Year in review

Alternative Provision been heard, but now we need action

2022 began with encouraging signs APs and PRUs were finally getting the attention they deserve, says Sarah Johnson, but ends with silence about growing concerns

2022 began with encouraging signs APs and PRUs were finally getting the attention they deserve, says Sarah Johnson, but ends with silence about growing concerns

13 Dec 2022, 5:00

As ministers have come and gone multiple times throughout 2022, alternative provision schools and pupil referral units (APs and PRUs) have been at the coal face safeguarding young people and families as best they can from so many challenges that they’ve been labelled a ‘perma-crisis’. Perhaps the best way to look back on the year is to disentangle just a few key threads from that cluster.

The green paper

This year has served to remind us that we still need to strive to have the voice of PRU and AP listened to, but we have made some headway. In late March, the SEND and AP green paper was published, and not only was alternative provision mentioned, but it had a whole chapter to its name.

The policy proposals gave clear recognition that AP should be seen as part of the wider educational offer and as part of a continuum of support. They were widely welcomed in AP and across the sector, not least (encouragingly) the central focus on working collaboratively for the benefit of the young people who need this provision.

But that was in March. The consultation ended in July. We are now in December, and the DfE website still reads ‘We are analysing your feedback’. It’s all very well being listened to, but let’s hope 2023 brings action. 

Crime and its causes

Alternative provision often features negatively in the media, especially because of its association with exclusions and crime rates. So it was heartening when, almost the same time as it published its green paper, the DfE also published research in collaboration with the ministry of justice which indicated that PRUs and AP can be a protective factor against youth offending.

To continue to build these protective factors, we must work together – across schools, social care, families, youth offending teams and beyond. Sadly, November ended with the Evening Standard claiming in a tweet that ‘School exclusions are contributing to violence on London streets’. Prominent commentators then engaged on the causality (or not) of exclusions and crime, rather than the content of the article or, indeed, the fantastic work that we know helps to reduce both.

So there’s still work to be done on listening in 2023 too. 

Funding, recruitment and retention

Meanwhile, it’s hard to look back on this year without talking about the ongoing financial crisis. Often funded through local authorities’ high needs block, and with fluctuating rolls and smaller sites, AP is more vulnerable than most. And when the schools we work with face their own financial difficulties, that only increases the stresses. Less funding for preventative work has a knock-on effect on exclusions.

On top of it all, there are significant issues with recruitment and retention. Supermarkets are offering more money, term-time only contracts and a better work-life balance, and if that’s a challenge for mainstream schools, it’s even harder for those with a reputation for being more challenging settings.

Against a backdrop of rising instability and deprivation, this is likely to be having a profound effect on vulnerable children. While we are still grappling with the effects of lockdowns, the long-term consequences of a new austerity are already being etched into their lives.

Mental health

Which brings us to November, and rising concerns about children’s mental health difficulties. Last month, the NHS digital team provided data from a survey of young people’s mental health and experiences of school which indicated that 18 per cent of children aged 7 to 16 – nearly one in five – had a probable mental health disorder. Those children are more likely to suffer from online bullying and to feel unsafe in their school community.

PRUs and APs service children with mental health difficulties as well as those at risk of exclusion, so the increase is likely to be felt acutely in these settings over the coming months and years.

Some of the solutions in the green paper will help us tackle some of that together. The increased funding announced by Jeremy Hunt in his autumn budget will have a cushioning effect too. But the turnaround in 2023 will need to be substantial to make a genuine change for the children most at risk of exclusion and those with medical needs.

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  1. Working in AP is a difficult task and sometimes you have to ask yourself why some young people are sent here. They may have caused huge concerns in their mainstream, but once they move to our smaller setting with smaller groups and staff attention, they often appreciate the new learning environment and make positive changes which will help them lead successful lives in the future.

    What people need to realise is that behaviour is a form of communication. If someone is showing negative behaviours it is often because they need help.

    It is however true that the funding is not available on the scale that is required. In order to give young people the attention they need to help them overcome their hurdles, the staff-to-student ratio has to be high. This however means that the amount of staff required in AP, often leads to lower wages, because the provision simply is not sustainable with the high numbers of staff.

    This raises a concern about who ends up working in these provisions. AP is a specialist area and takes a unique type of person. Your resilience needs to be extremely high and these specialists just are not being paid for the great work that they do. So yes, staff retention in schools is difficult in modern times, but staff retention in AP is even more difficult. As staff are forced to decide to work for less money or move on to something else, even if that means leaving vulnerable young people without the support they need.