The trouble with alternative provision

child looking confused and academically lost

This article was written by Josh Blackburn, COO at TLC LIVE, for the January edition of Education Today’s online magazine.

Alternative provision (AP) plays a vital role in educating countless vulnerable students who may face challenges in mainstream school environments. Yet AP remains part of the education system that most know little about.

The AP tuition our qualified teachers delivered this year has really emphasised the need for expedited access for students to help address regional discrepancies. It has also reinforced the importance of small, dedicated tuition groups.

Accelerating timely AP

While great work is being accomplished in AP settings nationwide, there are still significant disparities in the implementation and outcomes of AP. One primary concern is the speed (or lack of) at which AP is made available to students. Frequently, we find the implementation process to be sluggish, a tendency corroborated by council feedback.

For instance, in February 2023, we encountered a student referred to us by a county council who had poor attendance at school and in other AP settings for two years prior. Even though we only had access to her for a brief four-month period, her English grade improved considerably to a grade four. This progress led us to contemplate the potential outcomes if we had provided her with AP for the entirety of those two years.

In many cases, the best AP fit is often not the first one to be implemented. Students can find themselves moving from one provision to another before finding the setup that sees them make most academic progress. This stresses the importance of timely intervention: if a student does not find the most suitable provision straight away, then this further delays their progression. As a result, inducting them into this process early is crucial.

Student absenteeism is also a genuine cause for concern, with a growing number of students disengaging from education. It is crucial to safeguard these students by embedding a supportive education system that caters to their needs to maintain their enthusiasm in a setting where they feel most at ease. An online AP can help them feel more comfortable if appropriate measures are integrated, providing them with a platform where they can realise their full potential.

Small units and the funding dilemma

Rising numbers of children with more complex needs, and a growing number of appeals in the SEND system, have led to challenges in high-needs funding. While small units offer undeniable benefits in terms of personalised attention and tailored support, their financial sustainability is becoming a concern.

Unlike mainstream schools that cater to hundreds, if not thousands, of students, AP units often consist of only 10 to 20 students. Many do not receive direct funding from the DfE and rely on daily rates paid directly by schools as their primary source of income. Yet, these units play a crucial role in providing the necessary support and guidance to a specific subset of students.

However, the current economic landscape, influenced by high interest rates and inflation, threatens their continued existence. Their potential closure would create a significant void for students relying on the unique teaching methods and personalised care AP provides.

Therefore, substantive policy changes are needed to address this and other previously identified problems. Investing in the sustainability and growth of these units should be a priority to retain their positive impact. One option is exploring cost-effective technology solutions that can enhance educational delivery and administrative efficiency, potentially saving on operational costs.

Regional disparities in access to AP

Another challenge plaguing the UK’s AP landscape is the regional discrepancies in its availability – often driven by variations in economic conditions, infrastructure, and the availability of specialised resources in different regions.

For instance, students living in urban areas like London may have easier access to AP facilities, while those residing in rural regions, such as Lincolnshire, might need to overcome considerable geographic barriers. The absence of nearby AP units could discourage students from pursuing academia, leaving them disadvantaged due to limited educational opportunities, perpetuating the cycle of inequality.

Bridging the regional gap in access to AP requires targeted efforts, including increased funding, improved infrastructure, and the development of comprehensive support services, to ensure that all children have equitable access to quality education.

Efforts should be made to establish AP units in underserved areas, ensuring students in remote regions have the same opportunities as their urban counterparts. Collaborative partnerships between organisations, local authorities, and schools can create a support network and AP options throughout the country.

Debunking the misconception

One damaging misconception associated with AP is the perception that it is exclusively designed for “naughty kids”. While other approaches can indeed benefit troubled learners with diverse learning styles and needs, they are not limited to those facing behavioural challenges. This inaccurate portrayal undermines the various reasons behind the demand for AP.

In truth, AP provides support and education to students who have been excluded from school, are at risk of exclusion, or require a different form of education for various reasons. This includes students with social, emotional, and mental health needs.

A compelling case study emerged from Milton Keynes, highlighting the positive impact of AP on a student. This student, who struggled with anxiety in mainstream education, found solace in a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU). The PRU’s experienced staff members, well-versed in supporting students with special educational needs and disability (SEND) and mental health difficulties, guided and taught the student effectively.

Today, this same student is excelling at the University of Cambridge, studying history and politics. The individual’s achievements were made possible due to the exceptional care and personalised approach at the AP unit.

It is essential to understand the uniqueness of the AP sector and how AP schools and providers operate. AP schools and providers frequently assume distinct functions and roles within local education ecosystems. While some concentrate on long-term placements, others specialise in short-term arrangements designed to facilitate students’ return to mainstream education.

Additionally, certain providers extend outreach services to mainstream schools to help pupils remain in school. Most AP settings perform a blend of these functions and tailor their provisions to address the evolving needs in their respective areas.

For example, we primarily work with local authorities and their virtual school teams, as well as schools that refer children under their care to us. We supply these institutions with detailed information and progress reports, allowing them to closely monitor the development and attendance of their students.

Addressing the challenges within AP requires collaborative efforts from educational authorities, policymakers, and funding bodies. Providing expedited access to AP can transform students’ educational journeys, ensuring they have timely support when they need it most. Additionally, it is crucial to deflate misconceptions surrounding AP, emphasising that it caters to a wide range of students with unique needs rather than solely focusing on behavioural issues.

By working together, it is possible to create a more inclusive and accessible education system that caters to the diverse needs of all students. Let us foster an environment where AP thrives, providing a pathway to success for all students across the UK.

If you would like to find out more, get in touch with us today.

By Josh Blackburn, COO at TLC LIVE