'Alternative provision has helped my daughter's social skills and confidence'
Some children – often those who have been excluded for behavioural issues or who have mental health problems – can have difficulties in mainstream school, but a move to an alternative provision setting on a part-time or full-time basis may help them thrive.
Cara, who has autism, attends alternative provision once a week. Her mum Sarah explains how it has helped, and what to think about if your child is referred to alternative provision.
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'Cara was signed off school as medically unfit'
‘She struggled at middle school, and was on a part-time timetable to help her cope. We had also applied for an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) that would enable her to get extra support at school, particularly as she approached the transition to upper school, but the application was denied.
‘Things deteriorated when Cara moved to upper school. Eventually, she was signed off as medically unfit to attend school by the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) neurodevelopmental team. Our appeal against the EHCP decision was upheld, but she was still not fit for school.'
'Alternative provision was chance to repair the damage caused by mainstream school'
‘As the summer holidays approached, Cara wanted to know what was going to happen with her schooling in September. While she’d been out of school, we’d adopted an “unschooled,” self-directed learning approach, which suited her PDA profile learning style. One of the things I’d noticed was how important it was for her to be outside.
‘I was in touch with some mums who home educated, and had seen that some of their children attended sessions at a Forest School setting called Wildly Curious. I thought it sounded like it would suit Cara, and as some family sessions were being run over the summer, I booked us into a paper-making session for my birthday to test the water.
‘The session was three hours long, outside in a shelter, and ticked all the boxes that I thought would be helpful for Cara. So I emailed the tutor and outlined Cara’s needs and experiences with formal education.
‘The response was just what I’d hoped for. The tutor offered small class sizes and a flexible approach where Cara could take the lead with her learning. It sounded like a great chance to repair the damage caused by her school experiences; the small classes would prevent her feeling overwhelmed, and the outdoor setting and activities would help with her sensory processing difficulties.
‘Because Cara was still signed off school by CAMHS, I discussed the proposal of Forest School with them, and they were supportive of us trying, although we would have to fund it ourselves.
‘For the first week, Cara’s anxiety and demand avoidance was so high that she was unable to leave the car. But her confidence was restored through being in a safe setting, and now she can’t wait to get there. She’s keen to participate and her concentration is much better as her learning experiences are varied.'
'She doesn’t feel the need to mask her difficulties with the tutor'
‘Cara has benefited enormously from attending alternative provision. It’s helped her social skills through participating in classes and developing more awareness of others. Being accepted into the group has built her confidence in communicating with her peers, and she doesn’t feel the need to mask her difficulties with the tutor.
‘Her sensory needs are met as she can move around freely without the constraints of a typical classroom, and without drawing attention to herself. She is also able to take part in activities that develop her physical stamina and motor skills, like thatching, fire-making and knife skills.
‘Cara is now on a part-time timetable at school, and still goes to Wildly Curious for an hour a week. The plan was for her to wean off it and transition completely into mainstream school, but she has told us how important it is for her emotional wellbeing, and her school is fully supportive of her continuing.
‘As a parent, I found the biggest challenge with alternative provision was not listening to the opinions of others – and my own inner critic – about stepping outside conventional education. But now I’ve reached a place of acceptance that doing things differently is okay. Knowing that everyone has a different journey can bring the freedom of considering new possibilities, and it may be just the answer you and your child are looking for.’