quality outcomes in alternative education

In education, there are generally three approaches to quality –

(1) a standards approach: this works with a set of benchmarks developed by the purchaser/commissioner, to be applied universally

(2) a fit for purpose framework: this uses criteria for quality, defined by the provider and user groups in relation to the purpose of the programme

(3) a value for money approach: Audit Commissions typically measure inputs against outputs of comparable services.

Judgments about quality are made through: accreditation processes such as kite mark and ISO schemes; assessment conducted internally/externally to arrive at a score of effectiveness; and an audit approach which provides external verification of the internal quality assurance processes used (e.g. International Institute for Educational Planning, 2011; Kis, 2005). Accreditation processes typically use a fit for purpose approach while assessment can use either a standards approach or fit for purpose, although it is more typically the former.

In order to develop both a standards or fit for purpose quality approach it is necessary to arrive at a statement about desired outcomes. This post considers outcomes and then goes on to look at the two different quality approaches as they might apply to alternative education.

 Quality outcomes

 In general, when the success of alternative education is discussed in the policy and research literatures, a mix of educational attainment, destinations, well-being and social competencies are nominated. For example, the Victorian Education Department Australia (KPMG, 2009) uses three broad outcome areas: student learning; student engagement and well being; and student pathways and transition.

In its guidance for English schools, the Department for Education (2013) places heavier emphasis on academic achievement and destinations than on other areas; the weighting of the academic is also a feature of quality frameworks in many US states. The DfE states that alternative education must achieve the following outcomes for young people:

  • good academic attainment on par with mainstream schools – particularly in English, Maths and Science (including IT) – with appropriate accreditation and qualifications
  • proper identification of specific personal, social and academic needs of pupils that are then met, in order that they can overcome any specific barriers to attainment
  • improved pupil motivation, self-confidence attendance and engagement with education
  • clearly defined objectives, including the next steps following the placement such as reintegration into mainstream education, further education, training or employment.

When alternative education programmes register with local authorities, they generally nominate what academic programmes they offer. Other outcomes that organisations might find equally important are often not foregrounded.

(1) A quality standards approach

Policy in England has quality in schools monitored and evaluated through a standards based approach. National attainment data and other nationally determined data such as attendance are combined with various benchmarks of organizational process to provide a framework for internal assessment. This is then subject to external assessment via OfSTED inspection. At present some alternative education provision is inspected, while some is not. The new devolved school commissioning process may bring further changes.

The English approach is similar to the process used in some US states where there are state mandated standards that all educational organisations must meet, including alternative education.

(2) A fit for purpose approach

Some US states however use a fit-for-purpose approach to alternative education. It is thus possible to find in the research literatures material that has been generated to help alternative education providers determine for themselves what their anticipated outcomes and ideal processes might be. For example, Martin and Halperin (2006), US based resarchers, opt for a series of questions as a guide:

  • Do the schools and community programs help youth and young adults see themselves as successful learners?
  • Do they support the positive development of youth who have previously experienced school failure?
  • Do they move out-of-school and disconnected youth into a position where they can better compete for good jobs with decent wages that can support a family?
  • Do they offer learners the tools to cope with a rapidly changing economy and to take advantage of opportunities to continue their education beyond high school?
  • Do they help their graduates avoid self-destructive and antisocial behaviors?
  • Do graduates understand and exercise their responsibilities, not only as good workers and parents, but also as citizens in a democratic society? (p. 163)

Martin and Halperin’s questions require both summative answers, as well as process descriptions. Such process descriptions might be benchmarked against ‘best practice’ or against the judgment of the organisation about what ‘good’ might be.

Some US school districts and alternative education providers have worked a fit for purpose approach into a set of quality indicators. For example, the Iowa Association of Alternative Education provides its members with an extensive checklist of process and outcome quality indicators divided into several categories: Philosophy; Administration; Students; Parents/Guardians; Staff; Curriculum and Instruction; Vocational/Technical/Career; Assessment; Personal/Social/Lifeskills; Community and Social services; Facilities; and Signals that the learning alternative/s may not be successful.

See below for a sample of one category of indicators – these are from the Iowa Alternative Education Association quality indicators.


1 Physical facilities adequately accommodate the needs of staff and students to accomplish the established goals with high quality.

2 Adequate space is available to accommodate group activities without interfering with individualized learning.

3 Provisions are made for technology to complement the management of learning.

4 Accommodations are made for “privacy areas” for counseling and the delivery of community support services.

5 Facilities meet state and local fire and safety regulations.

6 Facilities are accessible to all and meet accessibility requirements as prescribed by law.

7 Food services are provided near or within the facilities. Food services reflect high quality nutrition and accommodate personal student needs and desires for nutrition.

8 Facilities accommodate student fitness development, or alternatives for fitness development are organized within the community/ies to complement the learning


The UK educational charity CfBT has taken an interest in a fit for purpose approach. Thinking in particular of the range of alternative education providers within the country, and the current policy context in England, they conducted an international literature review (Gutherson, Davies, & Daskiewicz, 2011) of publicly available documents. Their aim was to generate a quality framework which had the potential to underpin accreditation, via a kite-mark approach. Both charities and state-funded organisations could apply for the kite mark.

The CfBT approach to quality combines criteria about inputs/processes with a range of outcome measures (See summary here). Organisations seeking kite-mark accreditation would be asked to provide evidence about how they met each criteria in the same way that schools now apply for Arts Mark, Healthy Schools status and the like.

CfBT argues for a quality framework of:


  • High standards and expectations – an ethos of achievement
  • Small schools. Small group sizes and high staff/learner ratios
  • Appropriate needs assessment of child/young person
  • Clearly identified goals within a challenging and flexible curriculum
  • Highly trained staff able to deliver programme fidelity
  • ‘Caring and knowledgeable’ staff with ongoing professional development and support for staff
  • Strong and effective partnerships
  • Strong active participation of families and community
  • Effective leadership and professional autonomy
  • Positive environment
  • Appropriate and accessible location
  • Support beyond the lifetime of the intervention
  • Monitoring and assessment
  • Voluntary participation
  • Incentives and rewards
  • Integration of research and practice


  • Attitudinal: attendance; confidence; motivation; reduction in offending behaviours;
  • Positive contribution to school or community life
  • Personal and social development: self esteem; emotional well-being; health awareness; developing and sustaining relationships
  • Life skills: the capacity to act upon the world, exercise judgment and to make constructive contributions; communication; coping with authority; working with others; leadership and organizational skills; improved ability to develop and maintain relationships; reducing in need for ongoing support
  • Academic development: a sense of accomplishment accompanied by recognition and valuation by others; recognition of success; accreditation
  • Employability
  • Progression: sense of direction; positive destination


  • Reduction in criminal activity
  • Improved relationships
  • Reduction in social exclusion
  • Improvements in partnerships

The CfBT approach does imply that a set of benchmarks or indicators sit behind each of the categories; this would be needed in order to decide whether the process and evidence provided was sufficient and suitable.


Department for Education. (2013). Alternative provision. Statutory guidance for local authorities. http://www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/statutory/g00211923/alternativeprovision: Department for Education.

Gutherson, P., Davies, H., & Daskiewicz, T. (2011). Achieving successful outcomes through Alternative Education Provision. Berkshire: CfBT Education Trust.

International Institute for Educational Planning. (2011). Understanding and assessing quality. Paris: UNESCO.

Kis, V. (2005). Quality assurance in tertiary education: Current practices in OECD countries and a literature review on potental effects. Paris: OECD.

Martin, N., & Halperin, S. (2006). Whatever it takes: How twelve communities are reconnecting out-of-school youth. Washington DC: American Youth Policy Forum.



One comment

  1. […] of what approach to quality is taken, there are still difficulties in the evaluating quality in alternative education which […]

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