Manifesto 2024

Changing perceptions of Alternative Provision – one MP at a time

Politicians are typically ignorant of AP so we invite them to spend a day with us to challenge their misconceptions

Politicians are typically ignorant of AP so we invite them to spend a day with us to challenge their misconceptions

29 Jun 2024, 5:00

Despite supporting thousands of young people, Alternative Provision (AP) has been low on the national agenda. In part at least, that’s because it’s a feature of the educational landscape that MPs find difficult to get to grips with. This needs to change.

AP schools play an important role for pupils who aren’t thriving in the mainstream system.  Currently, more than 25,000 pupils are enrolled in AP last academic year, including those whose main registration is at another school. And new data shows the number is rising.

Pupils frequently enter AP after being excluded or suspended from school, and the latest statistics show permanent exclusions in England have also increased again, with persistent disruptive behaviour the most common reason.

But there are other reasons for coming to AP, including non-attendance at mainstream school due to mental health or trauma. An alternative approach and smaller class sizes can give vulnerable pupils the opportunity to learn in a setting that supports their needs.

Sadly, there continues to be widespread lack of understanding around AP and the needs of these young people. AP registered as an independent school, for example, is not seen as impacting enough people to be high on the political agenda.

Some are taking steps in the right direction though. Over the past year, Progress Schools has been running an ‘internship’ for MPs to give them a day in the life of a student. As a result, more than 30 hours of MPs’ time was pledged around the country and across the political parties.

The programme has been able to highlight many misconceptions about AP, but also create opportunities for policymakers to support this rarely seen but crucial part of the education system.

Interestingly, it showed AP is often mistaken for a specialist SEND school. While we do have pupils with these needs, AP is not specific to SEND. By meeting the pupils, MPs saw the role of alternative provision and the challenges facing these young people.

Despite a recent push from the Department for Education with its SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, there is fundamental work to do.

It’s crucial our leaders recognise AP’s role for pupils who struggle with mainstream

I’ve seen the barriers to education so many pupils face. Having started my career in a mainstream school’s social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) behavioural unit before focusing on AP, I’ve also seen the pressure the sector is under.

It’s a complex space for all involved in its delivery, including policymakers, commissioners, providers and regulators. There isn’t a clear definition of what AP is, and settings that fall under its umbrella are a wide range of shapes and sizes – from registered AP schools and Pupil Referral Units to therapeutic farms and forest schools.

Depending on numbers and types of pupils, not all providers are currently required to be registered, which is concerning. And those who are registered are subject to regulation and benchmarking designed primarily for the mainstream sector.

From an Ofsted perspective, this is particularly challenging. APs registered as an independent school for example, are inspected against the independent school standards that covers private schools like Eton – making it difficult for inspectors to apply the criteria in an AP setting.

Currently, less than one per cent of HM Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) pen portraits show experience working in the AP sector, which makes it even harder.

We have spoken to MPs about regulation development and the benefits an Ofsted handbook for AP registered as an independent school would bring – making it more relevant to the cohort and ensuring progress from a pupil’s starting point is a focus.

Whatever the outcome of next month’s election, it’s crucial our leaders recognise AP’s role for pupils who struggle to engage with mainstream schools. The government must rethink and reset perceptions of and support for AP, so that settings aren’t forced into a mainstream mould.

There is long-overdue need for change, and there is opportunity too. For our part, we will continue to make the case for better support for the needs and aspirations of these young people – one MP at a time.

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