What is alternative provision?
Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the mainstream school system doesn’t work for all children. And while many of these children are electively home educated, around 135,000 pupils in England attend alternative provision settings at some point during each school year.
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Alternative provision: the basics
The Department for Education defines alternative provision as ‘education arranged by local authorities for pupils who, because of exclusion, illness or other reasons, would not otherwise receive suitable education; education arranged by schools for pupils on a fixed period exclusion; and pupils being directed by schools to off-site provision to improve their behaviour.’
The most common type of alternative provision is a pupil referral unit (PRU): a school that caters for children who aren’t able to attend a mainstream school. These are much smaller than mainstream schools, with very small class numbers and lots of pastoral support. Around a third of pupils in alternative provision attend PRUs.
Other types of alternative provision include:
- Therapeutic farms
- Forest schools
- Outdoor learning centres
- Sports facilities
- Hospital schools
- Animal-assisted therapeutic centres
- Vocational and practical courses like car mechanics or hairdressing
‘Alternative provision should focus on the child’s needs and interests in a nurturing way that can help them build up their trust and confidence again,’ says Laura Kerbey, founder of Neurodivergent Education Support and Training (NEST).
Pupils may attend alternative provision full-time or part-time, with the rest of their education taking place at their usual school. They must receive an equivalent full-time education to their peers in mainstream schools.
Why might a child need alternative provision?
‘The most common reason for a child to attend alternative provision is school exclusion, usually because their behaviour has become unmanageable,’ says Craig Johnston, a senior lecturer at the University of Winchester and specialist in marginalised youth. These children may have been permanently excluded from their mainstream school, or be at risk of being permanently excluded.
There are many other reasons why a child might attend alternative provision, such as:
- Mental health needs
- School phobia/school refusal
- Medical needs
- Persistent truancy
- Being a young carer
- Special educational needs
- Temporarily not having a school place, for example if they have moved to an area with no suitable school places or are an asylum seeker
Around 40% of pupils in alternative provision are primary school age, and the majority are boys.
How do children move to alternative provision?
There are three main ways in which a child might be transferred to alternative provision:
- Permanent exclusion, where the pupil is removed from the school roll. The school no longer has any responsibility for the child.
- A managed move, where the pupil transfers to alternative provision voluntarily. This is a more consensual approach that involves the full cooperation of parents, governors and the local authority or academy trust. It avoids the child having a permanent exclusion in their records.
- A referral, where the pupil remains on the roll of their current school but receives some or all of their education off-site.
Making alternative provision work for your child
It’s natural to be worried and upset if your child is transferred to alternative provision. It’s important to remember, though, that children in alternative provision are not ‘naughty children', and are typically very vulnerable.
‘Being labelled as having “challenging behaviour” is usually due to the fact that their current placement can’t meet their needs effectively,’ Laura explains. ‘Many are unable to access school due to very high anxiety.’
There are many positives to a child being in alternative provision rather than struggling in a school environment that isn’t working for them. ‘Some really good social work goes on in alternative provision, with a strong focus on pastoral support around behaviour, bullying and mental health,’ Craig says.
Craig suggests that if possible, a referral is the best option for transferring a child to alternative provision. ‘It’s in their best interests to keep them on roll of their mainstream school, as if they are permanently excluded for behavioural reasons, it can be difficult to find another mainstream school that will accept them,’ he says.
Before your child starts at their alternative provision setting, or if that’s not possible, soon after they join, try to set up a meeting with the leader and the staff who will work directly with your child so you can discuss their needs.
‘Make sure the placement is able to build a programme around your child’s needs, and that your child is able to develop trusting relationships with the staff there,’ Laura advises.
You may be able to formulate a settling-in plan for your child. ‘Some settings are very good at this, and will do a lot of preparation with the child, making them familiar with their key workers and trying to integrate them in short bursts,’ Craig explains.
Throughout your child’s alternative provision journey, make sure you keep talking to the staff to ensure your child’s needs are being met and any problems are tackled promptly.
‘Communicate as much information as you can about what works for your child and what doesn’t. Keep those lines of communication open and work together to support your child,’ says Laura.
What if you disagree with your child attending alternative provision?
It’s completely understandable to have concerns about your child moving to alternative provision. By the time the wheels are in motion, it’s likely that you’ll have been in close communication with their school for some time and have discussed the possibility of the move, but if you’re still worried that it’s not the right decision for your child, arrange to speak to those people involved in their welfare, such as the headteacher, SENCO and support staff.
‘It’s important that you feel you can question the school about why your child is being moved, and challenge the decision if you feel you need to,’ says Craig. ‘Gain clarification about why it’s happening, and whether they’re actually being excluded.’
If your child is permanently excluded, you do have the right to appeal the decision. The first step is to take your case to the school governors, who may overturn the exclusion. If not, you can apply for an independent review by your local authority or, if the school is an academy, the academy trust. You must apply for a review within 15 school days of the exclusion, and it may be helpful to seek legal advice.
Returning to mainstream school
While some children benefit from staying in alternative provision until they finish compulsory education, many will return to mainstream school, be it after weeks, months or even years.
‘I would recommend a gradual transition back into a mainstream school, with maybe a mixture of alternative provision and school until the child is able to access the new school exclusively,’ says Laura.
‘Again, communication is vital, and the alternative provision needs to share what works and what doesn’t to enable a positive transition.’
Whether or not your child does reintegrate into mainstream school, it’s important to see their time in alternative provision as an opportunity, not a failure.
‘Alternative provision can do amazing work to rebuild children’s trust in adults and the education system,’ Laura says. ‘A positive experience can make children feel less anxious and more confident again. This means they can access other educational settings and, paired with a successful transition, allow them to reach their potential.’
‘Alternative provision has rebuilt my daughter’s confidence’
Sara, mum to Cara, explains why her daughter is attending alternative provision and how it's helped her find her feet with education.
‘Cara has a diagnosis of an autism spectrum condition, with pathological demand avoidance (PDA: a form of autism that makes children unable to cope with demands or requests) and dyslexia. She struggled at middle school, and was on a part-time timetable to help her cope.
‘Things deteriorated when Cara moved to upper school. Eventually, she was signed off as medically unfit to attend school.
‘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. It sounded like it would suit Cara, so I booked a session to test the water.
‘The tutor offered small class sizes and a flexible approach where Cara could take the lead with her learning. It sounded like a chance to repair the damage caused by her school experiences, and CAMHS were supportive of us trying.
‘Attending Wildly Curious has helped Cara’s social skills and built her confidence. Her sensory needs are met, and she is 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 Forest School once a week. It’s important for her emotional wellbeing, and her school is fully supportive.
‘As a parent, I found the biggest challenge with alternative provision was not listening to other people’s opinions. Now I’ve accepted that doing things differently is okay, and it may be the answer you and your child are looking for.’
Read Sara’s full account of having a child in alternative provision.