Alternative action: the criteria needed for AP within UK education

Why medical needs alternative provision needs a data injection, and how robots are going to provide it…

When it comes to alternative provision (AP) within UK education, there are various criteria that must be considered. The main focus is to provide as much education as possible to students who, for whatever reason, are not able to attend mainstream classroom environments. Another is to ensure that the wellbeing of pupils is protected. 

The reasons for AP referrals are multiple. A report from the UK government, titled Investigative Research into Alternative Provision, and published in October 2018, defines alternative provision as: “education for pupils, who, because of exclusion, illness or other reasons, would not otherwise receive suitable education; education arranged by schools for pupils on fixed-term exclusion; and pupils being directed by schools to off-site provision to improve their behaviour”. 

The government launched the Alternative Provision Innovation Fund (APIF) in April 2018 in order to measure the efficacy of alternative provision. As part of this project, companies were invited to bid for funding for projects that address one of three categories: 

  • Good academic progress in, and successful transitions from, AP to education, training and employment at age 16;
  • Reintegration into a suitable mainstream or special placement;
  • Increasing parental or carer engagement. 

One successful applicant was Norwegian edtech company No Isolation, which provides telepresence robots for children who cannot physically attend a mainstream classroom. The robots, named AV1, allow pupils to connect via smartphone or tablet to their classroom. The child can then use the microphone in AV1 to speak directly to peers and teachers, and can see the classroom in real-time via AV1’s camera. They can also fully participate in class and ‘raise their hand’, causing a light to flash on AV1 to alert the teacher to the child. 

The No Isolation project is focusing on reintegrating students back into suitable mainstream or special placement, and will use the project to measure the efficacy of AV1.


The Breakdown

  • The UK government launched the Alternative Provision Innovation Fund (APIF) in April 2018 in order to measure the efficacy of alternative provision.
  • As part of this project, companies were invited to bid for funding for projects that address one of three categories: 

– Good academic progress in, and successful transitions from, AP to education, training and employment at age 16;

– Reintegration into a suitable mainstream or special placement;

– Increasing parental or carer engagement.

  • Norwegian edtech company No Isolation, which provides telepresence robots
    for children who cannot physically attend a mainstream classroom, will focus on reintegrating students.
  • One of the biggest missing elements in the evaluation of AP across the UK is data, especially for medical needs students.
  • The Investigative Research into Alternative Provision report states that “The most common reason given in the literature for referral by schools was inappropriate behaviour.”
  • “Online learning works really well for students with mental health issues, because they can remain anonymous.” – Sarah Simpson, Surrey Online School
  • “I would like to see schools considering the holistic development of the child. It is not just about their maths and English attainment. It is about them returning to school, being part of the community.” – Cath Kitchen, Hospital and Outreach Education

Data

One of the biggest missing elements in the evaluation of AP across the UK is data, especially for medical needs students. Much of the available insight into alternative provision focuses on exclusion. For example, the Investigative Research into Alternative Provision report states that: “The most common reason given in the literature for referral by schools was inappropriate behaviour.” 

Cath Kitchen, headteacher at Hospital and Outreach Education, a medical pupil referral unit in Northamptonshire and a partner in the APIF telepresence robot project, says: “In terms of AP, the children who are unwell are really very silent in it all. 

I sit on the Alternative Provision Stakeholders Group at the DfE, and the last meeting was entirely focused on exclusions, which is absolutely right. It is a huge issue, but I feel our parents don’t have the opportunity to shout because they’re busy looking after sick children. 

“If those of us in the sector don’t fight for them, then they’re likely to get forgotten, and their need is as great as anybody’s.” 

The No Isolation project is focusing specifically on children with medical needs. Harriet Gridley, head of business development, UK, at No Isolation, explains that the company is tracking four main areas:

  • Attendance;
  • Attainment;
  • Wellbeing or loneliness, for which a scale has been developed in partnership with a psychology professor focusing on loneliness amongst children;
  • Cost effectiveness, particularly in relation to other AP options such as online schooling or home tuition.

This data will be made available throughout the project, says Gridley, and a final report on key findings will also be published at its culmination. 

I would like to see schools considering the holistic development of the child. It is not just about their maths and English attainment. It is about them returning to school, being part of the community.
– Cath Kitchen

The wider role of technology

Technology is also implemented throughout much of the UK’s longstanding alternative provision. For example, online schooling, in which students log into a virtual classroom from wherever they are, be that home, hospital, or a designated space at school. 

One such provision is Surrey Online School, a project under Surrey County Council. The project was launched in 2015 by former head Chris Goodall, in partnership with online education providers Tute Education.  

Surrey Online School uses Tute lessons to provide education for children in the county who, for varying reasons, cannot attend mainstream classroom environments. 

Tute provides lessons, complete with teachers, on the core subjects of maths, English, and science, and is implemented across various AP settings. Liz Rumsey is a Tute teacher, and allowed me to sit in on a virtual KS3 maths lesson. 

She says: “I would say that any subject can work well in a virtual environment as long as it’s planned correctly. As long as it gives the opportunity for the students to actually engage and be doing, rather than just being passive, it can work.”

The online school provides alternate provision across the county, and deals with students with both behavioural and medical needs. Rumsey says: “That’s one of the really inclusive parts of what we do; we can teach anybody, and they can be all together within the same classroom.” 

Inclusivity and personalisation are huge influences in the allocation of alternative provision. Especially for children with mental health requirements, a customised learning experience can make all the difference. Sarah Simpson, administrator for Surrey Online School, says: “Online learning works really well for students with mental health issues, because they can remain anonymous.”  

Anonymity means that students can engage in lessons without the inhibitions that come with getting answers wrong, and of course with the knowledge that safeguarding is thoroughly implemented, Simpson explains. 


In numbers

In 2017, less than 2% of pupils who completed Key Stage 4 were mainly attending state place-funded AP or other types of alternative provision. 

Only around half of pupils (56%)from alternative provision went to a sustained education, training or employment destination after Key Stage 4, compared with 94% from state-funded mainstream schools.

(Source: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/748199/Destinations_Main_Text_2017.pdf)


Challenges

However, despite the various advantages, there are still issues that haven’t been fully ironed out that educators hope to be able to address through technology in the future. Jayne Franklin, headteacher at the Children’s Hospital at Great Ormond Street and UCH, another partner school for the No Isolation AV1 project, says: “Organisationally, I think across education and health we can have better shared platforms where families are not having to repeat information all the time.” 

She added: “Our hospital is about to go into the paperless world of electronic patient records, but that doesn’t connect to education. I know we’ve got to consider encrypting and safeguarding, but for me this change would be massive.” 

Another barrier for many schools and parents of AP children is, of course, cost. Despite both Tute’s lessons and No Isolation’s AV1 robots being relatively cost-effective solutions – Tute charges £12.50 per lesson, and AV1 costs just £8 per day – costs still pile up. 

Some schools will use their pupil premium to fund alternative provision, explains Simpson, and some children may have funding tied into their educational healthcare plans (EHC). For other schools and private students, the cost of AP has to come from parents or guardians. For example, looked-after children in Surrey are often funded by Surrey County Council projects, says Simpson. 

This is a huge problem in our society, that our education is perhaps not as inclusive as it should be.
– Harriet Gridley

What happens next?

The hopes for the outcome of the APIF project are varied. Franklin says: “My greatest hope for the project is that we can really empower as many different areas and schools to be able to use this in the future, and that it’s not a one-off, that it will become the norm.” Ease of access to this kind of provision is something that all of the educators I spoke to echoed.

Kitchen also touched on another popular area of discussion: assessment. 

In terms of the data that this project is collecting, she says: “I would like to see schools – AP is particularly good at this – considering the holistic development of the child. 

It is not just about their maths and English attainment. 

It is about them returning to school, being part of the community. Not only them, but their parents as well, feeling included, communicating with the teacher.” 

Some clear insight into the efficacy of technology in alternative provision is definitely something that is on the agenda for these educators. The current lack of data on the issue of medical needs AP – and how technology is playing a role in addressing it – is definitely an issue for those in the sector, and an increase in understanding of efficacy could help to calm fears amongst teachers. 

In terms of social and emotional progress, no data is collected centrally as there is no agreed ‘toolʼ for measurement. Individual APs keep their own case studies and ‘good newsʼ stories about the amazing progress that children make in the right nurturing environments.
– Cath Kitchen 

As Kitchen explains: “There are a lot of teachers, depending on the ethos of the school, that would be thinking ‘I’m not going to have anybody watching my lessons.’ 

I understand all of that as well. For us, this project is about breaking down what I see as those barriers, because it’s fear of the unknown.” 

For now, No Isolation and their fellow APIF grant winners will strive to provide anecdotal evidence as well as hard data on the efficacy of their AP interventions, and the hope is that their findings lead to more visibility for the issue of critically ill children. 

As Gridley says: “I think this is a huge problem in our society, that our education system is perhaps not as inclusive as it should be, and I think it’s incredible the things that technology can do to create an inclusive learning environment. Particularly for the most vulnerable.”

You might also like: Alternative Provision Innovation Fund places telepresence robots with sick children