A new role for alternative provision: alternative provision schools or an integrated mainstream-facing alternative provision service?
Peter Gray and Beate Hellawell
Alternative provision used to describe mainly independent educational providers, commissioned at key stage 4 by local authorities (LAs) or schools and had a vocational focus. The term is now used more broadly to include pupil referral units (PRUs) and ‘in-house’ provision in mainstream schools, including multi-academy trusts (MATs). The chapter on ‘reformed and integrated alternative provision’ reinforces much of the agenda that PRUs have been seeking to deliver since they were formalised some time ago. There has been a desire to create a more dynamic alternative provision with a capacity for support being delivered within mainstream schools and settings and not just limited to off-site education or being treated as a ‘dumping ground’. Some have already developed this continuum of support and the Green Paper approach will be welcomed by them. The main development proposed is that all alternative providers should be registered as schools and be part of a multi-academy trust (while still being funded by the LA from the High Needs Funding Block).
The Green Paper envisages a three-tier alternative provision service:
The paper argues that an integrated system will mean that children and young people (CYP) will receive quality support as soon as they need it from skilled practitioners they can trust.
The notion of a targeted support role is an interesting one. Funding for LA Behaviour Support was explicitly removed from the High Needs Block in 2014 by Michael Gove on the basis that this could all be sorted by stronger school discipline. From that point, funding was dependent on schools being prepared to buy back in. Many chose not to, and many well-established Behaviour Support Services withered on the vine.
Gove’s decision killed off a professional discipline that had developed a coherent service delivery model. For this support to be effective/add value, a high level of professionalism will need to be re-established – it is not just a question of ‘being able to relate to difficult kids’ – a key aspect is effectively supporting the adults who deal with them on a day-to-day basis and find them challenging: without this, a weekly 1:1 session on anger management will have little impact.
Time-limited placements may have value in terms of cost-effective use of resources. But there are a number of issues. For pupils with more significant needs, there don’t tend to be ‘quick fixes’: mainstream schools can sometimes feel that the best they can hope for is a bit of respite/the opportunity to ‘regroup’. For those with more modest needs, the provision model can be relatively costly and there are risks that learning does not transfer back to the mainstream context.
Disappointingly, the Green Paper does not seem to have taken on board the national research on AP systems carried out for the DFE two years ago which found that the best outcomes (pupil/strategic/financial) were achieved where there was a strong culture of mainstream school responsibility – rather than creating alternative provision schools as is suggested in the Green Paper. The best two models found in the research were:
collectively with local providers to find the best solutions for individual pupils, with a clear understanding of the need to prioritise within a finite resource and for schools to make a significant contribution (in terms of in-house provision/resources).
In both these scenarios, AP placements are most likely to be targeted at pupils with more complex needs, with targeted support and time-limited placements being more likely to be provided by mainstream schools themselves. The Green Paper does not take account of this aspect. More fundamentally, there are no clear messages here about what ‘ordinarily available provision’ for pupils with behaviour difficulties/SEMH needs in mainstream schools should look like, or an acknowledgement that these kinds of support should be available in mainstream schools as part of the graduated response.
The coercive nature of the latest DFE guidance on behaviour and exclusions follows a much more limited and punitive direction and makes very limited reference to the need for adjustments within the application of behaviour policies or mitigating factors, or to the impact of such policies on outcomes for vulnerable pupils.
The Green Paper is dismissive of unregistered alternative provisions which are currently fulfilling a mixture of functions: full-time provision for pupils with/without EHCPs who are seen as too complex for the local PRU (or who cannot be placed there as the PRU is full); part-time/sessional provision for pupils out of mainstream as part of an individualised package, or as an extension to core PRU provision; part-time/sessional provision for pupils in mainstream (usually key stage 4) to help maintain their engagement at school. LAs have different perspectives on this: some are very negative about unregistered provision (which is required to be part-time/sessional in any case) and feel registration is associated with better quality; others see a place for it, either to support mainstream inclusion/ownership or for specific features of their offer (e.g., work with girls at risk of sexual exploitation etc).
There has been a longstanding theme for PRU heads that more pupils should be moved on more quickly to specialist provision. A performance framework based on attendance, attainment and throughput will reinforce this. The success of a mainstream school-facing AP system needs to be measured at least partly by the level of displacement to more costly options. The reality is that the more inclusive mainstream schools become, the less need there will be for provision for pupils with more modest needs. In a number of LAs, this has led to PRUs closing as they are no longer seen as a cost-effective model of support for pupils with more moderate levels of difficulty.
What is the purpose of alternative provision? What is its relationship to SEND in general and SEMH in particular?
The Green Paper makes a bold claim: alternative provision has the potential to play a transformative role within an integrated SEND system for those with SEMH who need specific, specialist support to address individual needs. However, the Paper fails to make a clear distinction between SEMH as a special educational need and the behavioural and medical support that is to be provided via a three-tiered alternative provision service. This dates back to the failure of the 2014 SEND framework to explain what the (newly invented) SEMH term actually means. Definitions were typically negative (‘behaviour in itself is not an SEN’, ‘some behaviours may be due to underlying unidentified needs’, and clarification that ADHD comes under this, rather than the SpLD category). It will be crucial for the success of an integrated SEND and alternative provision local system to clarify this confusion.
Questions to consider
Beate Hellawell – Over the years, Beate has worked as a play policy officer, primary teacher, reading recovery teacher, dyslexia specialist, NVQ assessor for teaching assistants, and lecturer in further and higher education institutions. Beate has also worked as SEND advisor for a local authority and currently leads a SEND assessment and review team. Beate’s research interests include policy enactment, notions of professionalism and professional ethics, and partnership working.
Peter Gray – Peter is one of the co-coordinators of the SENPRF. He has worked for over 20 years as a consultant to local and national government on a range of aspects of SEND policy and provision.