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Academy trusts spend millions on uninspected private alternative provision

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Multi-academy trusts spend three times as much on private alternative provision as they do on local authority alternative provision – even though many private providers have never been checked by Ofsted.

Schools Week asked the largest multi-academy trusts to give details of the private alternative providers they have used to educate their pupils over the last four years.

The sixteen trusts we spoke to spent a total of £2.94 million sending children who could not be served in mainstream schools to private alternative providers, but just £1 million on local authority places, because, they said, council-run provision had been closed or private provision was “better tailored” to pupil needs.

However Schools Week found that half of the 154 private providers used by the trusts do not have individual Ofsted reports, raising serious questions about the quality of provision on offer relative to its cost.

Among those which were graded, just over half were ‘good’, and around 15 per cent were ‘outstanding’, but the rest were still paid despite receiving grades three or four.

Dave Whitaker, the executive principal of Springwell Learning Community, an AP school in Barnsley, said Ofsted tries to check independent providers during their inspection of schools.

Some trusts could be hiding kids in non-compliant alternative provision

But these checks can be brief, and many private alternative providers might never be visited at all, he said.

Under government rules private providers are only inspected if they are providing full-time education to five or more pupils of compulsory school age, or they educate one pupil who is looked after or has special educational needs or a disability.

Given this, Whitaker suggested that some trusts could be “hiding kids in non-compliant alternative provision”, hinting at a “can of worms”.

The Diocese of Coventry MAT uses Bilton Evangelical Church for alternative provision, a body that does not appear on Ofsted’s list of inspected providers.

Meanwhile Wakefield City Academies Trust, which is to fold later this year due to concerns over quality and finance, has used the Impact Centre, a private provider which costs £65 a day per pupil and was rated ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted in May.

Among the trusts we spoke to, private alternative provision has become increasingly popular and the proportion of pupils sent to one has more than trebled over the past four years. The proportion sent to PRUs only doubled in the same timeframe, showing a preference for using non-council provision.

Reasons for the increase vary by trust. The Diocese of Coventry MAT claimed that Warwickshire council closed all of its pupil referral units in 2012, forcing it to seek private alternatives. Five other trusts said local council provision was full.

Both the Collaborative Academies Trust and LEAD Academies Trust said their local authorities did not run a form of alternative provision allowing pupils to return back into school when ready, whereas private providers did.

And the Harris Federation said private providers had less “complex referral processes” than councils and often produced better academic outcomes than local PRUs, which can have in their care “some of the most troubled young people in the borough”.

The Cabot Learning Federation said it preferred the smaller class sizes of private provision.

But the choice to send pupils to private schools is expensive for the taxpayer: in the last two years, Harris has spent £779,000 sending 125 pupils to 34 private providers.

Kiran Gill

The Collaborative Academies Trust spent £179,700 in 2013-14 placing two pupils in private provision, compared with the £25,000 it spent on two pupils at the local council referral unit in the same year.

Meanwhile the Diocese of Coventry MAT spent £73,861 sending 29 pupils to private schools over the past four years, but nothing on three pupils who went to local PRUs, because costs were covered by the council.

Not all trusts are making use of private alternative providers, however. The Tauheedal Education Trust sent 39 pupils to PRUs in 2015-16, a figure which rose to 48 last year, and sent just two to private AP – and then only due to a “lack of space” in local provision.

Kiran Gill (pictured), founder of The Difference, a programme that trains teachers in alternative provision, said she was hearing that schools which “struggle to stay in the black” could not afford to use private providers, even as a preventative measure to avoid permanent exclusion.

Private providers collecting a fee have less incentive to return pupils to mainstream schooling, claimed Rob Gasson, the CEO of the Acorn Academy Trust, which runs alternative provision in Cornwall, so pupils are kept out of the mainstream for longer than is necessary.

A spokesperson for Ofsted said government guidance defines a school as an institution which provides education for at least 18 hours a week. Non-associated independent schools covered by this definition are inspected.



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10 Comments

  1. Mark Watson

    What would be really helpful is if the author of an article like this would actually provide some investigatory background beyond sending out surveys, quoting the respondents, and then calling up people with massive self-interest for a quote. [Guess what, the head of an AP school would prefer people didn’t use his competitors.]
    You say “the Diocese of Coventry MAT claimed that Warwickshire council closed all of its pupil referral units in 2012, forcing it to seek private alternatives. Five other trusts said local council provision was full.” It shouldn’t take too much effort to check whether this is true. If it is, then it does somewhat explain why they’re having to use alternative AP providers doesn’t it. If it’s not true then maybe you have a rather more explosive story on your hands.

    • Warwickshire devolved funding to ‘Area Behaviour Partnerships’ in 2011. Responsibility for commissioning alternative provision rests with the school (or, presumably, the academy trust if the school’s an academy). Warwickshire says APUs should be registered with the DfE. I couldn’t find Bilton Evangelical Church on the DfE’s database ‘Get Information About Schools’.
      http://www.warwickshire.gov.uk/alternativeeducationprovision

      • Mark Watson

        Without wishing to repeat myself, what would be helpful is more clarity rather than less.
        The headline here is “Multi-academy trusts spend three times as much on private alternative provision as they do on local authority alternative provision”.
        So the question I would like answered to start off with is whether there is capacity in local authority alternative provision.
        Following on from your research, is there capacity in any registered AP providers in Warwickshire? I had a quick look at DfE’s database, EduBase and Ofsted and I couldn’t see (which might of course just be me) any alternative provision academies or PRUs in Warwickshire.

      • Mark Watson

        One other question to throw into the mix. In Warwickshire there are 152 maintained primary schools and 7 maintained schools – where do those schools send their children when they need AP?
        Is this a MAT issue, as the headline screams, or is it actually an AP issue?

        • It appears to be an AP issue, at least in Warwickshire. Are your stats a typo? Get Information About Schools says there are 198 state-maintained primaries and 43 state-maintained secondaries in Warwickshire. That quibble aside, you’re right to say that all Warwickshire schools have to commission AP if it’s needed whether they’re academies or non-academies. If there are no state-maintained PRUs in Warwickshire then the council will also have to use independent provision.

          • Mark Watson

            In Warwickshire the figures I have show there are indeed 198 primaries and 43 secondaries, but these figures cover both academies and maintained school. For primaries there are 46 academies and 153 maintained schools, and for secondaries there are 36 academies and 7 maintained schools.
            My point, which seems to be backed up by your findings, is that this serious subject isn’t actually anything to do with academy trusts, as the headline shouts, but is about the dearth of any adequate alternative provision. That’s the issue. That’s what Schools Week should be concentrating on.

  2. Mark Watson

    The other thing it would be helpful to know is whether sending pupils to these ‘uninspected’ AP providers costs more or less to the referring schools. I was assuming that the whole premise of the story was that schools were saving money, at the expense and risk of the affected pupils, by using these providers. That’s certainly what the headline implies.
    However the figures (from The Collaborative Academies Trust and the Diocese of Coventry MAT) seem to show it is much more expensive to do it this way. Why on earth would they be spending far more money than they had to, and laying themselves open to stories like this, if they didn’t think there was a significant benefit?
    Should the headline actually be “Academy trusts forced to spend millions more than they should on uninspected private alternative provision because there is no longer a viable alternative”?

  3. David Barry

    I dont disagree with Mark Watson’s points altho’ I accept that publishing a story like this can have the effect of causing more information to come to light by way, for example, of people contacting the journalist.

    Another question would be “How many of these contracts are examples of related third party transactions?”

    • Mark Watson

      Six telephone calls to specific local councils to check if they have any AP capacity isn’t a huge ask of a journalist.
      Schools Week trumpets itself as being “in-depth, investigative education journalism, determined to get past the bluster and explain the facts”.
      Running a headline story up the flagpole just to see if anyone else can provide them with the relevant information doesn’t exactly make the grade …