Alternative provision

If we’re all together, why is AP excluded again?

Another report denigrates and fails to include the voices of AP, writes Sarah Johnson, and until that ends it’s unlikely we’ll solve systemic problems

Another report denigrates and fails to include the voices of AP, writes Sarah Johnson, and until that ends it’s unlikely we’ll solve systemic problems

9 May 2022, 5:00

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I approach reports like this week’s new publication from the Commission on Young Lives with my expectations set to ‘cynical’. I ask myself: how many times can one report castigate alternative provision (AP), and how badly can it fail to appreciate its real contribution to the school system? In the case of All Together Now, it’s 64. And very badly.

From the very first mention, it’s clear how this is going to go. “We know too how poor the academic outcomes are for children who end up out of mainstream education and placed in alternative provision.” Fair enough. An honest look at why and how this happens is necessary to improve things for these young people. But sadly, that’s not on offer.

“There is also a strong consensus,” the report continues, “that alternative provision is often poor quality and not meeting the needs of many children and desperately needs an overhaul.” Why look for evidence when the consensus is so strong?

And then this flourish: “Our system […] has often appeared complacent and casual towards the outcomes of children in AP.” Well, perhaps, but do you know who isn’t complacent and casual about the outcomes of young people in AP? AP.

It’s par for the course. Very little of what is written about AP is backed by information about what might be driving these opinions, much less any counter-evidence or alternative opinions from inside the sector. Instead, unsubstantiated claims and stereotypes are so ingrained that they are taken as fact.

Stereotypes are so ingrained that they are taken as fact

How and why has it become acceptable to denigrate a whole area of education with very little information, evidence or discussion? It is interesting that such reports are seldom written about the SEND system as a whole. There is an assumption that special schools are led by experts, whereas AP settings are led by less specialist staff. And you are unlikely to read a report where English and maths outcomes for young people in special schools are compared to their peers in mainstream schools; there is an appreciation of the different needs that make this challenging.

Yet when it comes to AP, lack of understanding of its complexities and nuances is played out time and again – and it is no different in this paper. A question I am commonly asked is “what is the typical child who attends AP?”. But there is no typical child; the only thing that unites their educational experience is one of fragmentation and disruption. There are those with medical needs who are unable to attend mainstream school, those who really struggle to manage their behaviour in larger environments, and yes, also those who have been excluded too readily.

I agree that the legislation is not robust enough to ensure the latter get redress. If a child is not excluded for fair and proportionate reasons, there must be a path to addressing this within governors’ discipline committees or independent review panels. But that is not a justification for re-hashing tropes about AP. Let’s have a conversation around inclusion and exclusion, but let’s also develop a real understanding of the systemic factors that drive some children towards poor outcomes, put them at risk of criminal exploitation and on a path to AP in the first place.

I never again want to read that “the outcomes for most children in alternative provision is just not good enough” [sic]. It infuriates me. Would they be any different if these young people stayed in mainstream? And the idea that this is down to a lack of “real vision of excellence” in the sector just adds insult to that injurious claim.

I could take Anne Longfield, or anyone else who would care to come, on a tour of APs from north to south and east to west whose excellence and vision make a real difference to children’s lives and the communities they reside in.

They may not always achieve the same GCSE results as their mainstream counterparts, but if we’re going to improve that, ‘all together’ is going to have to include AP, not deride it.



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  1. I have just read the article on AP in Schools Weekly. It makes me spit feathers to be honest. Our organization is going from strength to strength. This academic year we have had 85 schools students on roll, we are running our Outreach Programme in 30 schools, as they are struggling with students disappearing, attendance and behavior, following the pandemic. So many young people suffering from isolation, anxiety and mental health issues our interventions have trebled.
    I am continually banging my head against the wall promoting the amazing outcomes we are receiving for our students In AP, and this year we have a 96% retention rate, all with no statutory funding. We have just gone through an inspection with our Prime Provider for our Post 16 Study Programme with excellent results, and a successful OFSTED inspection through one of our schools. I have pleaded for registration, but it seems we are regarded as second class citizen in the world of education even though we are getting a huge number of students through recognized trade related qualifications. How can people make such sweeping statements about organizations when they have never set foot in them.