Alternative Provision: oral evidence at the Education Select Committee

Last year the government announced an important inquiry into the causes of the exclusion crisis in this country following a string of reports from the Fair Education Alliance, The Difference, IPPR and news outlets about the worrying rise of children excluded from school. This became an increasingly urgent issue of social justice as it emerged that these children were disproportionately in receipt of Free School Meals and had identified SEN needs. Today was a chance for voices from across the sector to share their views on the underlying causes and potential solutions to the crisis. Here are the take always:

  • Still no clear answer on the causes of exclusions

A lack of data relating to the actual timeline of the exclusions crisis characterised the responses here. Speakers pointed to mental health problems in schools. Others pointed to accountability measures producing perverse incentives to exclude students. Funding was frequently  mentioned. Although all of these pressures are part of the picture, these have been pressures within the school system for a long time. The exclusions crisis, however, has dramatically emerged in the last two years. Is it simply that things came to a head in this time? Or has something specific happened to trigger this? There was no clear answer to this.

Mapping regional exclusions data onto other metrics would give us a much better idea. If, for example, Progress 8 is to blame, we would expect to see a greater proportion of Year 11s being excluded. If mental health is to blame, lets look at hospital admissions, suicide rates etc; do these map onto areas with high rates of exclusions? We have this data, it is time we use it.

  • Blame placed on the mainstream sector

From the NEU to Nick Gibb MP, there was a strong sense that schools should be held to account for their decision making regarding where they send students once excluded. This approach raises a number of important questions. Individual schools simply do not have access to the data that others have in order to inform decision making. They also do not have access to the levers of improvement in those providers. This is clearly Ofsted and others attempting to shift blame and accountability onto individual schools for the government’s poor system-wide outcomes for SEN and Free School Meal students. This is well an truly an abdication of leadership from the government, not to mention a terrible strategy for solving the problem.

How do you hold a school to account for the quality of the alternative provider if there simply isn’t a good provider in the area? DfE needs to get a better picture of the context in which schools are operating in and whether or not schools have a decent option to choose from. PRUs are struggling to offer places and unregulated independent providers are on the rise. It is not clear how you will castigate a school for poor decision making when it is stuck between a rock and a hard place. As repeatedly pointed out: off-rolling is already illegal and nonetheless prevalent. If we can’t enforce the current regulations, what will further accountability bring us?

Like Pupil Premium, which holds schools to account for their decision making but has led to minimal improvement in outcomes for FSM, how do we ensure that getting school leaders to explain to Ofsted what they do will actually change practice rather than simply audit it?

  • Fragmentation of the system a key theme

James Frith MP, Lucy Powell MP and Emma Hardy MP pushed the Schools Minister Nick Gibb on funding and academisation. He was pretty rude to Frith, evasive with Powell and patronising with Hardy. He repeatedly claimed that because three schools (including, you guessed it Michaela and Reach Feltham) have a No Excuses Culture, operate in the same funding constraints and didn’t exclude many people, that funding and fragmentation factors should be ignored. Here are the things he completely forgot to include:

– All of those schools have resources available to them that the vast majority of schools in the system don’t have. Not least, high level media coverage and high level ministerial cover. They just don’t struggle with recruitment and retention in the same way as others. They have a lot of powerful people invested in their success. Schools in the north of England, by contrast, are routinely ignored by key government initiatives, most recently, the launch of Opportunity Areas. Generalisations from these three schools are extremely challenging.

– The dramatic rise in academy figures has fragmented approach to SEN provision. Schools can’t pool budgets geographically for educational psychologists, attendance officers, welfare officers, CAMHS etc to the extent that they used to. We should be trying to understand whether this causes more students to fall through the gap across the system, not pointing to some pet academies and Free Schools that are doing well.

– Nick Gibb claimed that there has been a substantial increase in school budgets since 2010. This conveniently ignored the fact that the cost of SEN provision has increased for schools as a result of the cuts to local authority budgets. It also ignores the fact that when you cut police, social care and healthcare budgets in a variety of ways this increases the pressure on schools to step in. We should stop seeing public services in terms of budget items and look at them holistically.

– Nick Gibb seemed to ignore all the schools that don’t adopt No Excuses policies and also have a low number of exclusions. If we are going to be learning lessons from schools selected on the basis of a minister’s ideological preference rather than actual exclusions data, we can all be pretty sure that we are going to make no progress on this issue.

Conclusion: the education select committee is admirable for trying to hold the government to account on this but there is a clear sense in which the government is dragging its feet on understanding this problem. The inquiry was announced in September 2017 and we are no closer to actually using the evidence we have to understand the problem. Perhaps it would be good if the government could focus not only on Brexit but also the future of education in this country.

 

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