As the school system finds its way in a confusing new normality, success hinges on being inclusive of voices from alternative provision, writes Eleanor Bernardes

Yesterday’s announcement that schools will close to all but vulnerable pupils raised more questions than it answered, especially for those of us working in Alternative Provision (AP). Ultimately the biggest question we need to answer is ‘what is the problem we are trying to solve?’

Gavin Williamson said in Parliament that ‘vulnerable’ means those with an EHCP, as well as those who have a social worker. In AP, this will generally account for the vast majority of our students, but those who are not covered by this label risk slipping through the net. Many of the young people we serve exist on the margins of this definition but desperately need the support that will be afforded to their ‘officially vulnerable’ peers.

At Aspire AP, our chief executive, Debra Rutley often reminds us that “when we don’t have all the information, we make up our own stories” and yesterday’s announcement certainly left the education sector with more questions than answers – leaving us to do just that.

In some AP schools, 100 per cent of students fall under the ‘vulnerable’ umbrella, yet we are already beginning to find that only half of our workforce is available. This will only get worse as more teachers fall ill and go into self-isolation. Meanwhile many teachers are vulnerable themselves due to underlying health conditions and cannot return to work. Those with vulnerable relatives at home are also understandably fearful about being asked to come in.

I welcome efforts by mainstream colleagues to volunteer in settings such as AP

For my part, I am clear that what we are being asked to do is not about ensuring continuation of education and schooling as we know it. We are being asked to provide childcare so that key workers can continue their important work and ensure vulnerable young people are kept safe and secure.

For schools with a high proportion of vulnerable children, this is therefore far from ‘business as usual’. Instead, we need strong, place-based local leadership, which means going beyond the unit of the school, and it can only work if the antiquated view of AP as a dumping ground called out by Dr Sam Parrett in these pages last week is put to bed. In some countries, staff are already being pooled across a number of local schools to ensure capacity is in place to work with remaining pupils, and I welcome efforts by mainstream colleagues to volunteer in different types of settings such as AP.

We also need to work collaboratively across local departments and agencies to identify our priorities, whether they are individuals, families, or common problems faced by our communities such as food distribution. We can then allocate available resources, including teachers, social workers, buildings and budgets as best we can. The response needs to be coordinated by local leaders with a helicopter-view of services, the power to deploy staff from across settings and agencies, and respect for all providers within the system. We must operate in safe and efficient ways so that we don’t have twelve different professionals trying to engage with the same family, whilst others quietly fall through the net.

These problems cannot be solved by schools alone. In AP we are used to working with multi-agency partners, and right now we need leaders who understand the potential of forging new collaborative relationships between professionals. The burden must be shared rather than landing crushingly on the shoulders of teachers serving the most vulnerable students and communities.

A lack of clarity from the government doesn’t help. We need to know what looking after vulnerable young people means in practice. Are we keeping them in school full-time or providing a safe space for them to drop in each day? We also need to know who should be attending work. The weekend is upon us and schools have done all they can to ascertain who among their parents are key workers without any real parameters. And what about teachers? Is it enough for individual teachers to be well and healthy? Or should they stay away if anyone at home is potentially vulnerable?

It’s time to write a new story for our schools, but our system is vulnerable. It needs what AP knows best: inclusion, collaboration and purposeful leadership.