Thousands of children are being educated in unregistered alternative provision where teachers require neither qualifications nor criminal record checks.
A Schools Week investigation has found children as young as five are increasingly sent to these unregulated institutions, which are not inspected by Ofsted or properly overseen by local authorities.
Provision ranges from online tutoring to horse therapy and video-gaming, with disturbing accounts of vans set on fire, knives allowed on site and children sent to work for a mechanic.
Our investigation has found that a third of councils have no idea how many pupils in their regions are educated in unregulated settings.
And while some provide irreplaceable support to vulnerable children let down by other services, one Ofsted inspector says many young people are “lost and left out of sight, out of mind”.
APs that provide “full-time” education (which isn’t legally defined, but roughly more than 18 hours a week) to either five or more pupils, or a child in care or with an EHCP or SEND statement, have to register and come under Ofsted’s radar.
But schools and councils are having to turn to unregistered settings as pupils’ needs outstrip specialist provision, with special schools and regular AP full to bursting.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said while “care is taken over the choice of providers”, the situation is “far from ideal”.
“This concerns children who are on the margins of the education system and who require a high level of support. We have to do better on their behalf and the starting point is a commitment to the level of investment and resources which are necessary to deliver this objective.”
The rise of unregulated AP
About 20,000 children were placed in “unregistered” AP settings last year, but the DfE is largely in the dark about what they offer as 85 per cent lack any identifying codes.
Both schools and councils can commission AP. Unregistered placements by councils rose to 8,320 last year – up 41 per cent since 2018-19. That includes a huge rise in one-on-one tuition.
Schools commissioned 12,030 unregistered placements – interestingly, a higher proportion of their AP placements, 61 per cent, were unregulated compared with 20 per cent by councils.
There is little public data on what unregulated APs provide. But responses from 112 councils to a Schools Week freedom of information request found that of their 7,129 children attending unregistered AP in January 2023, more than a third were in mainly face-to-face tuition.
The rest were split between online tutoring, vocational, therapeutic, and other provision, including faith settings.
While some councils and trusts have banned using unregistered AP, others rely on it to plug gaps in other specialist provision. Just nine (8 per cent) did not commission any unregistered AP directly.
However, nearly a third of councils did not know how many children were in unregulated AP.
Schools Week found that most LAs commission a mix of academic tuition with a vocational, therapeutic or sports activity for each child, delivered through various part-time unregulated APs. This allows them to meet their statutory duty to provide children with a full-time education.
A report by children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza found 63 looked-after children receiving multiple forms of non-registered AP on a full-time basis.
It said councils “cited a lack of appropriate school placements or an unwillingness of schools to admit children with complex additional needs”.
Children ‘allowed to drive and take knives out’
While unregistered providers must comply with buildings, insurance, health and safety and fire protection regulations, they do not need to adhere to safeguarding or child protection legislation.
Ofsted has in the past flagged concern over the DfE’s safeguarding guidance also making no mention of unregistered AP staff requiring disclosure and barring service checks.
The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), which recently published a report into unregulated AP, was told of settings “where children were allowed to drive and take knives out”.
In another case, an AP was “crossing the line to child labour” when pupils were “supposedly gaining work experience with a mechanic”.
Craig Johnston, a UWE Bristol lecturer with extensive knowledge of unregistered AP, recalls visiting a farm-based AP years ago while working for a council, where the owner referred to children as “feral”. “He pointed to a tent in a field and said, ‘we just let them run around’.” At another provision children were setting a van on fire. Johnston also visited AP where children were “just throwing a ball about all day”. CSJ researchers said one local authority’s register of approved unregistered APs was “a list written on a scrap of paper”.
Ofsted extends its remit
But Ofsted is taking a keener interest. Its SEND inspections were this year broadened to include all council-commissioned AP.
A scathing inspection report last month found Oxfordshire had “little strategic oversight” of AP. It did “not know” unregistered providers “well”.
Senior Ofsted SEND and AP inspector Steve Shaw also said schools that commissioned unregistered AP should expect Ofsted to visit that setting as part of their own inspection, or “at the very least talk to them”.
Speaking at the Festival of Education in July, he said it was “tragically not unusual” that a child in unregistered AP had “not had a visit from the school and don’t really know why they’re there, or how long for”.
“We’ve seen some really unsuitable inappropriate settings. They’re just lost and left out of sight, out of mind.”
Sir Herbert Leon Academy, in Milton Keynes, was rated ‘inadequate’ in a report published in May last year. Ofsted said a failure to “systematically check” pupils attending the three registered and one unregistered AP the school used were “present or safe” left them “at risk of harm”.
A spokesperson for the Academies Enterprise Trust, which runs the school, said it has since introduced a “comprehensive trust-wide safeguarding framework and detailed training on managing unregulated provision” to “establish a positive culture of safeguarding across all our schools”.
Growing SEND behind rise
Almost three-quarters (71 per cent) of council AP placements in 2022-23 were commissioned because that provision was named on an EHCP, DfE data shared with Schools Week shows.
Schools Week investigations have showed how the delivery of new specialist provision has failed to keep up with a huge rise in need amongst pupils – leaving schools and councils hamstrung.
But a recent briefing by school leaders in the north east said such settings are named despite not having “the specialist provision to support these students”.
Action Community Enterprises (ACE) CIC, a vocational unregistered AP based in Norfolk, is getting “more referrals than ever”, says education support lead Millie Allerhand.
“The families are all desperate for specialist provision, but just can’t get it. We’re getting kids not necessarily appropriate for the provision we’re set up for.”
ACE is part of a quality assurance pilot Norfolk Council is undertaking to inspect all its APs. But Allerhand believes there is “so much variation” between councils in how they monitor her sector.
“Some [unregistered] APs are not being checked and quality assured. It’s the most vulnerable pupils being constantly let down.”
In Brighton, one mother described how her 14-year-old son with ADHD, who was referred to the Home Office as a victim of modern slavery after being excluded from school and groomed for criminal activity, was subsequently given part-time tutoring and sports provision.
She said the provision commissioned by his mainstream school lacked the “specialist skills” needed to meet his needs.
“A kid who only looked about two years older than him rocked up to take him off to play football. It’s really scary, just NEET meeting NEET.”
Ofsted’s lack of powers
A third (345) of the 1,036 investigations by Ofsted’s illegal schools taskforce, set up in 2016, have been AP.
Of those, 146 were suspected to be operating illegally and 129 were closed or changed their operations.
But the taskforce can’t legally inspect the quality of unregulated AP. It can only enter where there’s evidence suggesting it’s operating as a school.
In Hackney, east London, where unregistered settings include Orthodox Charedi Jewish yeshivas, the council recently raised concerns that “up to 1,500 local children were at risk” in education “out of line of sight of safeguarding, health and safety and educational standards agencies”.
Local authorities are “in an intolerable situation”, the council said in a letter to the DfE, in which they “carry all the risks” for those children but “do not have the authority to act or intervene on their behalf to keep them safe”.
The government’s Send and Alternative Improvement Plan proposed restricting the use of unregistered settings to “part-time or time-limited placements”.
But its response to a consultation proposing to address issues overseeing unregistered AP is more than a year overdue. A spokesperson said it would respond later this year.
Ofsted wants “compulsory registration for all AP. Without oversight, we are unable to get an accurate picture of the quality of education offered by these providers.
“While some may be appropriate, other provision can be highly unsuitable and sometimes even dangerous.”
Inspector Sue Will has visited settings in old school buildings “no longer fit for purpose”, with “Dickensian rows of tables with broken chairs”, as well as industrial sites and domestic premises.
She recalls one unregistered AP with six caravans on farmland, where children had to “cross a muddy field in the rain” to get from one subject to another.
Why not register?
But Sarah Johnson, president of the PRUsAP body, says many unregistered settings are “making significant contributions to the education and support of vulnerable children.”
Registration can be “exceedingly difficult”, which “poses a significant dilemma”.
Jan Appleton, director of the Eagle’s Nest Project in Staffordshire, was a senior school leader before setting up her unregistered AP ten years ago, specialising in young people with trauma.
It offers vocational qualifications, including horticulture, hospitality and catering and animal care skills, and has a partnership with a local alpaca farm.
But she is wary of registering as an independent provider, partly because it would require a curriculum covering a “broad range of subject disciplines”.
“Until you stabilise someone’s life, they’re not scientifically in a place to learn,” she says.
Many APs that do register are criticisted by inspectors for their limited curriculums.
The curriculum at Want2Achieve Academy, an independent school with AP next door in Stoke-on-Trent, was “not fit for purpose”, an ‘inadequate’ report published in May said. English lessons were “based around designing car adverts and football teams”.
Bournemouth Christian School was closed last month after it was judged inadequate over a curriculum treating “biblical interpretation as fact”.
Acorn AP, which opened four church-based unregulated AP centres in Bolton, Wakefield, Tendring and Torbay, recently sent its supporters a newsletter explaining how “not having to satisfy the requirements of the independent school standards has meant that our curriculum can be designed specifically to meet the needs” of its youngsters.
“We’ve begun to intentionally weave key biblical truths into everything we are doing,” it read.
Acorn told Schools Week those truths meant “that each young person is loved, accepted, valued and can grow and have hope.”
A rush of new private AP providers is filling a gap in the market as pupil referral units, which scaled down during the pandemic, struggle to rebuild capacity as exclusions rise.
Of the 37 currently active companies on Companies House with “alternative provision’ in their title, 18 have been incorporated since May 2022 – nearly all are private companies.
A newly opened AP, BUD Upwood, operates at a caravan park in Yorkshire for children “overwhelmed by traditional education”. The park is closed to visitors during term time, but caravan residents can still access it.
The challenge for the DfE is whether it can increase regulation of the sector without losing providers that offer genuine life-changing opportunities for pupils unable to succeed in mainstream settings.
Denver was “smashing everything up” at home before he started attending Eagle’s Nest, his mum said.
The provision “made time for him and showed him the right direction, and he started to be really good at home instead of fighting us all. I couldn’t thank [them] enough.”
From PlayStation to alpaca farms: the reality of unregulated AP
Our analysis found 38 per cent of children in unregulated AP were in face-to-face tuition, with just over 20 per cent in “other” – which includes faith settings. Fifteen per cent were in mainly vocational AP.
John Pearce, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said some vocational providers would “really struggle to offer regulated provision, because they don’t have the infrastructure to operate academic classes”.
Schools Week found several APs specialising in video gaming. Tubers Academy, which has three centres in Devon, teaches video production and digital media skills, but pupils also “get to play the latest games … on PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch and our eSports gaming PCs”.
“Gaming together provides a great opportunity for student and mentor to bond and communicate about the day,” the school says.
While such interventions may work for a short period, pupils are increasingly getting stuck for the long-term.
In Essex, Rachel Dodson who provides online and face-to-face tuition through Beautiful Mindset Education, has worked with pupils for up to 18 months.
Meanwhile, councils say 12 per cent of children are in unregulated therapeutic settings.
At Jan Appleton’s Eagle’s Nest provision much of the learning is about “emotional regulation”.
“If they come to us to go to an alpaca farm and get a nationally recognised qualification, then along the way we get them into a calmer state.”
Meanwhile, the online education sector has grown rapidly in recent years, accounting for 13 per cent of council placements.
Schools Week could find just one example of an official Ofsted inspection at an online-only provision, which was ‘inadequate’.
Liverpool-based Assess Education AP and its online learning arm, Assess North West, were separately sent warning letters this year.
Ofsted said that “few” of Assess North West’s pupils “routinely attend” online lessons.
“Pupils are not safe. Staff do not carry out robust checks to assure themselves of pupils’ welfare and safety…very few pupils actively participate in lessons. Pupils have no opportunities to work and socialise with their peers.”
The DfE launched an accreditation scheme to develop standards for full-time online education providers, and Ofsted started accreditation visits last month.
The marketing of some online tuition providers contrasts markedly with their mainstream alternatives.
Oxbridge online college, for instance, describes itself as having “no term times, no strict schedules, and no headaches”.
One online tutoring company, AirMaths, plans to launch a platform paying cash rewards in Bitcoins to pupils for data to make its AI predictions more accurate.