I recently visited an alternative education provider working in east London with young people who have been excluded from school or are struggling with mainstream education. It was fascinating to hear about the challenges their students face and the progress they can make with additional support, attention and guidance.
The NCB has a long history of working with schools and pupil referral units to improve the way we work with vulnerable children. And we shouldn’t underestimate how vulnerable they are.
Over the last two years, NCB has been working with PRUs across England to help their staff build the capacity to meet students’ mental health needs. An audit of the needs of the 268 young people attending these PRUs makes for bleak reading (see link below), and echoes some of the stories I heard in east London.
Almost half had emotional and mental health difficulties, and more than a quarter misused drugs and/or alcohol, with the same proportion involved in offending behaviour. Many of these children had potentially chaotic lives at home: one in five experienced domestic violence, a quarter had a parent with a mental health problem, and a fifth had a parent misusing substances. This is before we even start to consider the challenges they face in learning.
I am sure many readers recognise these children. Maybe you found a way, working with social care, mental health services and educational support workers, to support the child through classes, exams and the stresses of school life. Maybe you reached the end of the line and the child was excluded – or with the parents and child you decided that moving to another school or alternative education provider was the answer.
During my recent visit, I was pleased to hear that many of the students’ schools stay involved in their lives – taking an interest in their progress and development. However, I was alarmed to learn that some schools seem to disappear off the radar. This apparent disinterest is particularly concerning when we consider the lack of systems for assuring the quality of alternative provision. In 2011, Ofsted found that the quality assurance of alternative provision was patchy, with schools, PRUs and local authorities not always assessing the services they commission despite the high costs involved.
A stronger system of quality assurance is needed to ensure our most vulnerable children are getting the services they need. Current trials whereby schools take the lead on commissioning alternative provision for their pupils and continue to be accountable for them must be evaluated to assess the degree to which welfare, health and educational needs are met.
In the year 11 PRU we worked with, half the children did not have a clear post-16 destination and many were considered to be ill-prepared academically and emotionally for their transition to further education, training or employment.
When quality assurance of alternative education is so patchy, how do you know that the pupils you’ve placed in alternative provision are in the right setting, having their health, welfare and learning needs met?
Do your staff and governors understand what alternative providers in your area are offering, how they work and what outcomes they achieve for young people? And how will you work with social care, health, alternative providers and other services to ensure these vulnerable young people are supported to achieve and have a plan for the future?
Further informationTo read the NCB needs audit of 268 children at PRUs, visit www.ncb.org.uk/media/580252/matching_needs_and_services.pdf
Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau.