‘We need a revolution in alternative provision – one that ends the relentless focus in English and maths’

Legendary education reporter Richard Garner casts his eyes over the huge pressures faced by AP schools

Richard Garner

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It's not rocket science – but engaging kids in something that sparks their interest could, in turn, be the spark that ignites them to rediscover a love of education.

Unfortunately, this happens all too rarely in the case of pupils excluded from school who end up in alternative provision – today's equivalent of the pupil referral unit.

This was the message that emerged from an Ofsted report on alternative provision - details of which were presented at a conference on the subject held by Westminster Education Forum last week.

All too often the centres concentrate on just making sure their pupils get a basic diet of maths and English – and little else. If they have already been switched off the basic curriculum at school, there's little chance that this diet will help them to suceeed or get back an interest in education.

There are some exciting innovations on the horizon, though. Take the Wac Arts College for 14- to 19-year-olds in Camden, north London. Its principal, James Fornara, describes it as "the only oversubscribed alternative provision in the country". He is probably right. It offers young people BTEC courses in music, drama and technical expertise.

It does not neglect maths and English (and I'm not advocating that) although it is a little sad that that seemed to be the only area of its work Department for Education officials were interested in when they went to visit it.

I wrote a piece about it when it was on the verge of opening and described it as a "unique" venture. On reflection, that is sad. There should be other innovative ventures like this – not necessarily all devoted to the arts but maybe dedicated to subjects like engineering or health care. As one speaker at last week's conference put it: "Not all students are robots: they have individual needs and we have to find the right mix for them."

Wac Arts College is in liaison with nine local authority areas to recruit students. What is needed is for more specialist alternative provision to be set up around the country. I can see it would be too costly to set up a range of alternatives in every area of the country but it would be good to see similar ventures encourage rather than just supplying excluded kids with more of the diet that had turned them off school in the first place. Let the free school movement revert to its original conception – and provide something different to what is on offer in the maintained sector.

Incidentally, another concept was discussed at the conference which providers of alternative provision were urged to avoid – "false optimism".  In the case in point at the conference it was the false optimism of a parent but you could see how it might translate to teachers and the unit itself. Echoes of John Cleese in the film "Clockwise" when he addresses a pupil who is en route to exclusion again:  "The despair I can take – it's the hope I can't cope with," he says.

My enemy’s enemy

I had thought I would steer clear of the great grammar school debate this week on the grounds we are all in danger of being "grammared out".

However, I just feel I have to make some mention of the amazing line-up that has been brought together to speak against it. The latest opponent is George Osborne (remember him, he used to be Chancellor of Exchequer?) who said it was wrong that the government should be spending 80 per cent of its time looking after the interest of 20 per cent of its pupils – it should be the other way round, ie 80 per cent of time spent on the 20 per cent who need help the most.

Former minister Anna Soubry made the point on Question Time that her constituency had four non-selective secondary schools - all of which were performing well - and did not need more selection.  On the same programme Alastair Campbell gave his heartfelt thanks to Theresa May for achieving something no-one else had done – uniting the Labour party for a fleeting moment in time. (Incidentally, he said he felt Labour should have gone further and abolished selection on gaining office with such a thumping majority in 1997.)

It was also revealed that education secretary Justine Greening had backed out of appearing on the programme – further evidence perhaps that she is uncomfortable with her brief.

Hopefully, then, the dice are stacking up against Mrs May's proposals.

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Richard Garner

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