The year in alternative provision: When we became inclusion leaders

18 Dec 2020, 5:00

Colleagues were sceptical but my shift into alternative provision is now a source of learning for all, says Hammad Ali

For many teachers and school leaders, 2020 will be remembered for the prolonged disruption that came with bubbles, blended learning and school closures. My own professional upheaval began, not during the first lockdown of March, but in the first quarter of the year, when things were as ‘normal’ as they can possibly be in schools.

After seven years in mainstream, I had chosen to make the transition to working as a senior leader in alternative provision. My move was driven by a growing sense of frustration at the number of pupils in my form classes who, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t support enough to prevent from entering the jaws of avoidable permanent exclusion.

As I left the comfortable familiarity of my mainstream head of year position, I was reassured by the knowledge that I was making a move that would have a real impact in supporting the most vulnerable pupils, including excluded pupils. As the pandemic has played out, the urgency of high-quality education for these young people has become obvious to everyone, and we know this group is only set to grow significantly in its wake.

The conversations still raise eyebrows, but it is no longer through shock and surprise

My decision raised a few eyebrows. I was leaving an enviable middle leader position, in the midst of an unpredictable teacher job market, and taking a gamble on my ability to have an impact as a first-time senior leader in an unfamiliar sector. Among my mainstream colleagues, there was the unmistakable perception of AP as having low expectations, poor outcomes and terrible standards of teaching and learning. Surely I would just be managing behaviour all day?

Four months in, I can honestly say that this was the single greatest professional decision of my career to date. Not only have I seen first-hand the transformative power of high-quality AP, but my own practice has strengthened day by day through collaboration, leadership mentoring, inclusive CPD and on-the-job learning supported by an incredible leadership team.

At the Pendlebury Centre, all staff share the belief that wellbeing and safeguarding are central to academic achievement. They are three equal parts of a jigsaw puzzle that, once pieced together, ensures children can fulfil their potential. The team I am now part of embodies this vision and these values. Contrary to my former colleagues’ assumptions, we all know that if we do not set high academic and pastoral expectations children will not achieve. These high expectations are palpable in every part of the school.

In a post-Covid education landscape, the skill of AP practitioners in getting children back on to learning after moments of disruption or periods of absence has become a necessity for all. Pendlebury is relentless in in its efforts to ensure pupils are able to thrive and then reintegrate effectively back into mainstream school. Our solutions are sought through a trauma-informed approach to de-escalate situations before they reach crisis point, and I am in no doubt that the inclusive practices I have learned and am still learning would benefit any mainstream setting.

And if there are any positive consequences of this pandemic year, then it is surely that mainstream settings are recognising this too. The conversations I now have with friends and former colleagues have flipped and there is genuine interest in AP’s skillset. I’m able to bust myths and share the finer details of effective approaches. The conversations still raise eyebrows, but it is no longer through shock and surprise. Instead, there is a dawning realisation that there might just be more than a little to learn from alternative provision.

Indeed, at every level throughout the pandemic there has been a growing sense of AP’s value to the system – not just as a place to pick up the excluded and make them includable but as a leader in developing the strategies to prevent exclusion in the first place.

In truth, we anticipate a rise in exclusions in the coming year because we can see a growth in the conditions for exclusion. The work must happen now to ensure it doesn’t happen, and continuing to see AP as an equal is surely part of that.

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