Leading Article: 'Sin bin' reforms require a rethink

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The Independent Online

The Government deserves two marks out of three for its attempt to reform pupil referral units – known as "sin bins" to those outside the education inner circle. The appalling record of many of the current PRUs – only one in 100 pupils attending them goes on to get five A* to C grade passes at GCSE – underlines the need for change. It must be right to reform them so that they put the emphasis on offering alternative provision to youngsters in danger of exclusion before they have actually been barred from attending school. This was recommended in the White Paper published last week and emphasised in a briefing on the proposals by Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary.

The referral units will be offering an education to many more pupils in future, according to Ball, but hopefully for not as long as previously, because large numbers of young people are expected to be successfully reintegrated back into mainstream schooling. It also makes sense to widen the franchise for operating PRUs by inviting both the private and voluntary sector to make bids for taking them over. Organisations such as the children's charity Barnardo's and the Prince's Trust have good track records of dealing with troubled youngsters and excluded pupils would benefit from having them in charge.

We disagree with the Government about enabling the private sector to make a profit from operating referral units, or whatever new name they are given as a result of the consultation process. Ministers are understood to believe that the phrase "pupil referral unit" conjures up an image of failure and want to abandon it. Teachers' leaders have described giving companies the right to make a profit out of PRUs as "crossing of the rubicon".

In the mainstream schools sector and even in the academies programme, sponsors and businesses are currently not allowed to make a profit. The only way organisations such as Group4Securicor – which has said it will look at whether it will become involved – could do that is by cutting corners in the provision of services.

The record of private firms in running prisons is not a good one. Ministers should rethink this idea if they want to secure support for this reform.