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The Call: “We never give up on our children”

July 11, 2022, 6:05 GMT+1
Read in about 8 minutes
  • Steve Howell describes the recent Ofsted inspection on the City of Birmingham School
The Call: “We never give up on our children”

Ofsted inspectors visited the City of Birmingham School, a pupil referral unit, in March 2022. This is what happened…


We didn’t really a great deal of formal preparation time ahead of the inspection, though we were cognisant of the framework and our school improvement plan, and generally the direction that the school was going.

We had recently already carried out a quality assurance review with the head of curriculum to ensure that our offer to pupils was well-sequenced.

I had anticipated we would get the call this year, so I had made a point of speaking to other heads of PRUs and alternative providers to find out what they had been asked and what Ofsted wanted to focus on.

It was an opportunity for me to consider on what aspects of our school we’d want to throw the headlights and what we wanted to get across.

We had already worked with a school improvement adviser, who carried out practice sessions ahead of a possible inspection, outlining what staff might be asked and what their responses might be. We were grateful for this input as an inspection can be very daunting for everyone concerned. 

Ofsted’s focus

We received the call at 9.30am the day before the inspectors arrived, and we were visited by four inspectors over two days.

They were long, full-on days lasting from 8am until about 6pm. However, I felt we were fortunate to get the call so early in the day, as some schools receive it in the afternoon. It meant we had an additional 4-5 hours to prepare and get everything together.

We were asked for files of information on certain types of students - for example, those with special needs - and this can be quite a big administrative job, so we were pleased to have some additional time. 

The inspectors were obviously very focused on teaching and learning, which is in line with the framework and that really formed the bulk of the inspection.

They were particularly looking at our provision for English, maths, science, art and PHSE, and we were able to tell them about our objective – which is that every student should leave with qualifications. 

The inspectors were also interested in attendance, but they understood the challenges we face as a PRU, so their focus was not necessarily on the context of percentages and data, but what safeguarding strategies we have in place when students are not here.

We are not unusual as a PRU in having attendance rates in the 60% range, but they looked at this very much through the prism of safeguarding.

As part of their focus on safeguarding, they visited the three alternative providers that our school uses to deliver part of the curriculum to review the quality of safeguarding and commissioning and provision.

A third focus was on students’ personal development. Being a PRU we have pupils who have significant vulnerabilities, including getting involved in gangs.

Their interest was less of a generic look at personal development, and more related to the specific challenges around living in a big city, with many different types of communities and with students coming from a wide variety of backgrounds. 

It helped hugely that one of the inspectors had experience of an alternative provision setting and the other three were from SEND backgrounds, so they had a very good understanding of the needs of the pupils and the challenges they face.

I believe that Ofsted needs more inspectors with this experience to ensure that settings such as ours can feel reassured that they understand the challenges, particularly around issues such as behaviour. Some of our pupils show difficult behaviours so it is helpful when inspectors are not outraged at what they might be seeing.

What went well

Ofsted liked the design of our curriculum, which has the needs of children at its core and the fact we are ambitious for their prospects. We offer a good range of GCSE subjects, which not all PRUs are able to do, and we’ve been doing this for about five years now. 

They were also impressed with the leadership and management across the school and the ambitious and strategic approach we have towards driving forward improvement.

The inspectors also mentioned safeguarding and recognised we have a relevant approach to this and that this, and behaviour management, is among our strengths. 

Where we can improve

The main areas of improvement identified by inspectors were around meeting the needs of children with SEND, in particular the speed with which we find out about their needs and how we meet those in the classroom.

Although the word ‘differentiation’ was not used, this is really what they were referring to – meeting individual needs and tailoring provision. 

Another area for improvement was the curriculum, which they said was still being delivered inconsistently in parts of the school, and support for pupils who had entered the secondary sector with poor reading skills.

Monitoring attendance was another area to address and getting children to attend more regularly and knowing what they are doing when they are not here. We were able to reassure the inspectors that we work with relevant agencies, do home visits and have regular meetings with parents, and that we have a plan in place for monitoring this.

What Ofsted asked

How has your school changed since the last inspection?

We have re-designed our curriculum and use new strategies to support behaviour management. The school has also been reorganised into seven sites, based on key stages, since we were last fully inspected in 2018.

How do you know children are safe when they’re not in school?

We work closely with a wider network of other agencies and support services, carry out home visits and pay for taxis to bring them to school. In short, we never give up on our children.

How do you ensure your curriculum is ambitious?

This was a recurring theme in the inspection and we were able to say that we have an expectation that pupils will do GCSEs or BTecs. Our curriculum is based on mainstream education, and this has been the policy for the last five years.

How do you meet the specific needs of students?

Pupils sometimes arrive with limited information so we assess their needs, gaps in their knowledge and any other needs they may have. We then aim to structure our lessons, curriculum and teaching to meet these needs.

City of Birmingham School is the City Council’s Pupil Referral Unit and has 430 pupils on roll. In its most recent Ofsted inspection, in March 2022, the PRU was given a judgement of ‘Requires Improvement’, but inspectors noted it was ‘Good’ in the areas of behaviour and attitudes, personal development and leadership and management.