Expand alternative provision to years 12 and 13, says education committee chair

High-quality alternative provision for vulnerable pupils in years 12 and 13 is too scarce and should be expanded, the chair of the education select committee has said.

Robert Halfon told delegates at alternative provision academy trust TBAP’s annual conference that he was “shocked” by how little post-16 alternative provision there is in the country.

In particular the Conservative MP would like to see AP academies and pupil referral units offer more technical and vocational courses including apprenticeships.

But sector experts say funding cuts to post-16 education makes it difficult to open AP schools for older pupils, causing many vulnerable pupils to “drop off the map” after year 11.

Gemma Dixon, the head of TBAP’s 16-19 academic academy, said the school had been set up as an alternative to further education colleges in the area.

“FE colleges often do a tremendous job, but there were definitely a lot of young people who struggled with the large amount of responsibility they’re required to take,” she said. “There is a need for an academic route with lots of support like ours. Post-16 alternative provision is absolutely crucial.”

There were a lot of young people who struggled with the responsibility of FE colleges

The academy takes pupils from other AP or those who’ve been excluded from mainstream schools based on their performance in a cognitive ability test, and supports them through the International Baccalaureate.

All six of its year 13 pupils have university offers, in computer science, foundational art, journalism, psychology, business studies and pre-nursing. There are also now 11 pupils in year 12.

Dixon believes that too many excluded pupils are pushed towards vocational and technical qualifications when they might not be suited to those, which “denigrates the enormous value” of technical courses if they become a dumping ground for excluded pupils.

The trust might have opened an AP school for technical and vocational courses too, but would struggle to win government funding as FE colleges already appear to fill this need.

“There needs to be a cultural shift that AP must extend to 19 years old. We could fill those places 100 times over,” said Dixon.

But Catherine Sezen, a senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, a membership body for further education colleges, said that some pupils may find their environments daunting, though “others flourish and thrive”.

Many colleges already provide high-quality AP with staff trained in behaviour management. Greater funding for the sector would allow for even “more thorough transition arrangements”.

Government data shows there were 15,300 pupils from nursery to year 11 educated in pupil referral units and AP academies last year – compared with a tiny handful of just 340 attending in year 12 and 13. A spokesperson for the Department for Education confirmed that most pupils formerly in AP went onto non-AP routes such as FE colleges after year 11.

Seamus Oates, the chief executive of TBAP, said the government’s base funding of £10,000 for these pupils “should be uniform” across all year groups, and “perhaps be even higher” given the extra support many pupils require.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently confirmed that in the next couple of years, levels of funding for post-16 provision will sink to levels not seen since 1989.

Halfon agreed that widespread 16-to-19 alternative provision will not be possible “without the resources”.

A spokesperson for the DfE said “fundamental reforms” are being made to improve post-16 education and a major review of post-18 education and funding is also underway.