Here are the reports of the three group discussions around the literature review. These were held on June 4 and have now been checked with participants for accuracy.
We begin with one of the discussants from mainstream education stating that there should not be a separate sector of alternative provision. It is against the equality agenda – it will always be inferior and stigmatised and will never attract the same quality of staff. There is only one way out for these kids – education is the way out but “there is someone protecting the low expectations of the underclass in this country”. The discussant involved in delivering alternative provision agrees that there are problems when young people are taken away from their peers, or sometimes get kudos from “dropping out” to the PRU, and also agrees that they should be offered the same as in mainstream education, with the proviso that there is still a need for something different: “there is more to potential than just academic potential”.
The same discussant from mainstream education talks about how alternative provision should be inspected by Ofsted and not have a different framework or an “easy” “soft” Ofsted. There is no accountability for teachers and even if a teacher is good there is no recognition. If mainstream schools can’t cope with all their students, they shouldn’t be outstanding schools – all students should stay on-role at school. The same discussant argues against a kite-mark: it would mean providers just doing what they need to get the kite-mark – producing glossy brochures and case studies – and forgetting about the children. The other discussant from mainstream education suggests that alternative provision needs to be more child-centered but not assessed differently – Ofsted should go to the alternative providers used by schools as part of their inspection.
At this point the discussant who is an adviser for alternative provision suggests that it would be good to have a forum to share best practice – an “additional level” or “extra element” that could both ensure providers are delivering and be productive for them. The discussant from alternative provision delivery agrees and says that while perhaps all provision should be mainstream, it is not: “alternative provision does exist. If we are not going to discuss it we, might as well go home now”. “But I don’t think it should exist” argues the discussant from mainstream education.
The discussants from the mainstream sector are concerned that alternative provision ensure students pass GCSEs. If this is not its role or its outcome, one of them argues, you have to pay twice because you are have to make sure anyway that your students achieve. There is an exchange between this discussant and the discussant from alternative provision delivery regarding whether things such as attendance, well-being, self-esteem and engagement are worthwhile in themselves. The former says no, achievement is the outcome to be valued, while the later argues yes, there is a role for addressing what is behind achievement and non-achievement. The discussant from alternative education guidance says that there is a role for removing social and emotional barriers to progress.
After the break the discussion continues around whether alternative provision can teach academic subjects well and if doing academic GCSEs is desirable for all young people. There is agreement between three of the discussants that vocational routes are right for some young people. One of the discussants from an academy is involved in setting up a free school which will teach vocational courses and will allow the academy to do “referrals on-site”. This discussant, however, agrees with the other from mainstream education that young people in alternative provision should “achieve”.
What is Alternative Provision?
There was general agreement that there cannot only be one type of AP. AP deals with a range of young people who have varying needs and interests, therefore AP must be diverse, flexible and child-focused. For instance, in Warwickshire there are 22 APs on the local authority list of approved providers.
We need a broad definition and conceptualisation of what ‘AP’ constitutes. This has implications for a quality framework. Any quality framework would need to take account of this diversity.
The group recognised that there will be some fundamental, non-negotiable things that an AP has to have. Safeguarding and monitoring of attendance were named as examples. In contrast, the curriculum, and how this is delivered, can be fundamentally different from one AP to another.
They also recognised that what will be quality provision in one context will vary from one academic year to the next as cohorts are variable.
There was a feeling that dual registration can be an important tool for accountability: it means that the mainstream school continues to be accountable for the young person, as well as the AP.
Who is Alternative Provision For?
There was a distinction made between those who have been excluded or who are at risk of exclusion, and those who are not at risk of being excluded but who, for whatever reason, are not getting the most out of a mainstream school and cannot realise their potential there. AP needs to cater for students who fall into both categories.
Issues of Quality
There was recognition that poor quality APs will simply provide a babysitting service. They will not attempt to challenge the young people. Three of the group said that they had witnessed this type of provision. One provider said that they had yet to see a good quality PRU; in their experience these tend to be poor quality and are more like holding pens.
Warwickshire LA found that schools did not want to do quality checks on AP themselves. They felt they did not have the expertise to be able to do this competently, and wanted the LA to advise them on this or to provide a list of approved providers.
Warwickshire have done a procurement process. APs have to have certain minimum standards to get on to this. Approved providers get the benefit of their CPD and safeguarding training for free.
However, they highlighted how expensive the procurement process is. This means that it will only be done every so often, and this raises questions of quality: how do we know that provisions remain at the same level of quality throughout their time on an ‘approved list’. Who is checking to see if the quality remains the same? One provider believes that quality assurance processes are poor. Important questions were raised about a quality framework: if you have one, who is checking that providers actually have what they say they have, and are doing what they say they are doing, throughout the period of tender?
Warwickshire county council know that schools commission alternative providers who are not on their quality assured list. One of these has recently folded.
The group felt that AP should be subject to Ofsted inspections but that this needs to be better tailored. In particular there was recognition of the difficulty of applying the Ofsted framework to small programmes.
One provider insisted that APs should be doing maths and English and that they should be expecting the same level of progress from young people as would be expected in these subjects in a mainstream school. Once low expectations have set it, it is difficult to get rid of them.
There was a lack of clarity about whether this should also be expected of short term or part-time providers, and about what the difference should be between these and long(er) term and/or full time providers.
A think tank representative stressed that there will only be overall quality when this quality exists throughout the chain: good school, good LA, good AP. This suggests that a quality framework would need to extend to cover all of these aspects.
The providers said that they have to fight to get Pupil Premium money, but that this should not be the case as it should follow the pupil. However, a LA representative said that, if the AP place costs more than the school receives for that child in its annual budget, then the pupil premium is already being spent on that child; it goes towards paying the extra cost of AP. The providers did not accept this, and felt that schools do have enough money to pay for AP.
Commissioning, Referrals and LA Role
There was a general feeling that some schools will use the forthcoming changes as an opportunity to do brilliant, innovative things (perhaps setting up their own quality provisions) whilst others use it as an opportunity to cater poorly for students on their own site, rather than paying for quality AP elsewhere.
The providers in the group feel that the LA is ineffective in this area. LAs are made up of people who have been working in this area for a long time and have no fresh insights. Also, how can they impartially quality assure an AP that they have played a role in commissioning? Surely they have a vested interest in making this provision look good since they have approved and commissioned it.
The providers felt that LAs do not always get it right in terms of where to place young people. The needs of the young person need to be understood by all of the relevant agencies to ensure that sound decisions are made. There was agreement that young people need an advocate throughout the referral process to make sure that their voice and views are heard and that they have some choice in the AP they join.
The information sent from schools to support an AP referral is often poor. Someone needs to oversee the referral system to ensure better consistency. This process needs to be signposted so that the appropriate information is shared. The person who oversees this has to be independent. These are aspects that could be included in a quality framework.
The process for a referral should begin with a short referral form. After this a face to face meeting is crucial so that the young person and their parent/carer can see if the provision is suitable. It is important that the young person has some autonomy, so that the stigma of exclusion can be challenged and the young person can be positive about the placement. This also gives existing staff and students an opportunity to see how the new person will fit into the institution. It fulfils a risk assessment function too: are there any existing relationships with anyone in the provision which mean the placement would not be suitable? That the existing cohort has some say is felt to be important because peer dynamics are vital to the success of the placement and existing students will instil the ethos and culture of the AP. Once the placement has been agreed a much more detailed referral form will need to be completed. Some of the providers recommended a trial period for the young person. Tasters can also be useful for checking the appropriateness of a placement.
One provider said that she only has teachers with QTS. Another said that it is vital that staff buy into the ethos of the AP. Staff need to be varied and to be able to accommodate varied styles of learning. Their mission is to facilitate learning. There was a feeling that quality staff in this environment will go above and beyond what is expected of them. They need to be able to put boundaries in place.
There was wide recognition of the pay disparity between AP and mainstream, which meant that APs may be more likely to attract less skilled staff or those who are struggling to get a job in a mainstream school. The work is tough and the pay should reflect this. In addition, staff are often not offered permanent contracts, so as well as being less well paid their role is also insecure. Although there was some scepticism about the appropriateness of ‘bulk buying’ of places in AP, the LA representative pointed out that this is crucial for the financial security of small APs, and to their ability to offer longer-term contracts to staff.
Recruitment decisions depend on the personality of the person and how they interact with the young people during a trial day. Staff should be on a probationary period at first. Staff should be supported to train and develop once they are established as permanent staff. The providers recognised that once you get the right staff it is vital that you keep them, and support and develop them.
Quality APs will engage with the family, and recognise how integral this is to the young person’s success. Some of the providers use contracts with the young person and/or their parents which clearly outline what is expected of everyone.
A quality AP will also competently engage with the wider agencies in the young person’s life. There were some complaints about the quality of these agencies, particularly youth offending teams. There was a sense that poor quality staff from these external agencies could impact on the quality of a placement.
There was a feeling that outcomes and wider impact both need to be tracked. A longer-term view needs to be taken to see what happens to young people, particularly in light of data which suggests that, historically, 50% of young people aged 16-19 from PRUs have ended up NEET. The providers invested in sustaining relationships with their ex-students. This included alumni events, and an annual check-in to see where all of their ex-students are. It is important that APs have someone who looks after the progression of the young people. This person needs to be knowledgeable about different routes and to develop and nurture local connections with FE colleges and employers.
The experiences of the group reconfirmed the fact that AP is more likely to be populated by boys than girls, and that vocational offerings have a tendency to reinforce existing gender stereotypes. The providers felt that girls tended to be referred to AP later, and with more complex needs.
The LA representative questioned the extent to which young people are moulded by the vocational programmes they are entered for in AP? Does this channel them into certain routes? Is their sufficient breadth and opportunity to explore alternative routes? In the case of girls, are APs channelling girls into certain routes which reconfirm gender stereotypes? Do APs need to do more to challenge these?
Another important inclusive point that was raised was the appropriateness of existing APs for Key stage three pupils. APs have traditionally catered for year 10 and 11 students, and perhaps some year 9 students. But increasingly students are excluded/referred in years 7 and 8. The LA representative has heard from providers that they struggle to accommodate younger children in their existing programmes. Are specialist key stage three APs needed?
What definition of alternative education should be used in a quality framework?
How should the mission of alternative programmes be described, and how might this affect a quality framework?
The rationale for alternative provision needs to be clearly defined. There are arguments to suggest that segregating young people away from mainstream education may be detrimental. The counter-argument is that schools don’t have the time and resources to focus on individuals’ needs and to understand young people’s home circumstances. The ‘industrial methods’ by which we organise schools do not allow room for valuing young people in the same way that alternative providers can. Mainstream schools can marginalise children who do not conform, and struggle to nurture relationships with parents who are often hard to reach. Alternative provision represents a commitment not to ignore children’s rights and their entitlement to an education. Some alternative providers are trying to address the need for young people to develop self-respect and a sense of achievement. In many PRUs for instance, young people express that they see particular value in the way their teachers engage and connect with them.
Does the language used to describe students and alternative programmes matter? What terminology should be used in a quality framework?
The phrase ‘alternative’ dumbs down alternative provision. While there are inevitably peaks and troughs, some alternative providers are recognised as potentially outstanding by Ofsted. Young people want to be respected and not labelled as failures if they are referred to alternative provision. This language also stigmatises professionals in the field. Many of the teachers at Westside are not qualified teachers but are nevertheless ‘great’. Parents at Westside are grateful that their children are getting a ‘second chance’. The dialogue with parents needs to be positive – they are accustomed to having negative discussions about their children’s educational experiences. If the language is presented differently, parents will talk. At Westside, the term used is ‘complementary education’, and local mainstream schools are dissuaded from using potential referral to Westside as a punitive ‘threat’, as opposed to a choice. Credibility and recognition is a major issue for staff and parents.
These issues are reflected in the pay scales for alternative provision. Alternative education providers can struggle to recruit quality teachers due to payment rates. Some teachers enter into alternative provision as a secondary career. More should be done to encourage high quality teachers (including Teach First graduates) to work for alternative providers. The image of teaching in alternative provision has to change. Teachers should be seen as extra qualified if they are able to teach in alternative provision – with the most vulnerable children in society. It’s a very political process, often driven by available funds. There is also no great professional dialogue between mainstream staff and staff in alternative provision. All of these factors can have an impact on staff morale. Some schools focus on promoting positive messages– using students as ambassadors and maintaining an active website.
– Should the same expectations of, and criteria for, quality apply equally to all types of alternative education, or should they be differentiated? If so, on what basis?
– What outcomes should be expected of alternative programmes? Should these be common to all?
There is enormous diversity in alternative provision. Some providers have the freedom to employ people who have non-traditional teaching backgrounds. Some alternative providers run their institutions like mini mainstream schools with high academic targets. Expected outcomes vary across different provision and are usually particular to each child. You often find accelerated learning in alternative provision, as young people go from being completely disengaged to making rapid improvements.
Some would argue that the best-case scenario is for young people to transition back into the mainstream. Whether transition rates should be taken into account is a matter for debate. In Warwickshire for instance, young people accessing alternative provision usually return to mainstream education when they go to colleges at FE level. This transition represents a fresh start and colleges tend to be able to handle these young people at this stage. Some young people access an alternative provider, and then decide it’s not for them, whereas others may feel a sense of belonging in that same institution – young people will have different personal experiences.
Outcomes can also be related to employment destinations for students. Mainstream schools have a responsibility to offer careers guidance, but they’re often not good enough at it. When you have a middle class child with family connections then you can put up with this, but disadvantaged children need the support. Alternative providers frequently negotiate links with local businesses and stakeholders. Teach First research in PRUs has shown that some PRUs offer work experience and incentives, such as a guaranteed interview with a local company. At Westside, alumni are tracked until they’re 21 – like an extended family. Although Ofsted does measure employability, the mainstream is not measured on destinations of pupils. A framework would need to measure how an alternative provider interacts with its wider community and neighbouring businesses. Prince’s Trust research has demonstrated that young people who’ve had exposure to an employer are less likely to be NEET in the future, which presents a good case for assessing this aspect of work.
– Should a quality framework use a common list of best practices?
– If so, which are most important to include?
– Should concerns about alternative education practice also inform a quality framework?
– Are any of these issues of concern more important than others?
– How should they be measured and assessed?
The range of provision makes defining common criteria difficult. Health and safety should obviously be a standard area for assessment. Beyond, that, there should be some criteria that’s recognised by Ofsted and mainstream schools, however this criteria should be adapted for the situation. While in mainstream schools, attendance would be a basic category for measurement, for alternative education providers, high attendance could be a significant indicator of good provision, if the point of young people going there is for them to be re-engaged with education. Behaviour standards would be another expected indicator for measurement.
The commissioning process should also be subject to quality assessment. Some issues are seen to arise when schools are responsible for referrals (as opposed to commissioning services). Schools are keen to boost results and know that some alternative providers can offer a wide curriculum so these dual motives can generate a lack of trust. There needs to be a middle tier to manage this process. The referring schools also need to be assessed. We should address the possibility that in some circumstances there may be faults with mainstream schools, and schools may use that alternative provision as a quick-fix solution to place blame on the student and decant the problem, rather than addressing underlying issues.
Schools can often think they’ve failed if they’ve had to resort to alternative provision. This gets passed on to children and the transition can feel like a badge of failure. This is supported by the fact that statistics show that excluded young people are more likely to be NEETs, or end up in the criminal justice system. Schools sometimes don’t give the right message and are not honest with pupils about their ability to return to mainstream education. Short stay alternative provision can sometimes intensify poor behaviour, whereas in longer-term provision the cohort of young people is more stable and there is a greater sense of belonging amongst pupils. In Warwickshire, some schools have agreed not to permanently exclude, so as to prevent the mainstream from turning their back on young people. There are concerns related to the idea that referral to alternative provision dislocates young people from their communities. There are examples of in-school alternative provision (such as the Prince’s Trust XL clubs). Some young people do however need a change in network and peers. Some schools experience issues with gangs for instance. In Afro-Caribbean communities, there is evidence of communities providing their own provision. While those involved are usually unqualified, many young people are seen to be able to re-enter mainstream later.
Other features of alternative provision that could be subjects of assessment include enrichment opportunities, relationship building and understanding of child development. Through pilot work in PRUs carried out by Teach First, children are found to comment that their teachers are more like youth workers – they offer young people access to local networks, they are flexible and able to connect well with young people. In mainstream schools, headteachers are more likely to spend professional development money on training that will ultimately help to improve results. Secondary stage teachers in mainstream schools often have very little understanding of child development, and knowledge of turbulent home situations and the baggage young people bring to school. Alternative providers recognise that non-academic pursuits such as football can help to connect children to the learning process. The journey young people have taken in alternative provision should be considered – from their entry to exit points.
– Should there be a quality framework for alternative education?
Irrespective of the reason a child is accessing alternative provision – they should not be disadvantaged in accessing continuing education, and their experiences should be assessed with rigour.
From a County Council point of view, one could argue that recognition of quality in alternative provision could encourage schools to be less inclusive and more reliant on referral. Conversely, if schools spent money on developing in-school provision, and it all worked, that money for alternative provision could be taken away. These implications should be considered.
– What kind of quality approach should be used e.g. standards, audit or fit for purpose?
– Who should be involved in developing it?
Different frameworks for monitoring should be considered – from a Michelin star-style award system to a crowd-sourced trip advisor model. Continuous monitoring is preferable to the mainstream Ofsted model of infrequent inspection over short periods of time. Young people accessing alternative provision deserve the same, if not better quality assessment. The University model of student feedback could be replicated in alternative provision. Young people often have a profound sense of what provision is there for them and like to have a say in their educational experiences. Both children and parents’ views should be taken into account. For instance, in many PRUs, young people choose to wear a uniform. They want to be perceived like other kids. These small things make a difference. They need to be encouraged to make decisions and have a voice. What’s also important is the expertise with which a framework is interpreted. If a parallel framework is to be considered with Ofsted, it needs a lot of consultation with commissioners to get it right.
Would a kite-mark approach be useful for the sector and for schools?
If so, how would it work?
If you’re going to give a kitemark there has to be checks and balances. The kitemark could indicate that teachers would meet the same professional standard, which would help to alleviate the stigma attached to professional practice in alternative provision. This could be monitored through a robust accreditation system for professional training.