Alternative Provision: The Most Vulnerable Students


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What if all local authority councils supported alternative provision?

In England, 8,000 children are permanently excluded from school every year. In Scotland, cases of exclusion have fallen from high of 44,794 in 2006/07 to 8,323 in 2020/21 …

42 permanent exclusions in schools, every day …

Yesterday, I hung up my school bag for the 29th year working in schools. I had the privilege of working with a small group of educators in an independent alternative provision (AP) in Greater Manchester. The organisation is a trauma-informed provision for students, which asks ‘what has happened NOT what is wrong.’

Today, roughly 800 APs across England educate ~40,000 students. Very few are owned by the local authority, which places APs in a problematic position regarding funding, operating in profit, meeting the needs of their pupils and demonstrating value for money to local schools, councils, families and so on …

Whether these students are excluded or educated in AP, both cause poorer life outcomes, and however structures are set up, there are clearly rapid changes and improvements required.

The pressures on schools and teachers …

Before the pandemic, in my research Just Great Teaching (2019), drawing upon insights from 10,000 pieces of data (gathered from 300+ teachers) in 10 schools across the UK, I already had glimpses into the pressures schools were facing. Increasing mental health, rising exclusions and reduced funding on local authority provision have led to schools struggling to meet the needs of their students with complex special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Before COVID-19, 12.8 per cent of five- to 19-year-olds had at least one mental health disorder in 2017 and the prevalence of mental disorders among five- to 15-year-olds has risen from 9.7 per cent in 1999 to 11.2 per cent in 2017 (NHS 2018b).

The numbers are rising.

NHS Digital (2021) found that 17.4% of children aged 6-16 had a mental disorder in 2021, up from 11.6% (2017).

Meeting the needs of vulnerable students

On my travels to schools around the country, before, during and post-pandemic, every teacher and school leader I meet tell me that some of their most vulnerable students are not receiving the support they need. The pandemic has further exacerbated the situation.

Teachers know how to support our vulnerable students, but paperwork (or lack of it) and funding to access (timely) specialist support results in our country failing some young people. Students who (then) reach alternative provision are on the front line more than most. Regardless of its reasons, permanent exclusion has huge implications – the biggest of which are for the child.

Clearly, exclusions are sometimes necessary to protect or help a child, the other children they learn with and the teachers who teach them. Still, we also know that it may have a huge and potentially very negative impact on the child who has been excluded.

We must always ask ourselves: when our students are excluded, where do they go and what happens to them?

All the school leaders working in AP often tell me that once their pupils move on, the schools rarely connect with those students and check in regarding their future growth. This must make our young people unloved and feeling more destitute.

The ‘Who’s Left?’ research by Education Datalab also suggests outcomes for students who leave a school’s roll are very poor, with ‘only around 1% of children who leave to state alternative provision or a special school […] achieving five good GCSEs’ (Nye, 2017). The latest data is available.

Our teachers can only do so much, and this is often their best work

Yet, in the face of all of this, I am inspired by the resilience and determination of teachers working in AP to do their best for their students. The evidence from my research shows that teachers go above and beyond to meet their students’ needs.

Despite full-time teaching commitments and the same number of hours completing ‘admin’ – a significant proportion of their time – all teachers work diligently to meet the needs of students with SEND.

Yet, meeting the needs of students with SEND is not always easy. It can take a lifetime to master dyslexia, dyscalculia or dyspraxia, know what it is, understand it and then know how to adapt strategies in the classroom. The vast range of SEND should not be underestimated.

Outside of alternative provision, teachers working in mainstream tell me that where they lack confidence the most is understanding and managing complex mental health and special educational needs and disabilities. We have much work to do at a system level if our government aims to turn England into a world-class education system.

Teachers, I salute all your efforts this academic year.


2 thoughts on “Alternative Provision: The Most Vulnerable Students

  1. “Teachers know how to support our vulnerable students, but paperwork (or lack of it) and funding to access (timely) specialist support results in our country failing some young people.”
    This statement really stuck out to me because it is so true. At my school, unless a student is under immediate threat of physical violence, our concerns as teachers get pushed to the side. I had a student this last year. He is different than most as an overweight transgendered male who likes women. Many people around him don’t accept his life choices and refuse to use proper pronouns and his preferred name, including his mother and some of his siblings. This has taken a major toll on his mental health. In October he expressed to me that he really needed to talk to a professional because he had started texting entire conversations to his father who had died a number of years prior. His mental health at the time was starting to deteriorate, but not to the point of self harm, and I immediately recommended him to our counseling department. It took two weeks for them to even acknowledge I had sent the recommendation and only after I went in to their office to ask about where we were in the process. Then it took several more weeks after that for him to see someone. It’s very unfortunate because as soon as he began the sessions with a school therapist, his mental health kicked up.

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