Alternative provision: Changing perceptions

Written by: Jacqueline Daniell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Society’s perception of alternative provision is changing for the better, but work still needs to be done to ensure schools support their excluded students to receive an appropriately tailored delivery of education, says Jacqueline Daniell

The launch of the Timpson Review (DfE, May 2019) and the Department for Education’s (DfE) statistics on permanent and fixed period exclusions in England from 2017 to 2018 (DfE, July 2019) show an increasing focus on exclusions and alternative provision (AP).

At first glance, the DfE statistics seem to bring good news: the increase in permanent exclusions in recent years has slowed. While this sounds positive, sadly numbers are still climbing, with pupil figures across all state-funded primary, secondary and special schools increasing from 7,700 in 2016/17 to 7,900 in 2017/18.

Permanent exclusions in secondary schools are now 0.2 per cent (two pupils per 1,000), totalling more than 20,000 pupils in the UK – this figure based on data from the DfE, Welsh government, Scottish government and Northern Ireland’s Department of Education (2016/17).

Dampening the news further, fixed period exclusions have increased by eight per cent from 381,900 in 2016/17 to 410,800 in 2017/18 with the majority of these (80 per cent) from secondary schools.

Excluded pupils are traditionally considered to be those with persistent disruptive behaviour or other anti-social conduct that cannot be tolerated in a learning environment. We associate these young people with low achievement, failing grades, slow learning and ill-adjustment, and it is true that 30 per cent of excluded students do fit this description. However, 70 per cent do not.

Thankfully, there is a changing perception of excluded students with a recognition that many may simply be young people who do not respond well to learning in a traditional school environment. In fact, some may display disruptive behaviour because they find the classroom environment uncomfortable.

Equally, alternative provision extends beyond catering for the needs of children who have been excluded; more and more students who find the traditional setting of a classroom overwhelming, problematic or have an on-going medical issue, are turning to alternative provision.

As we all know, if an exclusion is longer than five school days, it is the school’s responsibility to arrange suitable full-time education from the sixth school day, with pupil referral units being just one option.

Recognising this, government policy over recent years has introduced the concept of greater choice within education provision. At the same time, SEN Statements have been replaced by Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) which place greater emphasis on pupil and parent voice within the selection, implementation and review of specialist alternative provision and correspondingly greater oversight and control of budgets.

Whereas historically alternative provision may have been viewed negatively, it is gradually being perceived in a more positive light by learners, parents and carers as independent alternative providers develop services to meet specific demand and needs. Second, this is driving greater diversity of provision, typically closely regulated through local authority quality assurance frameworks, providing more options, which is in turn better placed to support a broader range of learners.

A quote from a young student in the Education Select Committee’s alternative provision report (2018) best summarises the changing perception of alternative provision: “If you are talking about back then, if I had thought about alternative provision ... the only reason why I would not have picked it myself is because my family would look bad. It would look bad on my side, being in one … but, being in it now and having experienced it, I would have 100 per cent chosen it.”

As the student in the quote recognised, because of society’s perception, alternative provision was not something you wanted to advertise, but thankfully things are changing. It is now being recognised as a useful and necessary service that can, in fact, be utilised to significantly improve the learning outcomes and lives of students.

Whether this is on a short-term basis for fixed term exclusions or longer term for permanent exclusions, many schools across the country are making a concerted effort to roll-out an effective alternative provision system that delivers the necessary tailored support that these children need.

The recent Timpson Review highlighted 30 areas that need to be addressed by the government to prevent exclusions damaging the lives and academic achievement of excluded students. The government has promised to act on these suggestions, including a provision to set out “plans later this year to improve outcomes for children who leave mainstream education and go into alternative provision”, and to recognise “good practice in alternative provision”, including support to “attract and develop high-quality teachers”.

Understandably, given the lack of access to funding and resources, many schools have struggled with the financial burden of implementing an effective alternative provision system. Utilising online resources allows for a level of flexibility that would be hard to recreate in other working environments. It is also a more affordable way to deliver alternative provision without cutting corners.

It is of the utmost importance that alternative provision is tailored to each individual student, given that their needs will be highly diverse. This means that if a student is suffering from complex mental health issues, has SEN or is perhaps suffering with problems at home, the appropriate professionals have been consulted with to ensure that the provisions offered to them will be able to engage the student in an effective manner. Only then can schools ensure that these students are receiving a fair and effective level of educational support.

Furthermore, alternative provision lessons must be provided by qualified teachers. It is too often the case that children who are referred find themselves being taught by people who are not fully qualified. Given that students who are enrolled in alternative provision lessons are there because they have already been confronted by challenges in their respective academic settings, this means they need more specialised support, not less. A better quality of teaching is required to deliver a better quality of learning.

Early intervention is also a large part of delivering alternative provision effectively. The earlier they get the necessary support the more likely they are to respond positively and benefit from it.

Schools also need to consider that alternative provision is ideally offered both in and out of the school setting. For some pupils, it is best delivered outside the school environment but for others, an on-site setting may help to prevent them from feeling isolated from their peers.

Thankfully we are seeing a shift from alternative provision being viewed as a method of simply extracting more problematic students out of the classroom, towards a means of delivering the specialised support that is required by either more vulnerable children or those that have struggled to cope in the traditional classroom setting.

The Timpson Review’s findings are putting greater weight on the government to pay more attention to the increasing number of excluded students, and this will naturally escalate down to schools. Now is the time for schools ensure their excluded students receive an appropriately tailored delivery of education to give them an equal opportunity to thrive in life.

  • Jacqueline Daniell is chief executive officer of Wey Education, providers of Academy21 AP.

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