The Education Committee assembled today to talk about Alternative Provision (AP) – which is when children are taught outside of the mainstream school setting. There are currently 78,000 pupils in AP, and there are concerns about whether or not excluding them from mainstream education is in their best interests, or that of the school.
Talking to the committee were experts in AP including Kiran Gill, founder of The Difference who has recently published key research, Making the Difference: Breaking the link between school exclusion and social exclusion for the Institute for Public Policy Research; Professor David Berridge, Professor of Child & Family Welfare, University of Bristol and Philip Nye, a researcher at Education Datalab.
The meeting was chaired by Robert Halfon MP.
The main issues of AP
Kiran Gill said that she was pleased the spotlight was being shone on AP. Previously pupil referral units had been run by local authorities and the aim was to reintegrate a child back into mainstream provision, or allocate specialist provision for those of greatest need. Concerns have arisen over pupils who are finding themselves excluded from school shortly before taking their GCSEs, which may be for the benefit of the school (it’s been shown that relatively few pupils can adversely influence the outcome of an Ofsted inspection, a Progress 8 score and the school's league table position) rather than in the interests of the pupil.
David Berridge added that teaching challenging pupils is not straightforward, and that some children benefit from smaller schools where they have specialist teachers who are equipped to deal with emotional behaviours. The key was to ensure any AP is to benefit the pupil and not the school.
Philip Nye said that exclusion and being in AP are not synonymous, and there are many reasons why children may need a specialist educational setting.
Filling the gaps in what we know about AP
Kiran Gill raised the concern that, against that understanding of AP, there are issues within the sector such as gaps in data around sub-contracted educational institutions who are not registered with Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, or with the Department for Education, including key information like the number of pupils they are educating. She added that there is significant overlap between children in care and children with mental ill health. She suggested that teacher training would be needed to recognise behaviour in pupils that is in need of therapeutic intervention.
The committee was informed that uncertainty in the sector may have arisen as a result of schools becoming more autonomous from government and making their own decisions about who they teach. This leads to children moving around within the AP sector, some of whom are unaccounted for, and that this is an important issue to address. Robert Halfon suggested that the data should be better-tracked and that everyone from schools to AP providers should publish their figures on exclusion. David Berridge said that is supposed to happen, but Ofsted has found that some schools game the situation.
Why the dramatic increase in children in AP in the last 3 years?
The question was raised by chair Robert Halfon, and a number of reasons were suggested.
- There are overlapping challenges for some children who may be increasingly vulnerable, and not all teachers have the skills or training to recognise it.
- Permanent exclusions are up by 18% and this may be in part because of pressures on schools such as tightening budgets and limited teaching resources.
- It’s a geographical issue where excluded pupils mostly live in cities, which is also often home to the demographics of pupils disproportionately excluded.
- There is pressure on schools from Ofsted to achieve results, leading to incentives to remove children who lower the overall grading and league table position, and this lets down the most disadvantaged children.
Robert Halfon proposed that indicators that will lead to exclusion can be seen in primary school, and that teachers must be upskilled to read behavioural signs early on and help prevent exclusion from happening.
What is the aim of AP?
Robert Halfon asked if it is to get children back into mainstream education or find them permanent school replacement.
Kiran Gill said that there is no clarity in the sector to answer the question. She added that there are many dedicated professionals in the AP sector who help children to thrive in post-16 education. Getting the right AP for a specific child is key.
William Wragg MP asked if AP a choice or a forced process. He claimed decisions to exclude a child from school can be challenged by parents, but this requires the child to be from a background where parents are able to do that, which is often not the case, especially when the child is from a disadvantaged background.
The Difference programme
Kiran Gill outlined that the theory of change in the Difference programme is to recruit mainstream teachers as specialist teachers, upskilling them in AP, and then brokering them back into mainstream education with the incentive of further opportunities.
Robert Halfon raised the role of parents in deciding the educational environment of their child – whether they wish to keep them in mainstream education or have them transferred to AP. He said that the current process is that if a child is excluded from school, parents can appeal to governors, and then to an independent review. After that, their only recourse is to judicial review if they still don’t like the outcome, but that this is outside of the means of most parents. He added that there should be somebody independent of the school to help parents or advocate on their behalf in these instances.
David Berridge agreed that this was important, and that strong powers of appeal would be helpful for parents, especially since many who advocate for their child aren’t always confident in a meeting with school leaders and may find appealing to heads or governors an intimidating experience from which they come out worse. Kiran Gill agreed that parental power should be improved to give them the choice of educational destiny of their child.
Read Making The Difference: Breaking the link between school exclusion and social exclusion by Kiran Gill for the Institute for Public Policy Research.
Watch the Education Committee meeting.