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School exclusions: Why high-quality alternative provision is crucial

One way to address fears about excluded pupils is to invest in excellent alternative provision, writes Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton, ASCL, association of school and college leaders, leadership, National Education Act

Media coverage of Edward Timpson’s long-awaited report on exclusions has tended to focus on the latest big stick with which to beat schools – the idea of holding heads accountable for pupils they permanently excluded, even if it was years earlier.

It’s an example of where policy ideas may seem superficially attractive but – once out in the real world – prove fraught with practical problems. More of all that another time.

Arguably, the more important part of the report was what Mr Timpson had to say about alternative provision. It’s precisely what we should be talking about more.

The dilemma over school exclusions is this: on the one hand, the misbehaviour of a small number of pupils cannot be allowed to jeopardise the learning and safety of other pupils. On the other, pupils who are excluded also have a right to an education, particularly given the importance of improving the life chances of these vulnerable young people.

And it’s high-quality alternative provision that provides the solution to resolving the apparent tension between these two priorities. Thus Timpson may just help us to give the recognition, resourcing and sense of mission that high-quality alternative provision needs and deserves.

And we’ll know we’re making progress when finally stop labelling it "alternative provision".

Those pupils whose behaviour is simply beyond the pale in a mainstream school need to be able to access high-quality teaching and support in a different setting. Alternative provision should be lauded for turning rhetoric about valuing every child into reality at the sharpest, most challenging end of the education system.

Yet Mr Timpson found that pupil-referral units, the most common provider, “are too regularly perceived as being little more than what were described to me as low-quality dumping grounds or holding-pens for children that no one else wants.”

Investing in alternative provision

He continued: “Media stories tend to focus on some of the particular vulnerabilities children in these settings face, such as being recruited into gangs, or the poor outcomes they achieve. While this reflects some of the challenges and consequences associated with AP, it can also reinforce the public view and stigma of the ‘local PRU’.”

This perception is, of course, at odds with the reality of most alternative provision – over 80 per cent of which is rated by Ofsted as "good" or "outstanding". Mr. Timpson said: “Though we must not ignore that some of this perception is rooted in fact, there is plenty of excellent practice and positive outcomes that overturn these preconceptions.”

It must then surely be of paramount importance that we promote and invest in alternative provision to ensure high-quality capacity in every area of the country.

Mr Timpson recommends actions the Department for Education should take to ensure alternative provision schools can attract the staff they need. These include considering ways to boost interest and exposure to alternative provision through new teacher training placement opportunities, and developing and investing in high-quality, inspirational leaders.

And he observed that while there are many alternative provision settings with impressive facilities, he has a visited a number of providers in “very challenging circumstances”

“The standards of the buildings and sites in which these providers operate in are mixed, and in some instances are woefully poor – I have seen APs based on industrial sites and in former residential buildings, many of which are not fit for purpose,” he said.

The Timpson review recommends that the DfE should invest in significantly improving and expanding buildings and facilities and that it should carefully consider the right level of funding needed to achieve this objective for the next spending review.

These recommendations seem an excellent way of building further on existing good practice, ensuring access to high-quality provision wherever it is needed, and improving perceptions of this vital service.

Lack of government commitment

Unfortunately, the Department for Education’s response to these important elements of the review is disappointingly vague. The Department says it will set out plans in the autumn about a new programme to attract and develop staff, and that the spending review will set future capital budgets for improving and expanding buildings and facilities.

This nod to the spending review is understandable but frustrating, especially because we still don’t know when it will go ahead and what it will look like. This uncertainty is a symptom of a wider problem of a government that is in a state of near-paralysis, frozen into immobility by its inability to secure a way forward over Brexit.

But the Department could surely have put a little more thought into staff recruitment and development, and some of the other proposals around alternative provision.

Instead, we are left in the unsatisfactory situation in which a review that has already taken 14 months, which has served up some important recommendations, will now not result in even a plan for another six months, let alone any action. By any standards, this is too slow.

The education secretary, Damian Hinds, should immediately attach jump-leads to the Timpson proposals on alternative provision, and the prime minister should back him. The government needs to do a lot more to bolster its social mobility agenda – not least in improving the general level of school and college funding.

A greater sense of urgency in promoting alternative provision would go a long way to convincing us that here is a government genuinely committed to improving the life-chances of young people on the margins.

Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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