AP and PRUs: The real picture

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
Deborah Lawson, general secretary, Voice

Much has been said of late about the role of alternative provision and PRUs – in the context of knife crime, off-rolling and exclusion. Deborah Lawson looks at the real picture...

Last year, the Education Select Committee published Forgotten children: Alternative provision and the scandal of ever-increasing exclusions. Since then, pupil referral units (PRUs) and other alternative provision (AP) have not been far from the headlines, most recently with the Timpson Review of School Exclusion (DfE, 2019).

Schools have been accused of “off-rolling” and dumping “inconvenient” children with behaviour problems into AP. A notably high proportion of pupils move in the middle of exam studies, but only around half reappear on another centre’s register.

There are many genuine reasons why children attend AP: medical needs (including mental health), pregnancy, SEND, exclusion, non-attendance, criminal convictions, arriving from another area without a school place, to be engaged in vocational training...

According to some in the media, AP and PRUs are “schools for knife crime” where pupils learn to shoplift, take drugs and become involved in gangs and crime. But our members report a picture of hard-working professionals committed to the protection and education of young people. So why do some continue to promote a negative image while ignoring both the good work in AP and the drivers pushing mainstream schools to exclude (such as the accountability regime and the funding crisis)?

Education secretary Damian Hinds has warned against making “a simple causal link” between exclusions and knife crime, pointing to a 2018 Ministry of Justice study showing that four-fifths of those found carrying a knife before the end of secondary school had never been permanently excluded.

In its response to Timpson, the government recognised “good practice in AP”, promising “plans later this year to improve outcomes” (DfE, 2019). We urge the government to follow through on this commitment and not park them indefinitely. To address negative perceptions and inform the debate, Voice is surveying those who work in AP, those who refer pupils, and parents and students. Initial results paint a diverse picture:


Assaults on staff, including those in SEN provision, take place with alarming frequency. Staff have been kicked, punched and had bones broken, yet it is not unusual for those staff to be suspended for restraining pupils, even though they use prescribed Restrictive Physical Intervention techniques.

Staff should receive not only appropriate training, but support to manage behaviour, ensuring their own and pupils’ safety.


AP experiences the same funding issues as other schools, but a further worrying factor that is emerging is the deterioration in some areas of links between mainstream and AP, with some respondents blaming the rise of academies and the demise of local authority co-ordination and provision.


Those who work in AP acknowledge that it is a stressful environment but reflect a generally positive view, suggesting support options that would enable pupils to remain in mainstream education and writing of job satisfaction in terms of “making a difference”. Staff report the benefits of working with highly motivated, qualified and supportive colleagues.

Join the debate

It is time that politicians, the media and wider society were given a greater awareness of what really happens in AP. It is time to celebrate student outcomes that, for whatever reason, were not possible in mainstream education.

It is time for politicians to address the accountability and funding drivers pushing mainstream schools to exclude, as well as the need for more funding, more specialist training in emotional and behavioural difficulties, and more mental health support across the education sector.

  • Deborah Lawson is general secretary of Voice.

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