Gerry Robinson reflects on her first results day as a leader in Alternative Provision, and the heightened sense of momentousness for students who felt they’d been left to fail
When it comes to key stage 4 outcomes, there is an expectation that young people in Alternative Provision are destined to fail. A 2020 report from the Centre of Social Justice found that only 4 per cent of young people in AP pass English and Maths at GCSE, compared with 64 per cent in mainstream settings. This culture of low expectations is a national issue, and one which permeates the minds of staff, families and, most worryingly, the students themselves.
Christopher* was permanently excluded several years ago and still in AP as his behaviour was deemed too challenging for a successful return to mainstream. He told me recently that for a long time, he thought he would leave school with nothing. By September last year, he was working towards 10 qualifications, most of them GCSEs, meaning that the opportunity to go to a mainstream college just like his peers was still on the cards. The nagging fear that failure was inevitable, however, was something we grappled with on a regular basis as he tried to catch up on three years of schooling which he described as ‘wasted’.
I’ve always loved results days – seeing young people’s genuine excitement when they realise that they’ve achieved what they hoped for; sharing their joy with their teachers, friends and family; seeing them rush off to colleges and sixth forms, eager to secure their place for September.
But this year’s results day was my first as a leader in AP, and I wasn’t prepared for just how much more momentous it felt for these students.
I wasn’t prepared for just how much more momentous it felt for these students
On Wednesday, two members of staff decorated and wrote personalised cards from all of us to each student, congratulating them for reaching this important milestone. Cakes and snacks were ordered, and a balloon arch erected alongside gold lettering stating the absolute truth: ‘We are so proud of you.’
On the day, we ushered in high-profile visitors from Haringey Council and a professional photographer as we waited for students to arrive.
Kai* came in and collected his envelope but couldn’t bring himself to open it. Instead, he volunteered to support the basketball session at our summer school. Anything to hold off discovering the outcomes of his 8 qualifications.
Like all our students, Kai’s educational journey has been far from plain sailing. Kai and his mum were convinced his permanent exclusion for a one-off incident earlier in the year meant the end of any chance of achieving any qualifications. Instead, he presumed he would just be ‘waiting it out’, and we’ve had to work hard to support Kai to overcome his distress and the overwhelming sense of rejection and injustice he felt.
But our smaller setting, strong trusted relationships with staff trained in trauma-informed practice and SEN, and our wider range of qualifications have allowed Kai to thrive. He has begun to see the value in education again, and to believe he has what it takes to succeed.
So, knowing that opening the envelope would bring him nothing but joy, it was agonising to wait for him to drum up the courage to do it. Eventually, without drawing attention to himself, he did. Suddenly, he was beaming with the realisation he’d achieved accreditation in all his subjects and got the grades for the college course he’d set his sights on.
Moments like this remind us that, although the ultimate aim is a more inclusive mainstream system, high quality AP is a crucial part of the educational landscape. We must not lower our expectations of those in AP, but we should acknowledge that success looks different for every child and we have a moral duty to support all students to be the best they can be, rather than valuing only those who receive a clean sweep of GCSEs at grades 7-9.
Because the true marker of success is whether they can embark on the next steps in their educational journey and see them through with pride and confidence in their achievements.
Christopher, Kai and others left yesterday filled with hopes of becoming architects, sports scientists, veterinarians, lawyers, electricians, and accountants. Truly excellent AP opens and reopens doors that have previously been shut to young people, and we can’t wait to see what they achieve now that they’ve walked through them.
*All names have been changed for confidentiality.