The importance of caring relationships in Pupil Referral Units: “as soon as you enter here you get a feeling of love and support

We know that supportive consistent relationships with others can make a huge and positive difference to our lives. Yet these kinds of relational experiences are often missing for young people in the care system. The risks of fractured, inconsistent relationships and isolation increase further for care experienced young people who have been excluded from mainstream school. Therefore, it is important to consider the role of positive relationships in young people’s lives when we look at factors which might help them with their transitions out of compulsory schooling.

My current study highlights how care experienced young people spent long periods of time out of education following school exclusion. This meant that they fell behind with their academic learning, but it also exacerbated feelings of isolation. Once they had been transferred into a pupil referral unit (PRU) staff focused on making the young people feel welcomed and supported. This involved holistic approaches where close, positive relationships were built with the young people. Staff recognised the need for patience, humour and flexibility in their practice, which encouraged the young people to engage with education once more.

In terms of looking ahead to life beyond the PRUs the young people expressed mixed emotions. Many were excited about having greater independence in their lives, but they also described feelings of anxiety about their ability to cope in new environments. The PRU staff helped the young people to develop support plans for transition, which included visits to new destinations. These visits provided an opportunity to meet new staff, build familiarity with a new environment, and ask questions. Other practical tasks were also incorporated into the visits, such as helping the young people to catch public transport.   

Research has consistently shown that learners talk positively about the relationships they have had with staff in PRUs. Staff take the time to listen to the young people’s concerns, respect their needs, and look for ways of moving forward with the young people’s views at the centre. Debates will continue about the harmful impact of school exclusion and the use of alternative provision such as PRUs. Nevertheless, we should recognise what PRUs can offer to the wider schooling sector, in terms of how supportive environments and relationships are developed with those who are often viewed as ‘difficult to engage’. 

It appears that for some of the participants in this study, the act of school exclusion led to feelings of inclusion, once at a PRU. They were able to build their confidence and re-identify with education and learning. Positive social networks and inclusive environments are instrumental for improving confidence, agency and opportunities in life. We should do all that we can to ensure that these remain available to those who are most in need, as part of their journeys through and beyond the education system.

Dr Phil Smith, Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre (CASCADE), Cardiff University,

To find out more about this research please follow the link below:

Smith P. 2023. Leaving a Pupil Referral Unit in Wales: Care Experienced Young People and their Post-16 Transitions. International Journal of Educational and Life Transitions, 2(1), 1-13. DOI:10.5334/ijelt.55.