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Where Did All the Noisy Children Go?

Disruptive pupils disappearing into new ‘secret garden’ of alternative provision

Widely trumpeted reductions in exclusions from schools are mostly a statistical illusion, according to a new report by independent think tank Civitas. A New Secret Garden?, by Tom Ogg with Emily Kaill, finds that thousands of pupils, many with behavioural difficulties, are shifted to alternative providers and FE colleges. These ‘managed moves’ and ‘referrals’ do not show up in official exclusion statistics, even though they often constitute effective exclusion.

The authors argue that permanent exclusion should be abolished, so that pupils must remain on the rolls of mainstream schools. The right of a school to remove a pupil from its site should be recognised, but this must be balanced by giving rights to those excluded pupils to choose what provision replaces their mainstream schooling. Currently, pupils have no right to influence which school they are sent to when they are effectively excluded.

Hidden in the undergrowth

The authors found that official statistics on exclusion glossed over the increasing use of off-site provision for pupils who struggle, or are disruptive, in ordinary classrooms:

  • 47,000 pupils were estimated to be taught in independent projects or FE colleges in 2008. This represents a dramatic increase in the use of this relatively unregulated sector of education provision since 2000. (p. 13)
  • Recently published permanent exclusion statistics, showing a large fall in exclusions, are likely to be highly misleading. Despite the fall in permanent exclusions, the number of children being taught in Pupil Referral Units continued to rise, suggesting that forms of effective exclusion are replacing permanent exclusion (p. 12)
  • A majority of the London local authorities (LAs) interviewed in a survey for this report said that this shift towards off-site provision was due to political pressure from the previous Government. As one LA admitted, ‘there is pressure to reduce permanent exclusions and we’ve responded…’ (p. 11)

Innovative, appreciated but often ‘illegal’

  • Only 70 out of the 350 projects listed on the Government’s own National Database of Providers of Alternative Education are registered as independent schools. If the government’s own guidance on alternative provision is followed, this would mean that up to 80% of alternative education providers in the Government’s own database are likely to be operating illegally. (p. 21)

Independent providers tend to be small-scale projects with a vocational or sport-based focus that provide one-to-one attention that is unavailable in mainstream schools. Guidance introduced by the last Government counter-productively requires even small providers to register, at considerable cost, as full-time independent schools. The authors argue that this sector constitutes a ‘new secret garden’ in education, an area that has minimal government regulation.

Thriving but out of sight

The authors argue that requiring these projects to register as independent schools will stifle what is a thriving and innovative sector. A survey conducted for the report suggested that all London local authorities use alternative providers. They are particularly valued by schools and local authorities because they allow for early intervention to resolve the problems of difficult pupils, avoiding the need for a permanent exclusion. One LA alternative provision coordinator said:

There’s always up and coming projects, different and new providers, who’re always innovating to do something new. I spend a lot of my time networking with them so I can offer those projects to the students in the borough… (p. 21)

Another LA coordinator praised one independent company for providing a combination of academic and vocational courses, a mix that was unavailable elsewhere in the LA:

They are very good. They’ve got people into NESCOT, Lambeth College, you know, the proper places where people do vocational qualifications and get good jobs out of it. (p. 21)

However, when asked confidentially whether they were aware that some of their providers were operating illegally, one LA coordinator, acknowledging the likely breach, asked:

You’re not reporting back to the Department for Education, are you? (p. 22)

Little choice for marginalised pupils

The report also outlines how a series of legal decisions have made a mockery of a pupil’s right to appeal a decision to permanently exclude them from a mainstream school. Even when formally reinstated, pupils can be taught entirely separately from their year group, and be excluded from all communal activities. They can even be moved off-site to receive education elsewhere. The law as it stands is deeply unfair to excluded pupils and gives them no rights to influence the education they receive after being effectively excluded. (pp. 16-17)

This means that schemes for matching pupils to the most suitable alternative provision available is very patchy. As one LA coordinator commented:

It all depends upon the attitude of the referring school. For some schools, there is almost an ‘out of sight and out of mind’ attitude. Others give a lot of thought and care to their use of alternative provision. (p. 15)

There is concern that a minority of schools and local authorities might be using the implicit threat of permanent exclusion to move pupils out of school by other means. This was illustrated by one LA coordinator’s description of a managed move:

It’d be put to the parent that we’re forcing them in every day [to the mainstream school], but they don’t really want to be here. So we might be looking at a permanent exclusion eventually, but we might as well look for something different that appeals to the student – mechanics, IT or something like that. The parent might then often agree to the move. It’d definitely be wrong for the school to say ‘if you don’t accept this then they’ll be excluded’, but it’s couched in the terms that ‘this is inevitable, and it’s for the best’. Teachers are very experienced at predicting the way things are going, so they have strong views on that. They also try to be fairly flexible. (p. 14)

Pruning the garden

The authors criticise the clumsy, knee-jerk attitude towards independent providers that has informed the Government’s ban on many successful and useful education projects that are still currently operating openly with LA approval. (p. 20)

Preferable, they argue, would be a number of judicious regulations that will make alternative providers more transparent and accountable without damaging their ability to innovate and adapt to the needs of sometimes very troubled pupils. The report recommends:

  • Balancing the interests of disruptive pupils, other pupils in a year group, and teachers, more explicitly. Schools should retain the right to separate difficult pupils from ordinary classroom activities. However, all pupils should remain on the school roll unless they move to another mainstream school. This would ensure they always remain the responsibility of a mainstream school who would be accountable to Ofsted for their approach to disruptive pupils. (p. 23)
  • A more practical approach to regulating independent providers of alternative provision. Rather than treating alternative providers as if they were well-resourced independent schools, they should be allowed to operate as adjuncts to mainstream schools. (p. 25)
  • Pupils with behavioural difficulties, and their families, should be given explicit rights to choose the full range of alternative provision available in their area. Currently, excluded pupils must attend the project they are sent to, even if they are extremely unhappy and unwilling to attend that institution. (p. 23)
  • Funding, especially that assigned to pupils with Special Educational Needs, should follow the pupil to whichever institution is most suited to them. This might be a mainstream school with specialist provision, a PRU, a FE college or an independent provider. (p. 20)

For more information contact:

Civitas on: 020 7799 6677.

Notes for Editors

i. Tom Ogg was a project coordinator and maths teacher at the London Boxing Academy Community Project (run in conjunction with Civitas) from 2007 to 2010. Boxing Clever, his personal account of teaching excluded pupils in Haringey will be published in the new year.

ii. A New Secret Garden? Alternative Provision, Exclusion and Children’s Rights can be downloaded below.

iii. Civitas is an independent social policy think tank. It has no links to any political party and its research programme receives no state funding.

iv. As part of the report, a telephone survey was conducted of 16 out of 33 London local authorities. The coordinator of alternative provision at each LA was approached and interviewed on condition of anonymity. (p. 4)

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