The Education Committee assembles to gather further evidence on Alternative Provision

06/02/18

The Education Committee met to continue their investigation into Alternative Provision (AP) – which is when children are taught outside of the mainstream school setting. There are thousands of pupils in AP, and there are concerns about whether or not excluding them from mainstream education is in their best interests, or that of the school, and over how accountable the current system is.

The session was chaired by Robert Halfon MP, and split into two, with the first hearing from:

  • Matthew Dodd, Co-coordinator and Policy Advisor, Special Educational Consortium
  • Cath Kitchen, Chair, National Association of Hospital and Home Teaching
  • Jane Pickthall, Chair, National Association of Virtual School Head.

The witnesses welcomed the enquiry, and gave an overview of the state of AP in England, with broad agreement that the more that can be done to support mainstream schools in providing an education for all children, the better.

Challenging behavioural issues

Matthew Dodd suggested that behavioural issues related to special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) can go unrecognised, and children who don’t engage in learning or adhere to behavioural norms can get caught up in disciplinary procedures when the issue is that the teaching and learning isn’t meeting their individual needs. He said that the problems arise when schools implement zero tolerance behavioural policies, which he suggests may even be unlawful under the Equality Act and Disability Discrimination Act and should be challenged by the government.

Could children currently in AP fit into mainstream education?

Jane Pickthall said that very few SEN pupils have learning difficulties, but rather significant social and mental health needs, where the solution is kind and caring schools where staff build relationships with pupils. Matthew Dodd said that poverty is a risk factor in falling out of mainstream education, but that AP, home education and special schools are all routes, and the final destination can depend upon the ability of the parent to advocate for their child. Jane Pickthall said they should avoid the situation where a child’s history is a barrier to their future, stating that vocational pathways have to be open. It may not be that excluded children aren’t able to succeed, but it takes them longer because of what they’re having to address.

Differences in AP between pupils with physical and mental health needs

Cath Kitchen said that children with physical problems can access education from hospital, and can be supported back into school, but there isn’t the same level of support for children with mental health problems. She also said that parents may not be in a position to home-educate their child, even if encouraged to do so, and that this can result in children becoming socially excluded, which worsens their outcomes. Mental health problems in children can be doubly problematic: they’re dealing with a difficult condition but not being able to achieve the grades they were hoping for can dent their confidence.

Are pupils refereed to AP without appropriate assessment?

Matthew Dodd said that Ofsted found a lot of schools didn’t pass their information about a child on to a new education provider, and they in turn might not do a full assessment of needs. Jane Pickthall added that there’s no chance of pupils being assessed when they move around as they’re not there for long enough, and they can even move into another Local Authority area, that may have different procedures to the last one. Pupils also need to be on a school’s register to access AP, but many schools won’t take them on.

Do schools take AP pupils back?

Cath Kitchen pointed out that if a child has missed Year 10, schools don’t want them back because they adversely impact Progress 8 data.

What’s the solution to a school excluding pupils?

Matthew Dodd pointed to the incentives for schools to exclude, because of the emphasis in judging them based on curriculum and exam results. Jane Pickthall said that exclusion costs more in the long term, and money needs to be redirected in the system. To loud agreement, Cath Kitchen said that nothing will change until the system by which schools are judged is changed so that academic attainment isn’t the sole focus. Schools helping children move from suicidal to engaged in society and progressing to college is much harder to measure. She suggested a benchmark or quality mark to certify schools doing well in this area.

Is there sufficient scrutiny in the system, and a balance between a school’s needs and that of children’s and parents’ rights?

Matthew Dodd felt not, pointing to little scrutiny into how schools make exclusion decisions, and when children are put into pupil referral units, there’s little parent voice, and placements can’t be easily challenged. This has become worse as schools have gained greater autonomy, with a vacuum of responsibility opening up between Local Authorities and schools.

Should there be a bill of rights for parents?

Chair Robert Halfon asked the question, saying that it wouldn’t remove power to exclude from school leaders, but parents would at least be aware of their rights and what the correct procedure was in the decision-making process, with the right to make their voice heard if they felt it was unfair, because currently parents have few rights. Matthew Dodd agreed that any move to clarify to parents what their rights are in exclusion and AP, he would welcome.

The second session 

Witnesses comprised:

  • Dr Val Gillies, Professor of Social Policy and Criminology, University of Westminster
  • Kevin Kibble, CEO, The Nurture Group Network
  • Drew Povey, Headteacher, Harrop Fold School.

If a school has the correct provision, is it possible to not need AP?

The witnesses agreed this is theoretically possible, with reservations that it would be difficult in the current system where schools are often hostile places to struggling children. Val Gillies said it can sometimes be a good thing to remove young people from the pressurised environment of school to a provider that better suits their needs. Drew Povey said that at his school (which hasn’t excluded a child for a decade) they take a hit on results in a performance-driven world. They communicate with the local community and celebrate what happens in their school. His pupils generally have better outcomes, even if not always academically, but in terms of life progress.

Why aren't more schools doing this?

Val Gillies said that schools are pressurised, and teachers’ time is squeezed. Challenging pupils can take up resources in class, and so schools concentrate on young people who find it easier to achieve. She was unsure on the idea of internal units, for fear that they become a dumping ground for challenging or difficult young people, and sometimes pupils stay in them for years. Kevin Kibble pointed to the benefits of nurture groups in school, or specialist teachers working with pupils who have greater needs. Drew Povey said that pupils in AP should be normalised as much as possible and feel part of the school system. Kevin Kibble said that everything in a child’s education should be measured including their social, emotional and behavioural development.

Should there be a bill of rights for parents?

Robert Halfon raised the question again, seeking to level the playing field and give parents a genuine right of appeal. Val Gillies said that measures to improve teacher/parent relationships, especially in challenging circumstances, would be a good thing. Kevin Kibble agreed that a framework for better understanding the school and its wider community, including parents, would be of benefit.

Robert Halfon ended by saying that the Education Committee’s report into Alternative Provision would be sure to reflect the evidence all six witnesses had given.

Image of Education Committee member Ian Mearns MP via Wikimedia Commons. 

View the hearing on Parliament TV.