Still an afterthought? Providing teachers for our most vulnerable children      

24 February 2017

When the Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening recently said that she wanted special educational needs and disabilities to be “mainstreamed” within teacher training, she was sending an encouraging message about alternative provision (AP). AP is a corner of the education system that is poorly defined and loosely regulated, yet thousands of the nation’s most vulnerable pupils pass through it every year. In 2016, 15,015 students, mostly aged 11-15, were registered in pupil referral units (PRUs), and a further 105,363 attended a state-funded special school. Many more attended part-time AP offered by a range of academies, businesses, charities and others. Despite its size and the often complex needs of its pupils, much of the part-time AP sector is not Ofsted inspected and releases little information on their students’ outcomes and wellbeing.

While the different categories of AP don’t reveal the variety of factors that could lead to a child leaving mainstream schooling, or the diversity of their experiences with different providers, we do know that educating these high needs students currently involves relatively high costs and low outcomes.

In 2016, only 1.1 per cent of students in AP achieved 5 GCSEs at A*-C including English and Maths, compared to 53.5 per cent of the whole school population. AP students are twice as likely to be eligible for free school meals, a measure of poverty, and 79 per cent are judged to have special educational needs or disabilities. Despite the clear need for high quality teaching from specialist staff, AP providers struggle more than mainstream schools to recruit.

The latest Department of Education (DfE) census data on the teaching workforce shows that state funded alternative providers have twice the percentage of their teaching positions unfilled as the state funded sector in general.

Figure 1: Vacancies as a percentage of total positions











Also, nearly double the percentage of staff in alternative providers are temporary than in mainstream schools.

Figure 2: Temporarily filled posts as a percentage of total positions











Managing unfilled teaching places means many providers are struggling to meet the government’s expectations for a greater focus on academic rigour, as outlined in the 2012 Charlie Taylor Review. When combined with AP student numbers that grow and shrink at unpredictable rates throughout the year as pupils are referred from or transferred back to mainstream education, it is difficult to provide the routine and individual attention that their students particularly need.

In this context, the amount spent by mainstream schools on alternative provision continues to grow. This matters because AP is funded directly by the school that refers the pupil, so every extra pound spent on the stretched AP sector comes directly out of the budget for the whole school population.

Figure 3: The cost of AP for schools





The imperative is to get the best possible provision with this money. While the workforce is not the only issue facing the AP sector, it makes up the largest proportion of providers’ budgets, and regular contact with talented staff who know their pupils well, will probably do more than any other factor to improve outcomes and change lives for the better.

Clearly there is a need to attract more high quality teachers into PRUs, special schools, and other alternative providers. The government took a positive step towards this goal when it changed the regulations on initial teacher training to allow some of these providers to become teaching schools. However, there are still too few teachers starting their careers in the AP sector, and many express trepidation about moving to referral units and similar providers from mainstream schools. The DfE needs do more to equip teachers at all points in their professional life with the skills to be effective with high needs students, and then to convince more of them that there are fulfilling careers on offer in the alternative sector. Schools and the new Chartered College of Teaching can also contribute through continuing professional development for teachers in all types of schools.

These figures do not show everything about the AP workforce. Associated professionals such as teaching assistants, behaviour specialists and other support staff may be equally important. Similarly, they reveal nothing at all about the many AP providers that are not registered as schools, so do not participate in censuses or Ofsted inspections. What is clear is that teaching our most vulnerable students, in whatever type of school, needs to become a central part of the teaching profession and training.

Ruby Holmes, Research Assistant, Reform 




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