The most damaging thing an education campaigner or policy reformer can do is imply that solutions are simple or easy – or, worse, both. We’ve known for years that the best correlation with student progress is high-quality teaching. Simple, but not easy. It’s relentlessly hard to identify, train, incentivise and retain great teachers, and money appears to play only a small part. It’s also acknowledged that sustaining breadth of core subjects, for as long as possible, is strongly associated with future success in employment or further or higher education. But in which subjects, in what form, and to what extent, can pathways be personalised?
No aspect of education is more complex and demanding than alternative provision (AP), but too much of the current debate implies simple solutions. With many people now claiming that “too many pupils are being expelled”, we should ask: how many is enough? Who will tell the chair of governors, agonising over a fixed-term or permanent exclusion and balancing a life sentence for the pupil against the daily disruption for others, that the quota has been reached? Who will tell the parents of the child who has been attacked, or the teacher who can’t teach because of relentless threats of violence? What about the 12-year-old who has learned to read for the first time in the AP school? Should we send them back to the place they kept running away from?
This is in the context of claims that “AP school results aren’t good enough”. Only 1.1 per cent of pupils in AP achieve five good GCSE passes; nearly 50 per cent leave without any job, apprenticeship, college place or plan for their future. Some 58 per cent of young adults in prison were permanently excluded at school. When the problems facing their pupils include substance addiction, serious mental ill-health, family abuse, housing instability or a criminal record, teachers have to be social workers before they can do literacy and numeracy.
Improving alternative provision
Are sport and military-style regimes the answer? For some children this provides role models, routine and discipline, which help them to thrive. Others have already had more than enough experience of loud, physical environments: "zero tolerance" could simply be another thing for them to fail at. Are therapeutic environments, therefore, best? Sometimes. Savvy teens quickly work out what they have to do to get a morning of mindful colouring-in instead of maths.
There are already many existing excellent AP schools, and teachers giving specialist support to pupils who might be staying on to complete their education or returning to mainstream school having had the extra help they needed. Policymakers should look to the outlier successes and learn the right lessons from what they’re doing. Is it strong leadership and good financial management? A great set of local relationships, with social services, the police and community sports and drama clubs? How can these be incentivised elsewhere?
Chloe Smith, MP for Norwich North, is bringing together local headteachers, employers, volunteers and clubs to share responsibility for young people who are at risk of losing out. Local authorities are struggling to maintain critical services but it would be cost-neutral to place a child and adolescent mental health or social worker team in a local AP school one day a week. The saving on missed appointments, incomplete assessments and early intervention would be significant for them, and allow teachers to teach and pupils to learn.
Former teacher Kiran Gill is establishing a programme called "The Difference", which aims to encourage more great teachers to make their career in AP. Her approach is to address a problem identified by many new teachers: that they don’t get enough training or practice in effective behaviour management or special educational needs.
There are some universal truths, backed up by evidence, that people at all levels can use to guide both policy and practice. Strong and consistent relationships matter: between pupils and teachers, between schools and parents or guardians, between local leaders. Meaningful qualifications matter: it’s more important for the young person to gain skills that will help them to become the author of their own life story than to collect certificates. Investment and money matter: but so too does intelligent use of the money already in the system, and unlocking capacity that may exist elsewhere in the private or philanthropic worlds.
The campaign on the Tube marking this summer’s GCSE results caught people’s attention. The response showed that there is an appetite for thinking and talking about the route from missing school to behaving badly to prison. Let’s take advantage of this to have hard conversations about a complex subject.
Pamela Dow is the chief reform officer at Catch22 and former director of strategy at the Ministry of Justice
The Battle of Ideas session "Inspire or discipline" is part of the strand "Battle for Education", taking place on Sunday 14 October at the Barbican in London. Tes is the education media partner for the festival, which runs for the whole weekend. Tickets can be found here.