The SEND and AP improvement plan sets out a three-tier AP system. Within it, it envisions tier 2 being focused on “targeted early support within mainstream school, time-limited intensive placements in an alternative provision setting, and longer-term placements to support return to mainstream or a sustainable post-16 destination”.
Excellent work is already happening in this space, but to grow the wider system’s capacity to deliver this second tier of intervention, we need a better evidence base about what works and for whom. This way, rather than wastefully reinventing systems, we can share practice to ensure children benefit as soon as possible from the best possible support.
To that end, I set out to evaluate two assessment hubs in Sunderland that were created in response to a recommendation in my previous research on school exclusions. These hubs were specifically set up to assess and identify potential causes of children’s behaviours, such as learning difficulties, speech, language and communication needs, or mental health difficulties.
The first hub opened in January 2020 for 11- to 14-year-olds, and the second a year later for 8- to 11-year-olds in. The hubs, as part of the Link School, observe children at risk of school exclusion to understand factors that may contributing to their difficulties. The children attend the hub for two to eight weeks with staff who can assess their needs, including teachers, an educational psychologist, behaviour support and a mental health team.
The hope is that with this support the children and young people involved will reintegrate into mainstream school. In that regard, Sunderland’s hub model aligns closely with the tier 2 model for AP set out in the SEND and AP plan: “Short-term placements in AP schools to assess and address pupils’ needs with the expectation of their return to mainstream school”.
So I wanted to know how effectively children were being identified for additional support, and whether the hubs were having success in preventing suspensions and permanent exclusions. I reviewed quantitative attendance and school exclusion data for 39 children – 11 of them in key stage two and 38 in key stage three – who attended between January 2020 and January 2022. I also conducted twenty-three telephone interviews with caregivers to gain insight into their views on the effectiveness of the assessment hubs.
Overall, it is clear that the assessment hubs have been very effective in building positive and trusting relationships with caregivers and children.
According to caregivers, the children benefited from small class sizes, a high ratio of teachers to children and one-to-one emotional and academic support. They felt that this helped their children thrive in the hub, and they particularly valued the mental health support on offer as well as the assessment and identification of specific learning difficulties, and the help in applying for EHC needs assessments that they felt they couldn’t have navigated without the hub.
The benefits went beyond the purely educational too. The hubs improved families’ home lives through positive weekly phone calls and text messages and celebrations of the children’s achievements.
Indeed, their only consistent criticism of the assessment hubs was the time-limited nature of the intervention. Most caregivers wanted their child to remain in the hub or at the attached AP school, with all the benefits and support that brings.
Having said that, the hubs have nevertheless also been successful in supporting young people to re-engage with schooling, as evidenced by a significant reduction in permanent exclusions. Of 32 children in key stage two who accessed the service, only three went on to be permanently excluded. And of 75 young people in key stage three, four were permanently excluded within a term of leaving the hub, but all four have gone on to gaining and EHCP and remain at Link School as they await placements in specialist provision.
Reintegration into mainstream classrooms will not be possible for every child. Some simply require the kind of support only alternative or specialist provision can give. But the assessment hubs prove that an effective tier 2 can help many children at risk of exclusion.
Above all, early intervention is critical to supporting families as soon as challenges arise and before children become detrimentally affected by their experiences. Putting systems in place that can deliver that – like Sunderland’s assessment hubs – is undeniably a plan for improvement.