More needs to be done to improve the education and safety of pupils who are not in mainstream schools, Ofsted has warned.
Schools lack clear guidance on how to carry out safeguarding checks on “alternative providers” – used for the most vulnerable children who cannot be in the classroom – according to a new report by the schools watchdog.
The report, based on visits to 165 schools and 448 alternative providers over a three-year period, says that a number of alternative providers contravened the regulations about registration.
"This is a very worrying situation, particularly considering that the schools were sending some of their most vulnerable pupils to these placements, sometimes for five days a week," the report says.
The report also says that alternative providers are often not well informed enough about aspects such as child protection, the use of social media by pupils and general e-safety.
As well as revealing concerns over the safety of pupils, the report says that students who attend alternative provision full-time only take very low-level English and maths qualifications and study a very narrow range of subjects.
The findings do suggest, however, that many schools are using off-site alternative provision in a more considered way than in 2011.
The report says: "Schools are responsible for ensuring the quality of the placements to which they send their pupils. Most of the schools in this latest survey did assure the quality of the provision reasonably well, but there are risks involved in this situation, particularly as many of the pupils who attend alternative provision are the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in our education system."
Sean Harford, Ofsted's national director for education, said: "Schools are voting with their feet when it comes to poor providers. More and more often we see schools working together to identify and commission better alternative provision.
"However, it is vitally important that schools recognise their responsibility for each and every pupil sent to an external provider. These are some of the most vulnerable children in the education system and the school is responsible for ensuring their personal and online safety while they are off site, as well as the quality of the education provided."
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) union, said it was “heartening” to see that many schools are evaluating the suitability of local alternative provision settings.
But she added: “Alternative provision caters for students with the most complex and challenging learning needs, and in many instances is the final safety net that keeps the most vulnerable in education. Ofsted have missed a vital opportunity to recommend how the future of alternative provision can be secured in the longer term.”
The report sets out a series of recommendations, including calling for schools to carefully check the registration status of alternative providers, and to give these providers good quality information in writing about the school's expectations on child protection.
A Department for Education spokesman said that the government welcomed Ofsted's "recognition" of the progress it had made with alternative provision.
But he added: “However, we recognise there is still work to be done to make alternative provision even more rigorous, and we will be coming forward with plans in due course.”