Alternative provision ‘in desperate need of reform’ – report

A new report has called for urgent reform of the alternative provision (AP) system, as it criticised ‘inconsistent and ineffective’ practise. The report, Alternative provision in local areas in England: a thematic review, was jointly authored by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC). It is based on visits to six local authority areas – including Bracknell Forest and Hampshire – together with more than 700 survey responses from those within the AP system.

AP can be commissioned by both schools and local authorities (LAs). For example school governing bodies are responsible for arranging education from the sixth day of a fixed-period exclusion, while LAs must arrange education for permanently excluded children, and those who would not otherwise receive suitable education. However, the report found that in reality a lack of suitable specialist provision has also seen AP used inappropriately as a stopgap to fill deficiencies in local SEND systems.

An absence of national standards and a lack of clarity on responsibilities for AP commissioning and oversight are driving weaknesses in the system according to Ofsted and the CQC. They found that many AP placements lacked a clear purpose, with commissioners unclear on intended outcomes or how to measure them. Meanwhile limited specialist provision led to children being placed inappropriately in provision that was not resourced to meet their needs. ‘Too often we saw that schools were not keeping a close oversight of the AP in which their pupils were placed. In some cases, schools had not recently visited it or checked on their pupils’ progress.’, the report says.

There was also criticism of the transition to AP following permanent exclusion, with little capacity to set up a smooth and well-planned transition. Instead placements tended to be sudden and unsettling, with no opportunity for the child to visit the setting beforehand. Some permanently excluded children spent long periods of time with little, if any, education when no appropriate placement was available.

Other findings included that health, education and care agencies were too often working in silos for children in AP, with little joint oversight of the overall effectiveness of placements. Too often, agencies did not strategically collaborate with each other, with a worrying lack of involvement from health partners in particular. However oversight arrangements were typically stronger for children towards whom local authorities had specific duties.  This included children with education, health and care plans (EHCPs), and children in care.

The report calls for better guidance on the purposes of AP and potential indicators of success, together with clearer roles and responsibilities for local area partners - in particular how health and social care partners should be involved in strategic planning for AP. More input from parents and carers into this planning is also suggested. Other recommendations include greater oversight of certain groups of children in AP, in particular those in unregistered AP – Ofsted and the CQC are calling for a registration system for all AP settings.  

Sir Martyn Oliver, Ofsted’s chief Inspector, said: ‘We are concerned that some children’s education and care falls below the standard they deserve. We need more clarity about how AP can be used effectively so that children have consistently positive experiences. We also remain concerned about the widespread problems with unregistered AP – after 12 years of calling for the mandatory registration for all AP, it is clear that the need for reform is more urgent than ever’.

Also commenting on the report, Margaret Mulholland, SEND and Inclusion Specialist at the ASCL union said: ‘Ofsted’s conclusion that decisions about placing children and young people in AP are not always considered thoroughly enough, needs to be a precursor to change. The current system too often leads to children being inappropriately placed in AP because there is insufficient resource or capacity for them to remain in mainstream settings.’

Full report:

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