what happens to young people who have been in alternative education?

Many researchers have lamented the lack of available data on the outcomes of alternative education. There is a great deal of case study research across alternative education programmes – this largely focuses on best practices. There is also research which evaluates individual programmes, and a little of this is longitudinal (e.g. Carswell, Hanlon, O’Grady, Watts, & Pothong, 2009; Hallam, Rogers, Rhamie, & Shaw, 2007; Russell, Simmons, & Thompson, 2011). However, there are few large-scale systematic studies on the outcomes for cohorts of young people who participate in alternative education. One of the reasons for this is the sheer difficulty of tracking young people who have attended alternative education programmes. While it is possible to ascertain what their intentions are at the point when they leave a programme it is often difficult to maintain contact with them.

There IS potential for the use of large longitudinal data sets in tracking young people in alternative education. One Australian study (Polidano, Tabasso, & Tseng, 2012) used the Longitudinal Studies of Australian Youth (LSAY) data set to examine three cohorts of early school leavers and their post school trajectories. Their findings are potentially pertinent to a younger age group; they noted that “programs that encourage an early return to study and programs that develop post-school career plans may be more effective than programs that concentrate on improving numeracy and literacy scores” (p.2).

What data there is about outcomes largely suggests that alternative education is good at changing patterns of attendance, engagement and behaviour, perhaps because wellbeing is a precursor to improvements in academic attainment (Clark et al., 2010; de Velasco et al., 2008; Nichols & Steffy, 1999; Nichols & Utesch, 2010; Te Riele, 2012).  Aron (2006) cites one study which suggests that non-school academically oriented youth programmes were able to improve some overall educational outcomes, but were better able to affect academic-related outcomes e.g. skills, attendance, goals, and credits. Students from programmes that had the strongest academic focus were better at achieving stronger academic outcomes in the longer term. Aron concluded from her meta-analysis that longer periods of participation in alternative education and more frequent participation have longer lasting effects. But in a rare comparative study, Mainwaring (2010) suggests that PRUs are not as able to provide young people with a robust sense of ‘possible selves’ as mainstream schools.

Outcomes are of course clearly related to the quality of provision and the support for young people as they make a transition from alternative education either back to a school, or into other education or training (Lumby, 2013). The evaluation of the Back on Track pilots in England (White, Martin, & Jeffes, 2012) suggests a range of outcomes from efforts to provide better coordination between schools, alternative education and destination providers:

…increased contentment and the emergence of more positive outlooks; increased self-confidence and self-esteem; the development of a greater sense of responsibility and maturity and other behavioural improvements. Changes have also been observed in many of the young people … manifest in their interactions with others, including their improved capacity to communicate effectively and appropriately with a wide range of people, including parents/carers, peers, alternative provision staff, school staff and adults in general. Young people have experienced a range of positive post-pilot progressions, including re-integration to mainstream school, progression to further education and training and employment. However, retention at subsequent destinations in some cases remains an area for development and across the pilots, not all young people secured positive destinations. (p. iv)

Young people’s attitudes and external support are also important in determining outcomes. Daniels and his team (Daniels et al., 2003) examined the trajectories of 193 young people permanently excluded between the ages of 13-16. After two years, 50% of them were engaged in education, training or employment. These young people: believed in their own abilities; had ongoing support from a key worker; had supportive family members/friends who helped them to ‘network’; and felt that their permanent exclusion was unjustified. Daniels et al note that “where young people consistently refused to engage with or proved themselves unable to avail themselves of the services offered, then post-exclusion outcomes were disappointing” (p.vi).

In Northern Ireland, Kilpatrick, McCarten and McKeown (2007) conducted a longitudinal study of young people, in compulsory and post-compulsory years of schooling, enrolled in alternative secondary education provision. Their initial sample was 318. The researchers worked with paid ‘peer’ researchers over a two and a half year period, and conducted three ‘swoops’ to find out what the cohort of young people were doing. After six months, they were able to contact about half of the original group, but this dropped by the third follow-up to about a third. However, the findings did suggest some success for the group that they were able to contact. After six months, well over three quarters were engaged in employment, training or further education but this fell by 12% some six months later. Eighteen months later about a third of the remaining group were unemployed. Like the Daniel’s (2003) study, the results in Northern Ireland also suggest that family support, or replacement support is important, as is the young person’s sense of agency. This study also showed that the minority of girls in alternative education were significantly more likely become ‘inactive’ than boys; some become parents and unavailable for work, education or further training.

Outcomes also differ by group of young people. It is not reasonable to insist that all young people achieve the same outcomes. A DCFS commissioned study in 2009 (Pirrie, Macleod, Cullen, & McCluskey, 2009) investigated the histories and destinations of 24 young people permanently excluded from alternative provision. The young people had long histories of difficulties in education, had ‘statemented’ special needs and were involved with a range of health and welfare agencies. While this was only a small study in which overall destination statistics are too small to be significant, the careful life history analysis conducted by the researchers points not only to considerable gaps in provision, time delays and fault lines between providers, it also indicates the importance of achieving “ a balance … between improving performance in external examinations and enhancing young people’s social and emotional well-being” (p. 62). It is perhaps for this reason that Pink suggests that it is important to look for the ways in which alternative education ‘contributes to building a positive or negative biography’ (Pink, 2012, p. 21).

Outcomes may also change over time. There is some evidence that some alternative programmes do assist young people in the short term but that changes are not maintained when they return to the unchanged context in which they previously experienced conflict and/or lack of success (Bowey & McLaughlin, 2006; Carswell, Hanlon, Watts, & O’Grady, 2012; Cox, 1999). In the case of vocational programmes, it may be external contextual factors which hinder achievement of programme goals (Russell, Simmons, & Thompson, 2010). There are also often powerful ‘pull’ factors on young people which schools and alternative education providers find difficult to counteract (Scott & Spencer, 2013). However, the longitudinal studies also show patchy and ineffective reintegration strategies (Kilpatrick et al., 2007).

And it also important to look for unintended outcomes. There is some evidence that alternative education programmes, contra their mission, student expectations and staff beliefs, can actually increase exclusion and segregation (Joniak, 2005; Meo & Parker, 2004). Both Joniak and Meo and Parker studies show that the use of withdrawal, silencing and non-engagement are counter-productive methods of punishment which further alienated young people, rather than assisted their re-engagement.

The overall lack of research data on outcomes makes it difficult for education systems, schools and alternative education providers to think about the quality of provision. It is certainly further inducement to embed robust evaluation and quality measures into existing provision.


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Carswell, S. B., Hanlon, T. E., Watts, A. M., & O’Grady, K. A. (2014). Prevention-related research targeting African-American alternative education programn students. Education and Urban Society,  46 (4) 434-449.

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.

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Daniels, H., Cole, T., Sellman, E., Sutton, J., Visser, J., & Bedward, J. (2003). Study of young people permanently excluded from school. DfES Research Report Rr405. Norwich: DfES.

de Velasco, J. R., Austin, G., Dixon, D., Johnson, J., McLaughlin, M., & Perez, L. (2008). Alternative education options: A descriptive study of Californian Continuation High Schools. San Diego: California Alternative Education Research Project, San Diego University.

Hallam, S., Rogers, L., Rhamie, J., & Shaw, J. (2007). Pupil’s perceptions of an alternative curriculum: Skill Force. Research Papers in Education, 22(1), 43-63.

Joniak, E. (2005). Exclusionary practices and the delegitimization of client voice. How staff create, sustain, and escalate conflict in a drop-in centre. American Behavoural Scientist, 48(8), 961-988.

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.

Lumby, J. (2013). Disengaged and disaffected young people : surviving the system. British Educational Research Journal, 38(2), 261-279.

Mainwaring, D. (2010). ‘Possible selves’ of young people in a mainstream secondary school and a pupil referral unit: a comparison. Emotional and Behaviourtal Difficulties, 15(2), 153-169.

Meo, A., & Parker, A. (2004). Teachers, teaching and educational exclusion: Pupil Referral Units and pedagogic practice. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 8(1), 103-120.

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Nichols, J. D., & Utesch, W. E. (2010). An alternative learning program: effects on student motivation and self esteem. The Journal of Educational Research, 91(5), 272-278.

Pink, W. (2012). Reforming schools for marginalized youth: Rethinking both theory and practice. In W. Pink (Ed.), Schools for marginalized youth. International perspectives. New York: Hampton Press.

Pirrie, A., Macleod, G., Cullen, M. A., & McCluskey, G. (2009). Where next for pupils excluded from Special Schools and Pupil Referral Units? http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/research: Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Polidano, C., Tabasso, D., & Tseng, Y.-P. (2012). A second chance at education for early school leavers. IZA Discussion paper 6769. Bonn.

Russell, L., Simmons, R., & Thompson, R. (2010). Playing the numbers game: Connexions personal advisers working with learners on entry to employment programmes. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 62(1), 1-12.

Russell, L., Simmons, R., & Thompson, R. (2011). Orindary lives: an ethnographic study of young people attending Entry to Employment programmes. Journal of Education and Work, 24(5), 477-499.

Scott, J., & Spencer, L. (2013). School meets street: exploring the links between low achievement, school exclusion and youth crime among African-Caribbean boys in London. Essex: Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex.

Te Riele, K. (2012). Learning choices: A map for the future. http://www.dsf.org.au: Dusseldorps Skills Forum.

White, R., Martin, K., & Jeffes, J. (2012). The back on track alternative provision pilots. Final report. London: National Foundation for Educational Research.


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