Working together on a way out of the exclusion zone

By Richard White

Monday 4 August 2014

Alternative provision, (AP) is a highly diverse, sometimes controversial and even contested sector of educational provision, and has been the subject of intense governmental scrutiny and criticism.

A key underlying principle of the recently concluded School Exclusion Trial (SET) centres on increasing schools’ responsibility for identifying and purchasing provision for excluded pupils and those at risk of exclusion. SET has highlighted the application of a range of effective approaches that represent varying degrees of departure from previous structures of AP delivery.

So, does good AP stem from shifting responsibility for it from one budget holder to another – or is it more likely to result from the sharing of that responsibility between all stakeholders: schools; pupil referral units (PRUs); AP providers; local authority (LA) personnel; voluntary and statutory agencies involved in commissioning and supplying that provision?

Our recent research has shown that there is a growing recognition that not only does partnership work, but is critical in delivering effective AP. Many school, LA and provider staff involved in the trial support the view that AP should be conceptualised as part of a continuum of provision, not as a distinct entity disconnected from mainstream education. This requires consensus, oversight and leadership, (alongside drive, inspiration and vision), to ensure that: AP is integrated into local portfolios of educational provision; is planned and appropriately timed, and is not used as a provision of last resort when all else has failed.

Referral to AP cannot be a strategy for schools to use to ‘fire and forget’ their difficult pupils by just paying someone else to take on the problem. The best provision will be identified and commissioned within a coordinated localised system operating regionally across, for example, school clusters where responsibility for meeting the needs of pupils is jointly owned and shared.

Our research has highlighted the existence of various approaches – including informal agreements and more formal partnership structures involving commissioners and purchasers – that facilitate and sustain this collective responsibility. Critically, it has shown the effectiveness of peer-to-peer moderation whereby school leaders work together in a self-regulating commissioning system to ensure that the delegated budgets for which they are jointly responsible are used to best meet the needs of all at-risk pupils in their area.

There is a widely recognised need to improve the academic outcomes of pupils accessing much AP, and the collective approach to commissioning also supports accountability and helps ensure that provision is of high quality and will deliver the necessary outcomes for these vulnerable pupils. Within this, there is also evidence that shared commissioning decisions, often made through panel and forum meetings, ensure that a broader view of pupils’ needs is taken into consideration when identifying and constructing a suitable package of provision. Social, emotional therapeutic input has always been a great strength of much AP vital in underpinning the subsequent academic achievements of pupils.

SET, alongside other legislative developments, (such as increasing autonomy of PRUs, the emergence of alternative provision free schools), has encouraged creativity and provided the opportunity to reconceptualise and re-mould AP, building on the extensive knowledge, experience and delivery infrastructure that has developed over the years. We have found that many schools are maintaining responsibility for at-risk pupils by not excluding them in the first place, and are actively seeking viable alternatives through the commissioning of commercial AP, PRUs, dual registration, the use of on-site facilities and managed moves between ‘partnership’ schools.

Pressures from the scrutiny of schools’ academic performance and competing demands on budgets will test the endurance of the partnerships. This could lead to commissioning decisions being dictated by financial concerns, and provision becoming market-driven and price-led. To prevent this, AP will have to continually evolve and improve – delivering the right outcomes for both pupils and schools to sustain partnerships and maintain their commitment to shared responsibility to at-risk young people.