who attends and what is on offer?

Two key issues that are highlighted in the literatures are related to WHO is enrolled in alternative education and WHAT IS ON OFFER to them.

(1) Enrolment

There are three issues of concern related to enrolment – (a) who is on the roll, (b) referral processes and (c) barriers to access.

(a)   Who is on the roll

There is concern that particular groups of young people are not well served by alternative education. The dominant enrolment in the UK is white working class boys.

Working class girls in particular drift away from school (Osler & Vincent, 2003). BME youth and Traveller/Roma apparently achieve less school success than other peers (as represented in achievement and attendance data) and are also disproportionately present in exclusion figures. One study (Parsons et al., 2004) found that Black Caribbean students were 2.6 times more likely to be excluded than any other pupils. Recent exclusion data in England (Department for Education, 2013) suggests that Black Caribbean young people are three times more likely to be excluded, both permanently and for a fixed term, than the school population as a whole. However, all of these young people appear much less regularly in data on alternative programmes (Department for Education and Skills (DfES), 2006; Derrington & Kendall, 2004; Osler, 2006; Wright, Standen, John, German, & Patel, 2005). Where are they? Why aren’t they in alternative provision?

We need to understand the reasons for this anomaly, in particular whether the ‘problem’ lies primarily in the school referral processes and/or in the young peoples’ perceptions of the ‘offer’ and/or in the actual operation of alternative education providers and services.

(b)  Referral processes

Young people and their families often feel powerless in, and alienated from, the administrative and organizational processes that are used to manage referrals, transfers and monitoring progress. This is often in stark contrast to the agency they feel within alternative education programmes. (Foley & Pang, 2006; Franklin, 2002).

(c)   Barriers to access

Access and affordability to public transport, the willingness of young people to leave familiar locations and the relative scarcity of alternative provision in rural communities are all issues which affect who can actually take up alternative education (Clark et al., 2010; Forlin & Tierney, 2006; Foster, 2006; Johnston, Cooch, & Pollard, 2004).

(2) Academic programmes

There is some tension, in the literatures on best practices, about the degree to which conforming to mandated curriculum standards is important. Clearly, for bodies such as OfSTED, achieving the GCSE is of critical importance. However, it is also important to young people in a situation where employers and further education providers look for qualifications.

Some researchers worry about this focus on this particular credential. They (e.g. Bullis, Moran, Benz, Todus, & Johnson, 2002; Burton, 2007; Clegg, Stackhouse, FInch, Murphy, & Nicholls, 2009; Kerka, 2007; Lloyd, Stead, & Kendrick, 2001; Munn, Lloyd, & Cullen, 2000) stress the importance of ensuring that young people have:

  • literacy and numeracy competencies such that they can make viable choices about what kind of educational pathway they wish to follow
  • emotional wellbeing in order to manage their wider life context
  • social ‘life skills’ that underpin not only educational progress but also everyday tasks

Others (e.g.McDill, Natriello, & Pallas, 1986; Sunderman, Kim, & Orfield, 2005) also worry about valuing most what is measured. They have long warned that ‘standards agendas’ can be very off-putting to young people ‘at risk’ if only the formal curriculum is seen as important. They remind us that if pedagogies and school practices are not changed then the end result is likely to be the same or greater, inequity.

One group of researchers (e.g. Ecclestone & Hayes, 2008; Mills, McGregor, & Muspratt, 2012) have been concerned about ‘dumbing down’ in alternative education. They are concerned about assumptions that all young people in alternative education are in need of remedial support, vocational options and/or a largely practical approach to learning. There is some evidence in the UK that young people in alternative education are often offered a menu of Level 1 courses, rather than level 2 or beyond (Institute of Education (University of London) and the National Foundation for Educational Research ( NFER), 2013). Thomson and Russell (2007) met numbers of young people with portfolios of achievement certificates from a plethora of credentialing agencies: these did not translate either into GCSE or into access to further education. They also found, as did OfSTED (2011) that young people in full time alternative provision were offered narrow, rather than comprehensive, GCSE options. The vocational education on offer was also highly gender-specific with girls either being offered hair and beauty or childcare, or the opportunity to be a tiny minority in male-dominated bricklaying, construction, engineering and outdoor courses (Kilpatrick, McCarten, & McKeown, 2007; Russell & Thomson, 2011).

We might conclude from these literatures that the question of achieving the educational entitlement of students in alternative education is vexed. It is not as simple as simply requiring particular standards to be met. Re-engaging those who are seriously disenchanted with learning and with formal education systems and meeting their health and welfare needs, as well as – and at the same time – as supporting them to achieve the kinds of educational qualification that matter is, we might reasonably assume, a far from straightforward task.


Bullis, M., Moran, T., Benz, M., Todus, B., & Johnson, M. D. (2002). Description and evaluation of the ARIES project. Achieving rehabilitation, individualised education and employment success for adolescents with emotional disturbance. Career Development and Transitions for Exceptional Individuals, 25(1), 41-58.

Burton, S. (2007). ‘Over to you”: group work to help pupils avoid school exclusion. Educational Psychology in Practice: theory, research and practice in educational psychology, 22(3), 215-236.

Clark, T. C., Smith, J. M., Raphael, D., Jackson, C., Fleming, T., Denny, S., . . . Robinson, E. (2010). Youth’09: The health and wellbeing of young people in Alternative Education. A report on the needs of Alternative Education students in Auckland and Northland. Auckland: The University of Auckland.

Clegg, J., Stackhouse, J., FInch, K., Murphy, C., & Nicholls, S. (2009). Language abilities of secondary age pupils at risk of school exclusion: A preliminary report. Child Language teaching and Therapy, 25(1), 123-140.

Department for Education. (2013). Statistical first release. Permanent and fixed term exclusions from schools and exclusion appeals in England, 2011/2012. London: Departmeent for Education.

Department for Education and Skills (DfES). (2006). Ethnicity and education: the evidence on minority ethnic pupils aged 5–16: Department for Education and Skills. http://www.dfes.gov.uk/research/data/uploadfiles/RTP01-05.pdf. Accessed July 1, 2006.

Derrington, C., & Kendall, S. (2004). Gypsy traveller students in secondary schools: Culture, identity and achievement. Stoke on Trent: Trentham.

Ecclestone, K., & Hayes, D. (2008). The dangerous rise of therapeutic education. How teaching is becoming therapy. London: Routledge.

Foley, R. M., & Pang, L.-S. (2006). Alternative education programs: program and student characteristics. The High School Journal, 89(3), 10-21.

Forlin, C., & Tierney, G. (2006). Accommodating students excluded from regular schools in schools of isolated and distance education. Australian Journal of Education, 50(1), 50-61.

Foster, J. (2006). Asking further questions of the Learning Alliance entry to employment pilot. http://www.youth-justice.gov.uk: Youth Justice Board for England and Wales.

Franklin, B. (Ed.). (2002). The new handbook of children’s rights. Comparative policy and practice. London: Routledge.

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). http://www.education.gov.uk/researchandstatistics/research: Department for Education.

Johnston, C., Cooch, G., & Pollard, C. (2004). A rural alternative school and its effectiveness of preventing dropouts. the Rural Educator, Spring, 25-29.

Kerka, S. (2007). What works. Evidence based strategies for youth practitioners. Columbus: LearningWork Connection, Ohio State University.

Kilpatrick, R., McCarten, C., & McKeown, P. (2007). Out of the box – Alternative education provision ( AEP) in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.

Lloyd, G., Stead, J., & Kendrick, A. (2001). Hanging on in there. A study of interagency work to prevent school excusion in three local authorities. London: National Children’s Bureau and Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

McDill, E. L., Natriello, G., & Pallas, A. M. (1986). A population at risk: potential consequences of tougher school standards for school dropouts. American Journal of Education, 94(2), 135-181.

Mills, M., McGregor, G., & Muspratt, S. (2012). Flexible learning options/centres in the ACT. Report submitted to the ACT Education and Training Directorate. Brisbane: University of Queensland/Griffith University.

Munn, P., Lloyd, G., & Cullen, M. A. (2000). Alternatives to exclusion from school. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Osler, A. (2006). Excluded girls: Interpersonal, institutional and structural violence in schooling. Gender and Education, 18(6), 571-589.

Osler, A., & Vincent, K. (2003). Girls and exclusion. London: Routledge.

Parsons, C., Godfrey, R., Annan, G., Cornwall, J., Dussart, M., Hepburn, S., . . . Wennerstrom, V. (2004). MInority ethnic exclusions and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. Norwich: Department for Education and Skills.

Russell, L., & Thomson, P. (2011). Girls and gender in alternative education provision. Ethnography and Education, 6(3), 293-308.

Sunderman, G. L., Kim, J. S., & Orfield, G. (2005). NCLB meets school realities. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Thomson, P., & Russell, L. (2007). Mapping the provision of alternatives to school exclusion. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Wright, C., Standen, P., John, G., German, G., & Patel, T. (2005). School exclusion and transition into adulthood in African-Caribbean communities. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.




  1. Do you know the Dusseldorp Skills Forum Learning Choices site? A number of publications from Kitty Te Riele there (and an old paper from me): http://www.learningchoices.org.au/research.html

    1. Its referenced at some point in this long lit review….

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