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#SENDReview: A vision for Alternative Provision, but where’s the evidence?

by Susie Lenihan, Renata Blower & Tania Tirraoro

Chapter 4 of the SEND Review Green paper is focused on reforming the way alternative provision is used and integrating it within local SEND systems.

Alternative Provision (AP) schools/settings are for children whose behaviour or health needs present such a significant barrier to their learning (and, sometimes the learning of others) that accessing mainstream settings is not possible.

The SEND Review places great importance on Alternative Provision – you can see that from it being right up there in the title. The DfE believes that AP was wrongly omitted from the 2014 SEND reforms and is using the Green Paper as a vehicle to address this. 

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Defining AP

The DfE offered us a definition of AP here

“Alternative provision supports a broad range of needs and consists of a wide provider base, including Pupil Referral Units (PRU), alternative provision academies and free schools, independent schools and unregistered providers. Alternative provision schools also include a small number of medical and hospital schools. These play an important specialist role in supporting children and young people whose health prevents them from attending a mainstream school, re-engaging them in education as much as their health allows, and providing a supported transition back to mainstream school when appropriate.”

Department for Education

We’ve also written before about Pupil referral units here. We'll also soon be bringing you an article on good practice in AP.

So which children use Alternative Provision?

Despite AP being seen as a destination for excluded pupils, the DfE says 75% of learners arriving in AP have not been permanently excluded from their previous setting.

Most exclusions of children occur due to “low-level persistent disruptive behaviour”. This subjective description varies across teachers and schools, all with different approaches to inclusion, behaviour policies and teacher training. We know many children in AP have been classed as “a Child in Need” in the previous six years. Their needs are not likely “time-limited” and not always related to ‘within-child’ factors that AP intervention can remedy. 

The Green Paper says Alternative Provision isn't meant to be used simply because a child has SEND, is awaiting an EHCP, or because there is insufficient capacity in special schools. But without full details on who's currently using AP, it becomes harder to respond to the consultation questions. It is difficult to consider how ‘expected needs’ can be determined by local partnerships when we know little of expected needs and little of local partnerships. So how can any conclusion be drawn on whether this vision may improve outcomes?  

What’s wrong with Alternative Provision?

Although most children in AP are still in Pupil Referral Units (PRU) funded by LAs, there is now a mish-mash of providers, many unregulated. No geographical area mirrors another, academies differ, and no one has oversight of the whole picture.

This picture evolved over the last decade, leaving no coherent agreed purpose for AP, little strategic planning, gaps in accountability measures and poor, low-quality commissioning of services and postcode lotteries for children. 

The review doesn’t explain how this was allowed to happen and therein lies the problem, ‘as the population in AP is incredibly transient, figures likely underestimate the total number of children in all forms of AP across a given academic year’ (CJS IntegratEd Annual Report 2021). IntegratEd also, shockingly, says, ‘we do not know the total number of providers that make up the unregistered AP market and the figures… do not encompass the use of unregistered AP which is commissioned by schools or parents. Due to the scarcity of data, it is impossible to form a reliable estimate of the total number of children educated in AP’.

The Schools White Paper describes the situation as “messy and often confusing” adding that “unclear expectations” of academies and councils “permit grey areas which have sometimes allowed vulnerable children to fall through the gaps”. 

Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, said in parliament the SEND system, based on his party’s 2014 reforms, is “failing”. He said outcomes in alternative provision were “shockingly poor”. So, both papers aim to right the wrongs created by the Conservative government’s own earlier reforms. You couldn't make it up.

This includes all schools to be in multi-academy trusts (MATs) by 2030; a very clear expectation and the only really firm timescale offered within Chapter 4. This chapter has four questions.

Consultation Question 13

Q13: To what extent do you agree or disagree that this new vision for alternative provision will result in improved outcomes for children and young people? 

This is an over-arching question, so it really should be the last one of the chapter. The main proposals are

  • Make alternative provision an “integral part of local SEND systems” requiring new local SEND partnerships to “plan and deliver an alternative provision service focused on early intervention” 
  • Deliver stable funding for APs by requiring LAs to create and distribute an alternative provision-specific budget “to give alternative provision schools the funding stability to deliver a service focused on early intervention” 
  • Make all alternative provision schools part of multi-academy trusts, delivering “evidence-led services based on best practice” plus open new alternative provision free schools “where they are most needed” 
  • Create a different “performance framework” (from mainstream expectations) with robust standards focused on progress, re-integration into mainstream education or sustainable post-16 destinations”
  • Make sure it’s clear where pupils are moving to and why they are moving including alternative provision.
  • Pre-summer call for evidence, on the use of unregistered provision to investigate existing practice (this includes EOTAS) Non-PRU alternative provision comes in many forms. Should they all be registered with Ofsted? 

An equally over-arching question might be, how is it that a large proportion of children who arrive in AP have never had a statutory assessment (or any assessment) of their needs? They have simply been deemed unsuitable for mainstream without any understanding of why their behaviour is poor or they are violent. 

What’s going on in their lives, what have they been going through, or what needs were they born with (for example Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder) that no one has bothered to find out? When we talk about early intervention, why were these children's needs not picked up when they entered school, or soon after, and given the support they needed? It is a failing system that denies assessment to save money – because if you know what’s wrong, you then have to put the right provision in, possibly expensive provision. And it’s much easier to move them elsewhere, isn’t it? Do these proposals solve this?

We believe –perhaps you agree, perhaps not – that no child should be excluded or moved to alternative provision without first having had a full assessment of needs and the right provision made for them. And what about nurture? Surely this should be a key element of any plan to support vulnerable children who may well have insecure home lives? Nurture should be the very first thing that is put into place. A child who is emotionally unstable cannot begin to learn in the same way as a thriving mainstream child. The Green Paper does not mention nurture. You might want to include it in your response.

Question 13 Ponder Points:

  • Are these proposals the right ones?
  • What role should AP practioners have in early intervention?
  • Should “early intervention” and “alternative provision” even be used in the same sentence?
  • Are these proposals as giving academies an easy route for “managed moves” of “troublesome” pupils out of mainstream?

What other ideas do you have to overhaul AP?

Consultation Question 14

Q14: What needs to be in place to distribute existing funding more effectively to AP schools to ensure financial stability required to deliver our vision for more early intervention and re-integration?

The SEND Review cites ‘structural barriers’ preventing high-quality AP being available for all. One of the reasons it gives is that at the moment, funding follows the pupil, meaning that because AP schools have a fluctuating pupil base, they can’t effectively plan budgets, staffing or training. This, in turn, impacts the quality of provision.

LAs will be set "clear expectations" to create and distribute an alternative provision-specific budget “ideally for a minimum of 3 years...to give alternative provision schools the funding stability to deliver a service focused on early intervention”  They will be held to account for this through local area inspections. However, note that this "expectation" isn't a legal duty. Because as we all know, LAs have problems following laws, let alone something that is just an expectation.

Many might say early intervention funding should be focused on helping children as issues emerge, not when they’re in danger of heading for a PRU…

The new Local Partnerships will decide how many “targeted mainstream support places”, “time-limited placements”, and “transitional placements” will be needed each year. They will also agree the cost of each service or placement type they will provide, and how changes in demand will be managed within the budget. Councils will then distribute the required funding.

Question 14 Ponder points:

  • Is it a good idea to remove funding from the pupil so APs can plan more effectively? Should this be a legal duty?
  • Is it a good idea for a Local Partnership to decide how many placements of each type there should be? What happens if too many of one type are needed one year, how flexible would they be?
  • How will it be decided how much each service costs and what if it’s insufficient for the service needed?
  • What other ideas do you have?

Consultation Question 15

Q15: To what extent do you agree or disagree that introducing a bespoke AP performance framework, based on five outcomes, will improve the quality of AP?

This recognises that most children arrive in AP “at a late stage in their education, having already fallen a long way behind their peers”.  This new national performance AP framework is based on five key outcomes: 

  1. effective outreach support, 
  2. improved attendance, 
  3. reintegration, 
  4. academic attainment, with a focus on English and maths, and
  5. successful post-16 transitions. 

An expert working group will be set up to assist and advise in developing the framework.

A focus on English and Maths is fundamental. However, it is important that  using it as a measure of AP success doesn’t restrict the broader educational opportunities that children with disadvantage need. The five outcomes are a start, but do they just offer a tick sheet, unsophisticated notion of success? 

Question 15 Ponder Points:

  • Are these the right outcomes?
  • If lower performance is expected in AP, how will children reintegrate to mainstream at an age-appropriate level?
  • Or is something completely different exactly what is needed?
  • Who should be on an “expert working group?” Should it include parents? Which parents?
  • Who would develop this performance framework? Ofsted? Ofsted hasn't even got the new framework for next round of SEND Area Inspections ready yet.
  • Does Ofsted have enough powers to inspect academy chains?
  • Could the five outcomes become a new round of further perverse incentives? Improved attendance can be a false positive. The child can be in school 100% of the time, yet in a side room, segregated, no longer visibly distressed, but still not getting needs fully met. They are on roll, in school and so the figures work, but the child doesn't. 

Consultation Question 16

Q16: To what extent do you agree or disagree that a statutory framework for pupil movements will improve oversight and transparency of placements into and out of AP? 

The Green Paper proposes to review “how children and young people move around the school system, including through off-site direction and unregulated managed moves”. This would seem to be an excellent idea – it’s unacceptable that there is no clear tracking for where vulnerable pupils are being educated or what they are learning or how good the teaching is. 

This will be carried out with a view to introducing a “statutory framework” for all pupil movements, which aims to deliver greater oversight and transparency over the process. It’s hard to believe this is the situation to start off with. It shows a massive lack of care for children who don’t fit the mould of “acceptable”. In fact, when the Green Paper says to create “greater oversight and transparency” it’s clear from the evidence above that it actually means “greater than zero at present” How should this be done?

The government will also launch a call for evidence before the summer on the use of unregistered provision. You should be aware that the DfE intends to include unregistered  EOTAS ( Education Otherwise Than at School.) provision used by some children with EHCPs in this evidence call, seeking “feedback on the use of such placements.”

Question 16 Ponder Points:

  • Are these the right proposals?
  • How should a statutory framework for pupil movements be developed? How would it work?
  • How do we ensure that children in alternative provision get the very best support, rather than be forgotten about?
  • Do you agree that EOTAS provision that is unregistered should be investigated? 

Why is there so little evidence at this late stage?

Much here seems sensible. But it’s clear, judging by everything we have learned above that neither the government nor LAs understand who the children in AP settings are. And if we don’t know, then how do we know these plans will improve their outcomes? It is disgraceful to still be calling for evidence here, with no timescale limit. The review was delayed for two years, and yet important data is missing.

To summarise so far… we don’t know who has accessed AP, what form it took, for how long, and whether this was successful or if success was sustained on reintegration. And it’s likely the numbers are much larger than thought. 

In the same way, there is insufficient data on who is providing alternative provision or the full details of the pupil characteristics. There is no real data on how schools are utilising on-site and informal exclusion and segregation to protect their official exclusion data figures either.  And it remains unclear how we will get a picture of the use of informal exclusion; on site, on roll, not excluded, but not in AP. These children are not officially missing in education, but are they getting meaningful education? And we know little of home education and how this has rocketed post-pandemic. 

Yet, Mr Zahawi styles himself as the “evidence-led secretary of state”, interested in outcomes, parental trust and honesty. And not in politics, apparently. 

We also need to consider the following:

  • Who are we confidently serving through this vision for AP and to what extent? 
  • Which young people are going to benefit; whose ‘best interests’ are being fulfilled? 
  • Is this about facilitating, ‘a calm, orderly, safe, and supportive school’ outlined in the White Paper for all children, or a legitimised way hive off the problematic child? 

A behaviourist approach to Alternative Provision

A distinctly 'behavourist' approach to APs does seem to emerge from the SEND Review. It strongly references behaviour and health needs but seems to oversimplify the complexity of the challenges. Autistic young people who struggle to self-regulate or self-harm, have school anxiety, or meltdowns are further distressed by the zero-tolerance approaches in a typical academy's 'strong behaviour culture'. These children need more OT, SALT and the therapeutic approaches as proposed by Sir Kevan Collins, the “education recovery Tsar” who resigned in disgust at the Government’s Covid “catch up” plan. While this is wholly unacceptable for any SEND student as it ignores the fact that all behaviour is communication, it's completely inappropriate for those in hospital schools, who are barely mentioned in this.

Will this be enough?

Will the suggested Mental Health Support Teams and self-regulation classes proposed be enough? Or like the Mental Health First Aider role, will they eventually be scrapped by the Government, as they just tickled around the edge of the issue and underestimated the scale of the challenge? Additionally, is it possible levers within the delivery plan can be massaged and veneered to look like success for pupil outcomes?

More specifically how will this vision address the need for teachers to become more curious about the origins of ‘behaviour’ and experts at spotting children and neurodiverse young people? 

Many children in registered AP with identified SEND are categorised with Social, Emotional, Mental Health needs (SEMH). A somewhat catch all category likely hiding a multitude of undiagnosed, and unmet needs. How many of those have undiagnosed autism, currently sitting under an SEMH umbrella, as wait times for diagnosis are so long? And we also know children with diagnosed autism spectrum feature heavily in the exclusion data. So, is this vision for AP even appropriate for this population?

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What else might be problematic with this vision of Alternative Provision?  

The review does not specify what is meant by time-limited…a term, two terms, a year, two years or however long it takes, to be determined by the child?  ‘When they are ready’ is mentioned. Who decides when they are ready, and how? 

What factors signify when a long-term or a transitional placement is required? Is this going to be standard across local partnerships?

Might we end up with a never-ending loop of children moving between AP and unsuitable mainstream, but not permanently excluded, creating false-positive figures? All good for figures and budgets, but horrendous for the child and family. And if the aim is to use the AP attached to the same Multi-Academy Trust, what happens if that AP is unsuitable? This is why a statutory assessment of need should be required. The wrong thing done legitimately is not a solution. We need to scrutinise this vision, search for future perverse incentives and legitimising current poor situations. 

This all makes questions 14, 15 and 16 more straightforward. What needs to be in place? Clarity. Clarity around children’s needs to know what funding realistically should look like. If something you want to say doesn't seem to fit you can add them in question 22

We can talk about introducing a bespoke framework where there is meat on the bones of detail of young people’s needs. There is also little mention of parents and the role they will play within chapter 4 of the review. How do parents fit in with decision making? Shame the review failed to establish the facts around AP, before expecting to consult on proposals around facts that we don’t have. 

A Green Paper is a discussion document, looking for ideas, but it’s bizarre that so many new ideas have been introduced with no detail whatsoever beyond this. This does not seem to be something that will be ready for implementation next year, or even the year after.

Ready to answer the consultation questions relating to this? Find them here

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