Written by Sandro Capozzi
Online alternative provision – the flexible, inclusive solution schools need.
Alternative Provision is gaining significant attention, and it's well-deserved.
The challenges facing schools are significant. For young people who require something different be it an altered environment, flexible timetable or adapted teaching, these challenges must be overcome. At Academy21, we are hugely optimistic about how online alternative provision can be a major part of this solution. The schools we work with are just as positive. Online is an inclusive, flexible, quality option used successfully for thousands of students in hundreds of schools. Students across the country deserve it to be a greater part of the conversation.
There is a clear sense that the AP sector is becoming overwhelmed, with resources having to stretch across more young people and a rise in school exclusions as school leaders take the hardest of decisions to safeguard all learners. Indeed, the number of students in state-run alternative provision has increased by 13% in the year to June 2023, despite a reducing number of AP settings since the Covid pandemic. Around half of these students are in receipt of SEN support and more still eligible for free school meals. Schools across the country continue to graft and care, going beyond the typical role of schools to support students and families.
There is a response…
The government has produced a SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan. The aim is laudable and right:
‘to create a more inclusive society that celebrates and enables success in all forms, with the cultures, attitudes and environments to offer every child and young person the support that they need to participate fully, thrive and fulfil their potential’.
It is a vision every educator can and will get behind. But it is currently just that, a vision, not a reality. The report identifies ‘key challenges’ around inconsistent outcomes for young people, low parental confidence in the system and increasing costs of running AP services. The watchword is, as ever, capacity. More settings and resources are needed to meet the growing demand for alternatives for students with additional needs.
Most solutions are not easy, nor quick, indeed reports have pointed to how long it takes to build new provision. There is however a resolve to focus on approaches that work – preventative, early intervention, reintegration planning, common standards, parent/carer buy in and consultation with the industry. Working on these areas will lead to steadfast focus on the most important aspect of reform – the students. That is vital. However, the pressure to reduce overall spend remains. So does the somewhat fixed thinking about the forms of provision – often physical settings for time limited placements. This is despite the ‘powerful testimony from young adults who feel their life chances were transformed through attending non-school settings’. It is certainly time to think seriously about different alternatives – chief amongst these is online learning.
One omission from the Improvement Plan is the considerable role online alternative provision can play in the lives of young people in need. At Academy21 we serve scores of local authority areas, hundreds of schools, and thousands of students each year. Online AP is already improving outcomes and changing lives for young people. Perhaps it is a hangover from the pandemic and views of what online learning, planned overnight and delivered to all students looks like that means policy is yet to fully embrace the benefits that so many schools already see. Online delivers high academic standards, solves capacity issues and provides a bridge between school and child.
Yes, online is different – but so are young people. This difference is a strength.
Place and space that suits them
Students feel secure. They can learn in school settings or in their own space, dramatically different to the hustle and bustle of the classroom. For many, this means calmer settings on school site, for others the security of their home, stripping away the environmental pressures that cause the anxiety and intensity that contributes to low attendance or undesirable behaviour. Indeed, one of the most exciting developments are the hybrid units many schools/groups are building using online teaching to give structure to young people’s school day so expert pastoral and inclusion staff can do their work.
Quality and consistency
At Academy21 a particular benefit is the scope of the curriculum: full, aligned to curricula studied in schools across the country and delivered 100% live and recorded by subject expert teachers so that students receive a quality education and can transition back into mainstream classrooms often more readily than in other settings having gained ground on peers. Moreover, online offers more flexibility with timetabling, a consistency in teaching and effective safeguarding and attendance monitoring to fit a school’s requirements.
Flexible and inclusive
Equally, online AP is purpose built, adapted for learners with additional needs in a way pandemic provision could not. At Academy21 this means purpose-built platforms that allow students to access classrooms and receive feedback seamlessly; varied means of participation so students can access the same quality learning in different ways; streamlined communication that enables schools to monitor students and our teachers well versed in online pedagogy and innovative tools to engage and support students. The result is often marked – increased attendance, improve attainment and most of all growth in confidence and aspiration.
Arguably the most powerful aspect is that online AP taps into the brilliance and skills our young people already possess. Their interactions, social lives and interests are already led in part online, they are digitally aware and comfortable in online spaces. With the right support, safeguards and opportunities offered as part of the ‘package’, they thrive.
Every child is different. Online will work for many, not all, but with thousands of young people already benefiting it is time to elevate online alternative provision to a central part of the conversation so that more schools and their young people can benefit.