to tackle some of the underlying issues that led to disruptive behaviour. Working together is changing the role of PRUs from the place of last resort to a positive opportunity to embrace change for a student.

St Matthias Park operates across two sites in east, central and north Bristol, serving areas that feature in the bottom 10 per cent of the national multiple deprivation index. We provide education for pupils aged 11 to 16 who have, for a variety of reasons, struggled at mainstream school and have been at risk of permanent exclusion. Our aim is to give students the best possible chance to refocus and pick up their school career after a successful placement with us.

Breaking the ‘system’

Five years ago I think it was fair to say that there was some mistrust among Bristol schools and not all secondaries were participating in offering “fresh starts” (negotiated transfers).

There was a general lack of overview and we found ourselves over our numbers and managing students who had already reached crisis point. Not enough pupils, especially at key stage 4, managed to transfer back into mainstream and it felt like there was a general lack of accountability for our most vulnerable students.

The breakthrough has come with the introduction of Bristol Inclusion Panel in June 2016 and the realisation that the very mixed economy of schools means that the local authority is not in the best position to solve all the problems alone.

In Bristol, you will find free schools, maintained schools, academy chains and independent academies as well as converted private schools and faith schools. Spurred on by the Bristol Association of Secondary Heads, a joint commitment was fostered, aided by a visit to Portsmouth for some fresh ideas.

Honesty and respect

As well as city-wide desire for tackling permanent exclusions and a new forum for making it happen, positive relationships between schools and PRUs help make every placement work.

As a result of this experience, my top tips for making the most of your local PRU are:

  • Be honest. We are upfront with schools about the pupils we are referring to them with strategies and similarly we expect a full picture of the pupils coming to us.
  • Consistency and reliability. We have worked hard to earn the respect of mainstream colleagues and it is great to see it reciprocated.
  • Get involved strategically. It helps to get to the meetings where alternative provision is discussed and advocate for those pupils with challenging behaviour.
  • Boost your CPD by being on a management committee or taking part in visits. We have three deputies from mainstream secondaries on ours and they add a welcome perspective.

I think regular interaction between our staff and the staff of up to 21 secondaries we could be liaising with is essential. Even with schools where we don’t have regular referral discussions, the city-wide inclusion meetings have been vital for networking and are often backed up with invitations to visit us. Our staff are encouraged to use their CPD time in a variety of mainstream settings.

Department of one

One of the exciting and challenging aspects of leading a PRU is that no two terms are the same. Cohorts and needs change rapidly and the vast majority of our pupils are from at least one vulnerable group based on their family situation, ethnicity or poverty.

Not many mainstream teachers realise that unlike alternative learning providers we employ mostly fully qualified, specialist teachers.
At St Matthias Park, 85 per cent of the curriculum is delivered by qualified teachers with learning mentors and additional staff for attendance and behaviour support and independence guidance. However, it’s not easy as a PRU teacher being the subject lead in a department of one. My teachers welcome the chance to visit subject hub meetings and to observe and share planning and moderation with mainstream colleagues. Call in at your local PRU – you’ll be very welcome.

  • Aileen Morrison has been the head at St Matthias Park for three years, having started as a supply teacher in 2006 and progressing to SENCO and assistant head. During her time at the school she completed an MA in Raising Attainment in City Schools and gained the national SENCO qualification. Her teaching career has taken her to schools in Spain, the Czech Republic and Germany.

Exclusions in Bristol

  • Bristol recorded 29 permanent exclusions for the first two terms of 2015/16. For the same terms this year there was one.
  • St Matthias has 60 places across two sites.
  • Most excluded pupils are now from neighbouring local authorities.
  • Pupils are assessed on entry then at every six weeks until their leaving date.
  • Data from previous schools show that 88 per cent did not make progress between key stage 2 and assessment prior to referral.
  • A large majority of students who are at the PRU for year 11 leave with a destination of employment, education or training.
  • Of the 102 pupils on roll during 2015/16, 45 per cent had a statement of SEN or were being assessed for this while at the PRU.

An honest and open dialogue

Henbury School has a long-standing relationship with St Matthias Park and has recently benefited from a their satellite school opening in their area. Until recently Henbury was permanently excluding three to five pupils a year.

Headteacher Clare Bradford believes that a good working relationship between her school and the PRU gives her and her staff the confidence to make early referrals to them.

She explained: “Every permanent exclusion feels like a failure for that young person, especially when you consider that 42 per cent of the prison population experienced this at school.

“At St Matthias we’ve got to know the staff really well and can have an honest and open dialogue with them. This works both ways for us – we’re confident about the young people who might continue their mainstream education with us and that those students we place there will have a positive fresh start.

“For me their success at this is largely because they run it like a mainstream school. A placement at St Matthias is not too much of a massive change from school life but there is a concentrated focus on the individual student.

“They are really good at moving things through as quickly as possible – it benefits no-one if students are not looking at moving back to mainstream. St Matthias are also really good at helping with the settling process if we take their students. We know that students who come to us will have a good chance of succeeding with the rest of their school career.

“A permanent exclusion is a very public expression of rejection and failure. It involves education officials, families and governors and feels very different to taking a young person on a path of agreed early referrals as we are now in Bristol. I firmly believe that this works in everyone’s favour in the long-term.”


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