Gill argues that if more research and evidence were available regarding Alternative Provision, policy makers and professionals would be better placed to support pupils in these schools:
There has been very little research into what works in engaging and improving the trajectories for excluded pupils. In fact, there is no consensus over what ‘success’ looks like in AP... the sector has very little access to an understanding of the knowledge base that does exist in the mainstream sector. Experts and practitioners interviewed for this research agreed that professional development in AP rarely focuses on teaching, assessment or pedagogy; the most common training in AP schools covers ‘positive handling’ to reduce behaviour escalation, and safe ways to physically restrain pupils.
Pushed out learners have some of the most complex needs in our education system, yet they are often left to be taught by the least qualified practitioners. As a proportion of all teaching posts in the sector, vacancy rates in special and Alternative Provision schools are 100-150% higher than in mainstream secondary schools, and the number of vacancies has increased rapidly in recent years leading to widespread use of supply teachers and unqualified teachers, such that pupils in Alternative Provision are twice as likely to be taught by an unqualified teacher, and twice as likely to be taught by a supply teacher . Research for the Department for Education by Professor Martin Mills and Professor Patricia Thomson therefore suggests that bringing more teachers into the sector is crucial in improving the quality of education in Alternative Provision, since, unlike in the mainstream, difficulties recruiting staff, rather than problems with staff retention, lie at the heart of the problem .
More appropriate accountability and oversight
Greater transparency is needed regarding where pupils are being educated since an opaque system means that at present there is little accountability and oversight when it comes to excluded young people’s education. This is a particular problem in unregistered Alternative Provision.
Re-weighting all schools’ results to include all the pupils who have been educated there, in proportion to the amount of time they have spent in that school could help, and the government has indicated that it will move in this direction. This change would also discourage schools from off-rolling their pupils and might provide a market-based mechanism for improving Alternative Provision, since schools would be incentivised to commission high quality provision. This would be an invaluable change, since most schools do not evaluate the quality of the AP they commission .
Furthermore, if mainstream schools retained accountability for pupils it might encourage them to work more closely with Alternative Providers for example by forming partnerships such as multi-academy trusts. Staff might then find it easier to move between school types and it would be easier to reintegrate pupils into the mainstream where appropriate.
On the other hand, any changes to accountability in the Alternative Provision sector should take into account the question of what we expect the sector to deliver. Parker and Levinson (2018), criticise an increased focus on academic qualifications in Pupil Referral Units, arguing that this:
...changes their purpose from being alternative to being part of the mainstream system. No longer is the intention to provide different types of environment for students who struggle to fit into mainstream settings; the purpose becomes to replicate the activity in those mainstream settings as far as possible .
Addressing pupils’ deeper, underlying difficulties may therefore be a more appropriate focus for Alternative Provision. The charity “Right to Succeed” has therefore established four principles for effective AP, which include “a strong diagnostic baseline and regular assessment of progress” and “robust, standardised measures (of a range of outcomes) where feasible”.
Exclusion should not be a one-way street, and Alternative and Mainstream Providers need to establish closer links. Professors Mills and Thomson were commissioned by the Department for Education to research good practice in the use of Alternative Provision, and - based on extensive interviews with teachers across both sectors - they concluded that close links and communication are critical.
AP providers considered that referrals worked best where full information about the circumstances of the referral were disclosed upfront; where they were able to get comprehensive information on the pupil’s background and prior attainment; where any SEND were already identified, or identified early in the transition; where there was a gradual or phased introduction to the AP setting; and where the pupil’s parents/carers and mainstream school remained closely involved. Overall, AP providers reported that referrals worked best where schools referred children directly to their settings, typically for shortterm placements. Referrals for permanent exclusions usually came through the LA. Where this was the case, AP providers received limited information about children’s needs or backgrounds and there was no opportunity for a gradual induction process .
Mainstream schools should therefore carefully vet any provision they are commissioning to make sure it is of the highest possible quality. They can then build up relationships with high quality providers and work together to prepare a “soft landing” for pupils once they arrive in AP. This could include a phased transition, pre-visits (involving parents where possible) and sharing information (not just about curriculum and where a pupil has reached in their studies, but also their interests and hobbies), so they can be made to feel at home.
Once a pupil moves into AP, it is essential to do all that is possible to avoid closing the door, so that reintegration is possible in the future if appropriate. This might mean a link teacher visiting the pupil and keeping up to date with progress and what approaches seem to be working best in meeting the young person’s needs. Réintroduction can then take place in a phased way, combined with additional monitoring, carefully planned support from a key point of contact, alongside a combination of academic and behavioural targets .
Of course, the difficulty is that many of this guidance relies on high quality, local AP being available - which it often is not. For this reason, in 2014 the National Foundation of Educational Research (NFER) and Institute of Education (IOE) provided a series of examples of how schools were innovating to increase the supply of provision; for example, by pooling resources across schools to commission new provision, or even setting up new AP within mainstream MATs. One case study highlights a partnership between a number of schools that jointly commissioned provision for pupils at risk of exclusion:
The partnership was structured as a limited company and the secondary headteachers and the college vice-principal were company directors. A company manager was employed on a part-time basis, with a key part of this role involving coordinating the monthly Fair Access Panel meeting, ensuring that the partnership collaborated to provide pupils at risk of exclusion with access to the most appropriate provision. The partnership purchased AP on behalf of its members with AP commissioned under a common contract and costs negotiated to ensure maximum value for money. Through negotiation the company had been able to secure a larger number of places at a lower cost price. A national provider was commissioned to provide full-time KS3 and KS4 AP provision. Close links existed between the commissioners and providers of AP, enhancing the oversight and monitoring of the provision. The company manager held weekly meetings with AP managers to discuss the progress made by pupils and lesson observations were carried out on a regular basis. Staff from the partnership schools had regular contact with AP providers to discuss attendance, behaviour and attainment issues.
Ultimately, if we accept that at least some pupils will occasionally need provision outside of the mainstream, and that these are likely to be some of the most vulnerable pupils with the most complex needs, effective provision of AP needs to become a far higher priority.