Love is what breaks through in alternative provision

Children in alternative provision armour up so they can’t be hurt anymore or feel rejection again; only love can break through, writes one school leader

Debra Rutley

Defensive shell

The single entry criterion for placement in alternative provision is a general rejection from everywhere else. Our cohort is made up of children no one else wants, or knows how to help, or has the resources to help. Sometimes we aren’t the most suitable place or the best place but often, we are the only place. We accept them because no one else will. 

AP is full to the brim with children who, according to a system focused on academic output, have the least educational promise. We are full of children who will allegedly drag others down, be a drain on resources or lower average performance. 

Children who end up in AP have the fear of failure running through their story like a golden thread. They expect an argument and expect to disappoint. They want to do well but don’t know how – especially when they can’t self-regulate. 

Failure becomes their narrative.  

Most children who come into AP have learning needs, usually undiagnosed. You are seven times more likely to be excluded if you have special educational needs or disabilities. Disadvantaged students and those coping with chaos at home are four times more likely to be excluded and denied the stability they need from school. Adversity and exclusion often go hand and hand and entrench disadvantage. 

When they arrive in AP, they are angry, grieving, traumatised and tired. This shows up in numbing behaviours: shouting, shutting down, lack of trust, aggression. They amour up so they can’t be hurt anymore or feel rejection again. It’s a defence against life and it makes it even more difficult to get through to them.  

We know the only way to defrost a child like this is with love. The more unlovable they appear, the more love they need from us. 

We start that process by showing them we care and giving them a voice. The most common issue our students raise about mainstream school is not being heard. They want adults to listen and talk rather than judge and assume. We start with love and help them gradually unpack what went wrong and look at their story so far. 

One lovely activity that supports this is a "Change the story" T-shirt. On the back of the T-shirt, they write and draw to describe how people perceive them now, what their narrative has been so far. On the front of the T-shirt, they capture how they want to be, the best version of themselves and their aspirations. 

This defrosting and changing the narrative takes a long time. It doesn’t happen by accident and there is no magic fairy dust. Change happens in and through love. We show relentless kindness all day, every day. 

Our culture and ethos creates a safe place and more importantly safe people. Our culture and ethos give our teenagers a metaphorical hug. We change the story for our young people by firstly accepting them for who they are, then supporting them to change the narrative themselves

Our love and care extend to families. We support without blaming and acknowledge that it’s hard to parent, especially when you are struggling yourself. Sometimes parents of excluded children are grieving the recent loss of a spouse and have nothing left to give their child. We have to support both the parent and the child, which can even be through meeting basic human needs like food and clothing as well as through school. 

I use the power of and to remind me of the complexities of all our children. Excluded for violence and very loving. Has ADHD and wants to excel academically. 

After the care and attention of AP, students are afraid to leave. Fear gets in the way, especially the fear of returning to the old narrative. That love and attention have helped them thrive. They say they feel accepted for who they are for the first time. They say they didn’t fit into mainstream and that we get them.  

That sense of belonging is what ties us all together in AP. What children in AP want and need is more schools to have the courage to focus on children before external pressures, giving them unconditional regard, relentless kindness, and love, above all else. 

This is why the government must fully accept the recommendation in the Timpson review to include training on trauma and attachment disorders included in initial teacher training and the early career framework. 

It’s like literacy – if you don’t have all teachers at least trained in identifying literacy difficulties, children get missed. I’m not asking for every teacher to be a mental health expert, but all teachers do need to be able to spot which behaviour problems might be a sign of serious underlying issues and refer students for specialist support before they get down the route of conflict, sanctions, disengagement and ultimately exclusion. 

Debra Rutley is executive headteacher at Aspire Alternative Provision. She tweets @DRutleyAspire

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