20k pupils in unregistered alternative provision, study finds

Calls for statutory registration and 'light-touch' regulation to ensure vulnerable children are 'brought back into view'

Calls for statutory registration and 'light-touch' regulation to ensure vulnerable children are 'brought back into view'

An estimated 20,000 pupils are being taught in unregistered alternative provision units – some which do not meet basic safeguarding standards, new research has found. 

The study by the Centre for Social Justice found the government nor councils had accurate data on these children – many which have been excluded from mainstream schools – including where they are and what education they are receiving. 

Researchers found examples of unregistered AP employing staff that did not have disclosure and barring service (DBS) checks.

In an agricultural education AP, a firearm was discovered in an unlocked room while at another provider, work experience bordered on child labour.

The law does not require educational settings to register with the Department for Education unless they educate five or more pupils full time -18 hours a week.

CSJ wants this “loophole” closed and is urging the government to set up a “light-touch” registration framework.

Lord Storey, co-chair of the APPG on school exclusions and AP, said: “These are some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and they need all the support and protection that we can possibly give them.
“It is time to bring these children back into view.”

Patchy alternative provision data

Government data found the top three reasons for sending a child to unregistered AP was “behavioural support” followed by “other” and a mental health medical condition. 

The data on unregistered AP is patchy – as it comes from multiple sources.

The school census data shows just over 12,000 children were registered at a school and unregistered AP while the AP census estimates about 8,300 pupils were commissioned by councils into unregistered AP.

There is also a lack of reliable, up-to-date data about providers, CSJ said. A DfE estimate from 2012 said there were “several thousand”, possibly “over 10,000”. 

Some unregistered APs and councils told CSJ the process of registering with the DfE is “labour intensive” especially on providers with small staffing teams. 

Other vocational training APs have been told by Ofsted that to be considered for registration they are required to offer a full curriculum. 

But not registering means there is a “critical shortfall of oversight”, CSJ warned, and Ofsted does not have to inspect this provision.

In some cases, councils have taken it upon themselves to oversee the sector locally, but there is no requirement to do this.

Unregistered settings are also not legally compelled to carry out safeguarding checks, such as DBS and appointing designated safeguarding leads. 

In one case, a firearm was discovered in an unlocked room at a provider delivering agricultural education. A police investigation resulted in the removal of the firearm, but since then the provider has continued to operate as usual. 

In another case, CSJ said pupils were supposedly gaining work experience with a mechanic and it transpired that the provision was crossing the line into child labour. 

Ministers are ‘in the dark’

CSJ calls for a new statutory registration framework should be implemented, requiring unregistered education providers to share pupils and setting details. These would then be “licensed supplementary education providers”. 

Councils should be responsible for collecting these details and submit them to the DfE. CSJ also wants a national framework for minimum standards.

Beth Prescott, senior AP researcher at CSJ, said ministers “are in the dark” adding: “While some providers do a fantastic job offering bespoke support to children, without knowing which children are in these settings and where all the settings are, it is impossible to ensure that proper standards of teaching, learning and safeguarding are being maintained.”

A DfE call for evidence on unregistered AP use closed almost a year ago. A DfE spokesperson said analysis will be published “later this year and will set out further proposals in due course”. 

More from this theme


Hinds says ‘all schools’ restrict phones, and 5 more key findings

Schools minister also says the 'option' of statutory mobile phone guidance remains

Freddie Whittaker

CST calls for policy changes over ‘unsustainable’ parent complaints

Academy body says rise in complaints is putting 'significant pressure on school leaders’

Jack Dyson

Poverty: Trusts spend six-figure sums to support ‘crisis’ families

News comes amid calls for chancellor Jeremy Hunt to hand out more education cash in next week's budget

Jack Dyson

Heads and teachers working longer despite workload push

Key government workforce survey reveals longer working weeks, less job satisfaction and more anxiety

Samantha Booth

Number of children ‘missing education’ rises a quarter

117,000 children were not registered at a school and not receiving a suitable education elsewhere at some point last...

Freddie Whittaker

‘Elite’ Star and Eton sixth forms reveal ‘clearing house’ careers role

Partnership between academy trust and top private school also opens new 'think and do' tank

Schools Week Reporter

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One comment

  1. Dawn Salter

    Here we go again! – banging on about invisible or lost children again, when in reality, nearly all alternative provision places are funded by schools or local authorities. They know exactly where these children are, especially when they are transported and even supported by school staff, or transported from home with local authority funding! Most parents haven’t got the cash to self-fund these placements, which are typically £100+ per day in this area.

    However, there is a problem with APs: they can be set up by people with lots of passion (or if I’m allowed to be a bit cynical, a nice place for teens to hang out and a business plan to generate some extra cash) but not enough experience or knowledge to meet a range of complex needs. They can make serious safeguarding errors and still call themselves ‘trauma-informed’ and ‘therapeutic’, without a solid understanding of what that means and what is required. Schools and local authorities are in a difficult position: so many children are being failed by schools that they are desperate to have an alternative offering that goes some way towards better meeting children’s needs, sometimes, just for one day per week. And so the private sector steps up, with mixed results. There are good AP settings that are well run and deliver what they claim to – I’ve first hand knowledge of one, and saw how they handled a safeguarding issue responsibly, without denial or minimisation – but I also seen the significant hurt caused to a young person who already had school trauma by two different AP settings.

    AP settings are needed, but the overall answer has to include making schools more inclusive, and emotionally and psychologically safer for more children. Children who have trauma, SEN and who are neurodivergent must also be identified earlier and given apropriate supports and specialist placements much sooner, before school adds additional harm to their mental and physical well-being.

    There probably should be some kind of regulation for APs, and that will inevitably add to the cost. But also the local authorities should be allocating a caseworker who actively monitors each child in an AP setting, and intervenes when issues arise, and not leave parents to have to argue about safeguarding and other failings in their own with the leadership of a setting that can’t or won’t admit failings or take the apropriate remedial steps.