Alternative education programmes are often seen as ‘other’ to the mainstream or regular school (Gale and Densmore, 2000, Mills and McGregor, 2013). The dominant model operates as the norm, against which any other kind of option is seen as not only different but also somehow lesser, inferior, deviant (Valencia, 1997, Slee, 2011). The stigma of alternative is not just confined to the types of schooling; there are also reports of students who experience stigmatization from being and working in alternative education (McNulty and Roseboro, 2009).
One way to avoid the ‘othering’ and stigma of institutions is to employ a different framing – perhaps that of traditional rather than mainstream schooling – against which alternatives can be seen as innovative (Raywid 1994, Heinrich 2005 and Kellmayer 1995 all opt for this). Some Australian programmes speak not of alternative education but of ‘flexible learning choices’, a term take from the distance and open learning field. This terminology places the emphasis on the difference in mode of learning, rather than on any notion of the population served or their prior educational attainment. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (undated) suggest that an educational system should consist of four types of mainstream schools, rather than one which could be called mainstream and alternative. Their four types of schools are:
(1) academic – offering discipline based content
(2) applied – seeing the student as worker
(3) alternative – student centred learning and support
(4) affiliated – schools offering a common world view (usually faith-based)
This schema could be understood as an attempt to create parity of esteem between all four educational options.
There is also considerable debate about the language used to describe the young people for whom alternative education is often designed. Terms such as ‘disaffected’, ‘marginalised’, ‘disadvantaged’, ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at risk’ dominate the field. Critics (e.g. Barone, 1989, Donmoyer and Kos, 1993, Bessant, 1995, Bullen et al., 2000, Munns and McFadden, 2000) argue that these terms imply that the young people in question are fundamentally different from those who appear to be coping in their school setting, and that this is not the case. But this naming makes it relatively straightforward to suggest that ‘riskiness’ or ‘vulnerability’ is related primarily to factors attached to the young person – their psychological makeup, personal education history and behaviours, and social environment – rather than to the workings of the educational system. Rather than talk about the young person being ‘at risk’, these critics suggest, we should ask what there is about the way in which schooling functions which places them at risk, makes them vulnerable, (Thomson, 2002). Some attempt to find ways to avoid this language completely – for example students ‘at promise’ rather than ‘at risk’ (Swadener, 1995).
Practitioners are often torn about these kinds of debates. They want to stress the ordinariness of the young people and how much they are like their peers. The young people themselves also very often want this (Smyth and Hattam, 2004, Vincent, 2012). Alternative education staff want to deal afresh with the young people in their programmes and give them an opportunity to make a fresh start. But practitioners often find themselves faced with young people for whom the long processes of exclusion have been traumatic and/or whose lives are very troubled and troubling (Cullingford, 1999, Lloyd, 2005, Arnold et al., 2009). They must therefore provide or access the kinds of support and services that are needed in order for young people to get the most from the alternative programme on offer. They do not operate in an either/or world.
Arnold, C., Yeomans, J. & Simpson, S., 2009. Excluded from school. Complex discourses and psychological perspectives Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books.
Barone, T., 1989. Ways of being at risk: the case of Billy Charles Barnett. Phi Delta Kappan, 71, 147 – 151.
Bessant, J., 1995. The discovery of an Australian ‘juvenile underclass’. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, 31, 32 – 48.
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, undated. Alternative High Schools Initiative [online]. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Available from: [Accessed Access Date
Bullen, E., Kenway, J. & Hay, V., 2000. New Labour, social exclusion and educational risk management: the case of ‘gymslip mums’. British Educational Research Journal, 26, 441-456.
Cullingford, C., 1999. The causes of exclusion. Home, school and the development of young criminals London: Kogan Page.
Donmoyer, R. & Kos, R., 1993. At-risk students: insights from research. In R. Donmoyer & R. Kos (eds.) At -risk students. Portraits, policies, programs and practices. New York: State University of New York, 7-36.
Gale, T. & Densmore, K., 2000. Just schooling. Explorations in the cultural politics of teaching Buckingham: Open University Press.
Lloyd, G. (ed.) (2005) Problem girls. Understanding and supporting troubled and troublesome girls and young women, London: Routledge.
Mcnulty, C.P. & Roseboro, D.L., 2009. “I’m not really that bad”: Alternative school students, stigma and identity politics. Equity & Excellence in Schools, 42, 412-427.
Mills, M. & Mcgregor, G., 2013. Re-engaging young people in education. Learning from alternative schools London: Routledge.
Munns, G. & Mcfadden, M., 2000. First chance, second chance or last chance? Resistance and response to education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 21, 59-75.
Slee, R., 2011. The irregular school. Exclusion, schooling and inclusive education London: Routledge.
Smyth, J. & Hattam, R., 2004. Dropping out, drifting off, being excluded: Becoming somebody without school New York: Peter Lang.
Swadener, B.B., 1995. Children and families “at promise”. Deconstructing the discourse of risk. In B.B. Swadener & S. Lubeck (eds.) Children and families ” at promise”. Deconstructing the discourse of risk. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 17-49.
Thomson, P., 2002. Schooling the rustbelt kids. Making the difference in changing times Sydney: Allen & Unwin (Trentham Books UK).
Valencia, R. (ed.) (1997) The evolution of deficit thinking. Educational thought and practice, London: Falmer.
Vincent, K., 2012. Schoolgirl pregnancy, motherhood and education: dealing with difference Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books.
See for example http://www.learningchoices.org.au