Johnson’s pupil referral plan is ill-informed

Picture of a lesson (with four pupils clustered around the teacher) at Scarborough Pupil Referral UnitBoris Johnson in tough units call for young rioters - Crime, UK - The Independent

Boris Johnson has called for school children involved in the riots last week (and presumably any future similar incidents) to be removed from their school places and placed in pupil referral units (PRUs). The above article reads:

At present, only headteachers can order a child to be removed from their school and moved to a PRU.

In a letter sent to Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, Mr Johnson said: “Depriving the offender of their customary school place is something which would hit home.

“It would isolate them from their peer group during the school day, preventing bragging rights on school premises, and sends a salutary warning to other pupils that such behaviour will result in temporary ejection from the school community.

“Referring them to a PRU puts them in a unit where teachers are already skilled in addressing unacceptable behaviour but at the same time ensures that their education is continued.”

PRUs have been dubbed “21st century borstals” and host children expelled from school. There are about 420 across England and teachers can opt out of the National Curriculum.

My aunt used to run a PRU and I spent quite a bit of my time at primary school in it for my own educational reasons, as well as being a regular visitor, so I know a bit about them. They are not there to hold children as a punishment. They are there to offer some kind of education for children who, for one reason or another, cannot stay in a normal school. They include some children who are excluded for being disrupted, or who have statements of special educational needs (SEN) who are difficult to place. They also include some children who are ill (my aunt told me there had been a teenage girl with ME in her unit at one point).

It is not only headteachers who can send children to a PRU; the decision is taken by the education department. The reason children cannot be sentenced to them is because they are not part of the criminal justice system and are not meant to be. They are generally small, both in terms of class size and classroom size — my aunt’s had, as I recall, six or seven small classrooms (and a gym) which catered to pupils from the whole school age range (some have fewer — the PRU in Scarborough has only four teaching rooms). If every schoolchild who had been in any way involved in the riots last week were moved to the local PRU, it would be overwhelmed. Not all their pupils are delinquent or violent, or are involved in gangs, and some would be harmed by exposure to such people, as with anyone of a fragile disposition (such as that girl with ME).

Of course, the effect of enforced removal from school to an ill-equipped unit would doubtless have a disastrous effect on the education of those removed, particularly if they had been studying for GCSEs at the time, which might not be a good idea if we want to keep them away from a life of crime in the future. This proposal would be disastrous for everyone it would affect if it came into force and one would hope it will be treated with the contempt it deserves. It’s a wholly ill-informed, ridiculous idea.

Picture taken from the Scarborough Pupil Referral Unit website.

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