Working in the education sector I have come across lots of young people who would be sent to Pupil Referral Units (PRUS) because of their behaviour (disruptive behaviour being the most common reason for exclusions). I founded Say It With Your Chest (SIWYC) to help young people not be excluded. SIWYC exists to empower young people who are at risk of school exclusion or need support with their personal development to overcome obstacles and cultivate happy, positive and fulfilling futures.
It’s because of this that I wanted to reflect on the new TV series streaming on BBC iPlayer called “ PRU”. I am sure many of you are wondering what a PRU is. Before I got into this sector, I did not understand what it was either. A PRU provides an education for children who are not attending a mainstream school due to particular circumstances. These circumstances can include permanent (or risk of) exclusion from their mainstream school for behaviour, being diagnosed with special educational needs (SEN), mental health issues and social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. It can also be that pupils that are victims of severe bullying, have long-term illnesses or pupils who are pregnant or young mothers.
Before I started SIWYC I wanted to better understand and hear from young people why they ended up in PRUs, so I decided the best way to find out would be to spend some time working in a PRU. It has always been important in my eyes to involve those who are impacted by something in the solution. So I spent over five weeks in the PRU learning from young people. Different behaviour resulted in them being sent to the PRU; for example throwing a chair, swearing at their teacher, verbally abusing other students, making silly noises and leaving the classroom without permission. But there were also key similarities in the themes that kept coming up regarding how the young people felt about their exclusion, their mainstream school and society. This included not feeling listened to at their mainstream school, feeling let down and feeling like they were disposable to society.
An image which shows the words that young people used to describe how exclusions make them feel
The young people in the PRU were great and they helped to create our first ever service, now known as the Switch Ambassador Programme. At the PRU I not only learnt about young people but I also learnt a lot about myself and the ways that SIWYC should and should not engage with young people.
So how accurate is the PRU series on BBC iplayer?
It accurately shows the important role that relationships play. For example, the young people being able to talk to their teachers about their concerns and the teachers also recognising something is wrong even if the young people don’t want to open up. In the programme there are several instances where the young people argue with each other and lash out at their teachers. I witnessed this whilst working in a PRU. Like in the programme, the key to deescalating these situations is understanding the young people’s triggers. The series also accurately showed the many situations that PRU staff have to deal with on a daily basis and how no day is the same.
The series is also accurate in its depiction of some of the behaviours displayed towards external providers/ organisations. I remember my first day at a PRU. I walked into a classroom where I was due to run a listening group. A student approached me and told me that he was going to spit on me. I stared at him and told him that I was looking forward to getting to know him more in the session. I saw this comment from him as a test, I was new and he wanted to test boundaries and see how I would react. I think he expected me to leave the room and never come back and if I am honest, I think he wanted me to do that because then it would reinforce to him that he was not worth anyone’s time. Similarly, in the series, although the external provider in my eyes is maybe a bit too laid back, he does not react to the young people’s rude comments or threats. As a result, a rapport is built.
I don’t want to spoil the series for those of you who have not watched it yet but I did want to provide an example of what did not accurately represent PRU’s. For example, the camping trip that the students go on wherein the staff leave them alone as they want to go to the pub (HELLO OFSTED AND SAFEGUARDING). I, however, believe this was simply included in the series for comical reasons.
So what changes need to be implemented in mainstream schools?
I think it is great that there is a series which gives some indication as to what PRU’s do in terms of relationship building, personal development and the sense of not giving up that they instil within their students. However, the series also highlights how let down by the mainstream school the students feel.
At SIWYC we asked students who had been excluded from all across the UK to complete the following sentence “To support young people with their behaviour schools should.. “
I’ll leave you with some of their thought-provoking responses:
“Communicate with them and not at them.”
“Take into consideration the young person’s life and how life around them might be affecting their behaviour. ”
“Not be condescending when speaking to young people and making it seem like their dumb for behaving badly when it might actually be linked to something else.”
When asked “what do you think would have helped you to stay engaged in mainstream education?” They said:
“Just someone to help me get into something. Someone there who didn’t judge.”
“Understanding why I got excluded and what could have prevented the situation from happening, also understanding what the importance of exclusion is. What do students get out of it?”
“Counselling or pastoral support. I had regular meetings with a member of pastoral staff at my next school and that really helped.”
We need to support staff with the skills and tools to support students with their behaviour to help to reduce school exclusions, that’s my mission at Say It With Your Chest.
About the Author
Sabrina Jones is the Founder and CEO of a not-for-profit called Say It With Your Chest. Say It With Your Chest exists to empower young people who are at risk of school exclusion or need support with their personal development to overcome obstacles and cultivate happy, positive and fulfilling futures. Built on the core values of empathy, belonging and equality, skills and strategies are taught to young people and stakeholders viatailored programmes. In late 2021 Say It With Your Chest was awarded a Stephen Lloyd award and in 2022 Sabrina was nominated for a positive role model award hosted by the National Diversity Awards for her work with Say It With Your Chest. Sabrina is part of the 2022 Sounddelivery Media Spokesperson Programme.
Watch the full series of Fully Focused’s comedy PRU on BBC iPlayer now.
Read PRU Exec-Producer Leah Henry’s blog on why we need to listen to the voices of young people.