A recent news article shared the experience of a mother’s memory of her son’s exclusion when he was five years old and a visit to a Pupil Referral Unit [1].  

What is a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU)? 

PRUs are independent schools set up to provide an education for children who are not attending a mainstream school due to particular circumstances. These circumstances can include [2]: 

  • Permanent exclusion or risk of exclusion from their mainstream school for behaviour. 
  • Identified or in the process of being diagnosed with special educational needs (SEN) (To find out more on types of SEN, read our previous blogs Understanding Autism and Learning differences.) 
  • Pupils experiencing mental health issues and social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.  
  • Pupils that are victims of severe bullying. 
  • Pupils who have long-term illnesses. 
  • Pupils who are pregnant or young mothers.   

It is important to note that not all pupils fall under these categories, and there can be many reasons why a pupil may attend a PRU. Some pupils may also split their time between PRUs and their mainstream schools.    

Is a PRU suitable for all pupils? 

PRUs are not specialised schools, and pupils with severe SEN or disabilities should not be sent to a PRU permanently or long-term [2]. 

But, should there be a specific age limit where a PRU should be considered for a pupil? Is there an age that is too young? What are the effects of sending a primary school pupil to a PRU? 

“Every door was locked” during a visit… 

A mother describes her five-year-old son being excluded 17 times due to ‘defiance and violence’ before receiving an autism diagnosis. Another mother said her son, diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), was also excluded from his school when he was five years old [2].    

The mother, Mary-Ann, describes that she was told her son, Louie, “typically would wreck the room he was in” and would be called into the school to collect him. “Often, I would only just have got home from drop-off in the morning, and my phone would go, and I’d have to go back to school again. It was exhausting. At first, the school dealt with it by excluding him for a few days. However, after one incident, when he climbed a steep staircase and threatened to jump off, they decided to expel Louie. I was devastated and was constantly ringing up to try and get Louie a new school place. He’s my only child, and I wanted him to do well at school.” 

Mary-Ann did not want to send Louis to the PRU and decided to home school him for a term instead. A mother who only wants the best for her son was brought to the last resort and chose the only option she could to prevent her five-year-old son from being sent to a PRU. Parents should not have to feel pressured to agree to send their children anywhere they feel that their children’s needs would not be met. Reports conducted by Commission on Young Lives highlight the many problems with exclusion [3]. 

Commission for Young People 

The report states that primary school children should not be excluded and the Commission wishes to end the use of the term ‘Pupil Referral Unit’, which describes an old and misguided term [3].  The report also states that some schools have used tactics such as managed moves, exclusions and pressurising families to pursue ‘home education’ with vulnerable children. The former children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, says that “exclusions culture rewards removal of some of the most vulnerable children from school”.  

Longfield argues that exclusions are highly damaging to those affected and put young people at the risk of exploitation, severe violence and criminal activity [4]. “A system that has no real accountability for a five-year-old boy being excluded 17 times in a year, or where a vulnerable teenager is out of school for months or even years, is not a system that is working for every child,” 

The report calls for a ban on all primary school exclusions by 2026 and for greater effort in reducing secondary school exclusions, with all state schools in England having to report annually on the number of children who have been excluded or moved off a school’s roll [3].  Interestingly, Anne Longfield wonders “surely be no coincidence” that the majority of exclusions take place in years 10 and 11 when pupils sit GCSE exams that will impact the school’s position in league tables. 

What an exclusion does to a young person 

In England, permanent exclusions in 2019/2020 in the Autumn term increased by 20% in primary schools and 3% in secondary schools [5]. Of these exclusions, 34% were due to ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’ [5]. Exclusions from school can cause many negative impacts further down the line. Exclusions are a ‘trigger point’ where children become more vulnerable to criminal or sexual exploitation [1]. To understand more about the school to prison pipeline, check out our previous blog, which further discusses this!   

“Look behind the headlines of the tragic deaths, acts of serious violence, and criminal exploitation of our young people over recent years, and so often you see a pattern of children disengaging and falling out of school and into harm. Over recent years we have seen the growth of an exclusions culture that perversely rewards removing some vulnerable children from school roll. That must not continue.” 

“Five teenagers have been murdered in one London borough in the last year, and all of them killed by a teenager who had been excluded from school. Can this really be coincidental?”

Anne Longfield


The Commission for Young People’s Report encourages that the higher proportion of children from Black Caribbean backgrounds being excluded should be addressed. The report advises working with school leaders and parents on the treatment of Black children over issues such as adultification. The report adds that adultification “can manifest itself by black students being disproportionately targeted by ‘draconian’ zero-tolerance behaviour and uniform policies in schools”. 

A recent shocking example of adultification in the school setting that was heavily reported in the news was the treatment of Child Q, a teenage girl who was traumatised by the treatment of Met police officers. Child Q was stripped-searched while on her period.  

The adultification bias is when children are perceived as older than their age, leading some teachers to view them as less vulnerable. In particular, black children are viewed as “less innocent” and can be over-policed unfairly [6]. Longfield shows in the report that black children are subject to harsher punishments than their peers, leading to lower attainment and putting them at risk of criminal grooming outside of the classroom.  

Who are we? 

Say It With Your Chest (SIWYC) is a non-profit organisation that works with pupils at risk of school exclusion. With services such as the Switch Ambassador Programme, SIWYC employs its expertise and knowledge to empower young people in secondary school and provide them with the tools to overcome obstacles in workshops and mentoring sessions. 

Can your young people benefit from the specialised services that SIWYC can offer? Get in touch today to find out more about our services. 


[1] https://news.sky.com/story/report-calls-for-primary-school-exclusions-to-be-banned-as-children-as-young-as-five-expelled-over-behaviour-12601298 

[2] https://sendadvicesurrey.org.uk/pupil-referral-units-pru/ 

[3] https://thecommissiononyounglives.co.uk 

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/apr/29/ban-permanent-exclusions-from-english-primaries-says-ex-childrens-tsar 

[5] https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/permanent-and-fixed-period-exclusions-in-england/2019-20#dataDownloads-1 

[6] https://www.itv.com/news/2022-04-29/black-children-disadvantaged-and-over-policed-in-schools-report-warns