defining alternative education

Official guidance to English schools about statutory requirements for the education of children under the school leaving age states that alternative education is

… for pupils who, because of exclusion, illness or other reasons, would not otherwise receive suitable education; education arranged by schools for pupils on a fixed period exclusion; and pupils being directed by schools to off-site provision to improve their behaviour (Department for Education, 2013).

Here, alternative education has a particular enrolment – it caters for a specific group of school students who are not attending school – and location – it includes off-site provision.

However, in their survey of alternative education OfSTED (2011) offer a slightly different definition:

… something in which a young person participates as part of their regular timetable, away from the site of the school or the pupil referral unit and not led by school staff. Schools can use such provision to try to prevent exclusions, or to re-engage students in their education. Pupil Referral Units are themselves a form of alternative provision, but many students who are on the roll of a pupil referral unit also attend additional forms of alternative provision off site.

This takes the off-site location and the emphasis on students not benefiting from their current schooling arrangements, and adds time as another factor. Alternative provision may be full time, as in the case of a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU), or part time, as in the case of a course led by non-school staff members, but still part of the student’s overall timetable.

The evaluation conducted on the trial devolution of responsibility for commission alternative programmes to schools (Institute of Education (University of London) and the National Foundation for Educational Research ( NFER), 2013) lists fifteen types of alternative provision on offer to those students the school designates as ‘at risk of permanent exclusion’. These are:

  1. Specialist support e.g. CAMHS
  2. PRU
  3. Individual work placements
  4. Additional services provided by the Local Authority e.g. traveller education support
  5. Time spent in Further Education college either full time or part time
  6. Time spent in another school
  7. Private sector organisations e.g. offering learning and training opportunities
  8. Home tuition service
  9. Independent specialist providers e.g. behavioural
  10. Voluntary and third sector organisations
  11. Youth work organisation
  12. Sports clubs e.g. boxing academy, football club
  13. Hospital school
  14. E-learning provision e.g.
  15. Other

This survey introduces the notion that alternative provision contains many different types of programmes and many different providers.

OfSTED’s (2011) report on the results of their survey also focuses on diversity of provision and lists seven different types of programmes on offer. But it discriminates between programmes on the basis of the content of the programme and its purpose:

(1)   Individual work-related placements. These consisted of extended work experience for one day a week, based on the students’ interests, such as building, retail, childcare, care of the elderly, hairdressing. They were generally not accredited.

(2)   Placements focused on learning a specific work-related or trade skills, such as construction, plumbing, electrical, hairdressing, beauty or land-based work. These were generally structured, accredited courses, with part of the time spent on theory and part on practice.

(3)   ‘Personal development’ placements, focused on the development of aspects such as self-esteem, confidence, self-management and teamwork, as well as specific elements such as alcohol awareness and the prevention of knife-crime. These sometimes took the form of a time-limited course, for example, for half a term, and often had a strong outdoor element.

(4)   Music and arts related placement such as digital media projects and learning composition and disc-jockey skills in a music studio

(5)   Placements with a therapeutic element such as woodturning and hedge laying, riding and caring for horses, grooming or caring for small animals

(6)   Placements which provided a complete full time alternative to attending a school or pupil referral unit. These generally provided a fairly standard curriculum in small groups, with some additional focus on personal development and sometimes on vocational skills,

(7)   College placements to take specific courses, which were sometimes taster packages which includedvarious subjects (OfSTED, 2011).

The list also includes full time provision which is not a PRU. Alternative academies and free schools can now also be added to this list as part of the full time mix. Until the establishment of these schools, most other full time and autonomous alternative schools were in the independent sector. But the addition of academies and free schools into the state sector introduces a further complication, whether enrolment in an alternative is voluntary, by choice or whether it is by a referral process and part of an intervention in a student’s educational programme.

It is clear that in the current policy context, what counts as alternative education is not a clear-cut matter. Who enrols, the location, the time attended, the types of programmes and their purpose and content, the provider, and the path to enrolment are all important.

This makes the notion of a quality framework for alternative education a complex matter.


Department for Education. (2013). Alternative provision. Statutory guidance for local authorities. Department for Education.

Institute of Education (University of London) and the National Foundation for Educational Research ( NFER). (2013). Evaluation of the school exclusion trial (responsibility for alternative provision for permanently excluded children). Department for Education.

OfSTED. (2011). Alternative provision. Manchester: OfSTED.


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