Schools that cater for some of Wales’ most vulnerable learners are not performing well enough and are often seen as an “afterthought”, the Children’s Commissioner has said.
Keith Towler said practice within the nation’s pupil referral units (PRUs) was “inconsistent” and many young people arrive in schools at a point where their issues have gone unsupported.
It comes three years after concerns about standards in a Pembrokeshire PRU - amid claims of the use of windowless, padded “time-out” rooms - first came to light.
A report published by Estyn and the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) raised questions about the quality of joint working to safeguard and protect children in Pembrokeshire’s education services.
The report investigated 25 cases of allegations of child abuse in the county’s education services by professionals, ranging from headteachers to youth workers, from April 2007 to March 2011.
The Welsh Government then issued a direction to the council to address areas of concern and to work with the advisory board in developing an action plan.
Mr Towler’s report examined the quality of education in PRUs and focussed on the views of learners, their wellbeing and their right to education.
Among his findings, Mr Towler found that practice in PRUs remains inconsistent; there is a need to change the general attitude towards PRUs; too many children and young people with additional needs arrive at PRUs at a point where their issues have gone unsupported; and staff capacity and access to appropriate training is a challenge.
Mr Towler, who will step down as Wales’ Children’s Commissioner next year, said: “Encouragingly, 53% of learners rated the help they’ve had at their PRU as excellent but staff at these establishments have told me they feel very isolated from new initiatives and good practice and are seen as a dumping ground for disadvantaged learners.
“They suggest there’s poor dissemination of information about curriculum development, difficulties in recruiting teaching staff, difficulties in securing quality alternative and vocational provision to deliver the 14-19 Pathway and the last national guidance on pupil referral units was issued over eight years ago.
“From undertaking site visits, I’ve seen first-hand that those PRUs with a strong focus on pupil wellbeing, supported by partnership working with other agencies and the commitment of staff meant that pupils there benefit from individualised packages of learning that provide them with opportunities to achieve.
“If we’re to see consistent good practice in PRUs, the status needs to be lifted from one which describes it as a ‘Cinderella service’ to one that recognises its contribution to ensuring that all children and young people achieve their full potential in education.”
PRUs are maintained by local education authorities and are organised to provide education outside a school setting for pupils who might not otherwise receive an education.
Robin Hughes, secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL Cymru, said: “PRUs are there to meet the specific needs of some learners. They make a vital contribution to meeting the range of needs that our learners have.
“In this way, they are a link in a chain, and should receive the care and attention that each link gets if the whole is to be as strong as we want it to be.”