22 January 2019
Debate on pupil referral units

Nadhim Zahawi responds to an Adjournment debate on pupil referral units.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) on securing this important debate. He speaks from experience of his local PRU and the work it does with the local community, businesses and of course families to deliver good outcomes. I am aware that the Bolton Impact Trust has been in discussion with the Department about the funding issues and I will write to my hon. Friend on that.

Alternative provision can offer a lifeline to some children and their parents, such as through smaller classes and more tailored support from teachers, helping them flourish, and I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for raising the issue of children who may be very unwell. It is vital that young people in alternative provision, including those in pupil referral units, receive a high quality education and are able to fulfil their potential. We need to be just as ambitious for pupils in alternative provision as we are for those in mainstream schools.

We have deliberately maintained a flexible approach to the funding of alternative provision, as we understand that local authorities discharge their responsibilities for those who are not in school in different ways. We expect local authorities to explore the most effective arrangements for alternative provision commissioning and funding in their area. They should always take account of the needs of local schools in determining the demand for alternative provision and how it is delivered, and encourage schools to think collectively about their use of AP, including the consequences of the decisions on excluded pupils.

Many local areas have developed strong partnership arrangements that seek to share responsibilities across schools for AP commissioning and funding. Local authorities and schools should be aware of the cost of maintaining good quality AP in different settings and be able to make placement decisions on the basis of the cost and quality of what is on offer. There should be informed discussions in the local schools forum about how AP is funded. Funding for pupil referral units is normally provided as place funding and top-up funding. Funding of £10,000 per place is supplemented by top-up funding from the commissioner of the place.

Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

Could the Minister outline what funding is provided for pupil referral units and alternative provision in order to provide the important inreach work being done in mainstream schools to support kids so that they do not end up in a pupil referral unit in the future?

Nadhim Zahawi

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. I hope that my remarks will continue to deal with the issue of funding and how much investment we are making.

As I was saying, the funding of £10,000 per place is supplemented by top-up funding from the commissioner of the place. Both the number of places to be funded and the amount of top-up funding are matters that are decided locally. Top-up funding is the funding that is required in excess of the £10,000 place funding to reflect the full cost of the provision needed, depending on how long the pupil is expected to be in the unit and on other local factors. It can also reflect costs that enable those units to remain financially viable, which goes to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West’s point. It is important that places are available when they are needed.

In our operational guidance, we have advised that commissioning local authorities and schools should carefully consider the top-up funding arrangements to ensure that there are no perverse incentives and that the funding achieves the intended outcomes. It is possible to develop a top-up funding system that more closely reflects the achievement of the desired outcomes, as a way of encouraging high quality AP. For example, an element of the payment could be withheld from the pupil referral unit until the pupil returns to his or her mainstream school or achieves another outcome.

Funding for AP comes primarily from the high-needs block of the dedicated schools grant, based on local authorities’ reports of their spending. The Department estimates that around 10% of its high-needs budget is spent on AP. The proportion of spend on AP from the high-needs budget has remained roughly stable in the past few years. Last year, local authorities reported approximately £632 million of expenditure on AP, including on pupil referral units. However, schools are also able to commission AP places and services directly, and when a school does this, it is funded from its delegated share of the school block, which the local authority distributes to it through its local formula. Last year, the core schools and high-needs budget was almost £41 billion. This is set to rise to £43.5 billion next year. While more money is going into our schools, including into the high-needs block, we recognise the budgeting challenges that schools face and that we are asking them to do more.

Acknowledging that and the cost pressures on local authorities, and because children only get one chance at a great education, the Government have prioritised and protected schools and high-needs spending even while having to make difficult public spending decisions in other areas. Last month, we announced £250 million of additional funding for high needs over this financial year and the next, bringing the total high-needs allocation to £6.1 billion this year and £6.3 billion in 2019-20. We have listened to the particular concerns expressed by many local authorities and others, including Members of this House, about high-needs budget pressures, and additional investment will help local authorities to manage those pressures.

However, while funding is important, which is why we have protected the core schools budget in real terms per pupil from last year to next, funding is just one part of the story, because what happens to the money and the quality of AP are both important. That is why my Department is committed to reforming alternative provision and set out its plans for doing so in a reform road map last March. The plan for reform set out the aspirations of strengthening partnership arrangements for commissioning and delivering AP and the steps we are taking.

We are providing a stable evidence base for the reforms. The Department contacted Isos Partnership to undertake research into local AP markets. The research, published late last year, looked at the range and efficacy of different AP commissioning and funding models. It sought to engage local authorities, schools and AP across the country and shows that some areas are developing effective commissioning and funding arrangements between local authorities, schools and alternative providers to ensure that suitable provision is made for children with additional needs.

In Bath and North East Somerset, for example, funding from the high-needs block is devolved by the local authority to six behaviour and attendance panels across the area. These panels of primary and secondary heads are responsible for co-ordinating in-year admissions, supporting children at risk of exclusion, and managing referrals into alternative provision. The vast majority of schools in Nottinghamshire belong to schools partnerships, which receive high-needs funding from the local authority for both alternative provision and SEN support. When a school in Nottinghamshire excludes a pupil, the cost of their placement in alternative provision is recovered from the school or partnership in question. That system has resulted in an inclusive school system, with a low incidence of permanent exclusion—less than half the national average.

To build on what we have learnt of such arrangements, the Department announced its intention last month to launch a call for evidence to understand better the financial incentives that can affect decisions within the wider high needs funding system, including decisions relating to alternative provision, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West rightly highlighted. We are also investing £4 million into an innovation fund for AP. This externally-evaluated fund is supporting nine innovative projects, from across the country, to understand more about how to improve outcomes for children in AP. The initiatives focus on supporting children in AP to make good academic progress and successful post-16 transitions, reintegration into suitable mainstream or special school placements, and increasing parental or carer engagement.

We are committed to protecting all children from exploitation and abuse, whether from county lines, gang activity, or sexual abuse, which is why this Government have invested £3.6 million in a new national county lines co-ordination centre as one of the key commitments in the serious violence strategy. The Department is also providing up to £2 million for a new national response unit to help local authorities support vulnerable children at risk of exploitation by criminal threats. Good discipline in schools is essential to ensure that all pupils can benefit from the opportunities provided by education. The Government absolutely support headteachers in using exclusion as a sanction, where warranted. It is equally important that the obligations on schools are clear and well understood to ensure that any exclusion is lawful, reasonable and fair.

A review of exclusions, led by Edward Timpson, is under way. The review is considering how schools use exclusion and how it affects all pupils, but it is particularly considering why some groups of children are more likely to be excluded. The review will report its findings early this year, with the Department’s response to follow.

Vicky Foxcroft

The Minister said that he would return to the point about the inreach work that PRUs do with mainstream education and about how much funding is allocated towards that work. I have listened with great intent, and I do not believe I have heard that question answered.

Nadhim Zahawi

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for coming back on that point, which I was about to address. Local authorities can make arrangements for the supply of specialist support for mainstream schools by staff working in pupil referral units. The Department’s innovation fund has funded projects that include such measures and links between AP and schools. If she is unhappy with my response, and if she writes to me about a specific case, I will be happy to look at that as well.

I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West and the hon. Member for Strangford, who is no longer in his seat, for contributing to this debate. I also pay tribute to the hard work of schools and local authorities, which continue to give their best and to raise the standards of our education system.