Quick Guide: Education after exclusion and alternative provision

Quick Guide: Education after exclusion and alternative provision


This Quick Guide sets out the procedure for providing education to a young person once they have been excluded, and what young people can expect from alternative provision .

The requirement to provide education during and after exclusion

Suspension which is five days or less

Whilst the statutory duty on governing boards or local authorities is to arrange full-time education from the sixth day of a suspension or permanent exclusion, there is an obvious benefit to the pupil in starting this provision as soon as possible. It is important for schools to help minimise the disruption that suspension or permanent exclusion can cause to a pupil’s education and therefore schools are encouraged to still provide education in the case of a suspension which is five days or less. Where it is not possible, or not appropriate, to arrange alternative provision during the first five school days of a suspension or permanent exclusion, the school should take reasonable steps to set and mark work for the pupil.

Suspension which is six days or more 

For a suspension of more than five school days, the governing board must arrange suitable full-time education for any pupil of compulsory school age. This provision is commonly called alternative provision and must begin no later than the sixth school day of the suspension. Where a child receives consecutive suspensions, these are regarded as a cumulative period of suspension for the purposes of this duty. It is important for schools to help minimise the disruption that suspension or permanent exclusion can cause to a pupil’s education and therefore schools are encouraged to provide education during the first five days.

Permanent exclusion

For permanent exclusions, the local authority must arrange suitable full-time education for the pupil to begin from the sixth school day after the first day the permanent exclusion took place.

What is alternative provision?

Alternative provision is an umbrella term that includes a range of different kinds of learning placements. Some won’t take any excluded young people; others exist primarily to cater to excluded young people. The latter category is often called "pupil referral units". However, the technical definition of a pupil referral unit is any school that the local authority has established in order to provide education to children who are out of mainstream education due to illness or other reasons.

There is often anxiety around a referral to alternative provision, particularly pupil referral units. However, alternative provision centres, like any school, vary in quality and suitability for a given individual. Some young people will find their unit beneficial, whereas others might find the same provision unsuitable. Families should be aware that if they keep a young person at home while they are registered at a pupil referral unit, they may be committing a criminal offence. Parents and guardians must make sure a child receives a full-time education that meets their needs, and if a child is not sent to school (including a pupil referral unit), the local authority's education welfare officer may take action against the parents. Parents can be fined by the local authority, and criminal proceedings may be brought against them as a result of not sending the child to school. If this is the case, they should seek the advice of a criminal lawyer as soon as possible.

This resource will set out some of the fairly typical features of pupil referral units and what a young person can expect on arrival. However, it cannot capture the spirit of every form of unit, nor can it provide advice on whether a PRU will be good for any particular young person's needs. Therefore, the most important thing is that families are encouraged to engage in the process of exploring the pupil referral unit and address concerns with the PRU’s administrators or the local authority team.

Families may want to keep in mind that some schools are aware of the reputation of PRUs. They may rely on a negative perception of the PRU to encourage families to accept a managed move or elective home education because families will know that the alternative is the PRU. This is an illegal practice for schools, and whilst families may still conclude that agreeing to a school’s request is in their best interests, they should only do so once they have a good understanding of what their PRU can offer and should never feel they must relent to pressure from the school to accept. 

If a family has anxieties about alternative provision, they should communicate these clearly to the local authority as soon as possible, rather than simply waiting it out. Practices vary between pupil referral units. However, it is fairly typical for families to be invited to speak with the headteacher or another member of staff and to look around the unit before their placement begins. It can be helpful for families to take this opportunity, attend a pupil referral unit, and understand what they can offer the child. The service that units can offer varies, and there will be cases where a family’s misgivings come from a perception that is not a true picture of the provision.

The right to alternative provision

Under Section 19(3A) Education Act 1996, alternative provision should be provided "full time" for students of compulsory school age. Perhaps confusingly, there is not a statutory definition of what constitutes "full time", so it may vary from local authority to local authority. However, the government’s statutory guidance titled Alternative Provision explains at paragraph 7 that a young person should not receive less education than they would have received in a mainstream school. The same guidance explains that a local authority can provide full-time education by placing the young person in multiple part-time provisions. 

Section 19(3A) Education Act 1996 makes an exception for children who, “for reasons which relate to [their] physical or mental health”, it is not considered to be in their best interests to be provided full-time education.

There is a requirement that the education provided is "suitable". Section 19 explains that this should mean that it is efficient education suitable to the young person’s "age, ability, and aptitude, and any special educational needs [they] may have". For post-16 education, local authorities have the power to provide alternative provision rather than a duty to provide it.

Benefits of alternative provision

Pupil referral units typically involve smaller class sizes. Students may receive a learning schedule tailored to them, rather than following one for all students. They may have access to more support from therapeutic and pastoral support workers and social services. Teachers are often trained to work with young people exhibiting behavioural difficulties.

Many pupil referral units offer courses on functional skills which can be of benefit to some students who require that support. They can also take more creative and bespoke approaches to addressing individual need which allows young people to have a course that is tailored for them.

Some young people will feel like alternative provision provides welcome relief from the pressure of large and demanding mainstream school, and delivers a learning environment that enables them to thrive with a less academic outcomes-oriented programme.

Drawbacks of alternative provision

The drawbacks of alternative provision often come from the range of academic courses offered. PRUs do not have to follow the national curriculum and often focus on core subjects. Some only offer foundational GCSE papers. Statistics regarding attainment at key stage 4 demonstrate that only a very tiny proportion of children who take their GCSE exams in alternative provision will receive a set of marks in line with the national average. Students enrolled during their GCSE years should therefore be aware that this may impact their final GCSE outcomes, particularly considering that only around 45% of students enrolled at a PRU during Key Stage 4 will move back into mainstream school in time to sit their exams.

In addition, disruptive behaviour can be more commonplace in a PRU, and some children may find that difficult to manage and distressing. Some children describe an increased presence of drugs, weapons, and gang influences. Some children and young people have reported to Just for Kids Law that a process of "institutionalisation" occurs in pupil referral units. The National Crime Agency, NSPCC, Ofsted, Barnardos, and the Children’s Commissioner have all acknowledged that young people in alternative provision are more vulnerable to criminal exploitation, and some young people may require proactive safeguarding from gang influences and the threat of trafficking.

Additionally, some young people report a sense of isolation and stigma in alternative provision, which can exacerbate feelings of social exclusion and disillusionment. Some young people report that their sense of aspiration is undermined in alternative provision by a relaxation of academic challenge and expectation. Many young people who are permanently excluded are eager to succeed academically and pursue a career of their choosing but feel that the shift in focus away from academics is an insurmountable hurdle to achieving their ambitions.

The option of pursuing a path back into mainstream provision

The bottom line is that some children will thrive in alternative provision and others will not. However, even for those who do not, they may find that the quickest way back into mainstream school is by attending a pupil referral unit. PRUs are not intended to be an indefinite placement for pupils. Their purpose is to address behavioural difficulties and facilitate pupils’ move to their next permanent placement, whether that is mainstream education, a special school, or some other form of provision. This requirement is set out in the alternative provision statutory guidance.

Some parents will opt to keep their children at home and make in-year applications to new mainstream schools from there. However, this may lead to a prolonged battle with a local authority, who may want to see a young person successfully complete a programme in a pupil referral unit before reintegrating them into mainstream schooling.

On this page

This information is correct at the time of writing, 5th September 2023. The law in this area is subject to change.

Coram Children’s Legal Centre cannot be held responsible if changes to the law outdate this publication. Individuals may print or photocopy information in CCLC publications for their personal use.

Professionals, organisations and institutions must obtain permission from the CCLC to print or photocopy our publications in full or in part.