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Education: Alternative Providers

Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 27 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that all alternative education providers are providing a quality education.

My Lords, it is vital that young people in alternative provision receive a high-quality education. We need to be just as ambitious for pupils in alternative provision as we are for those in mainstream schools. That is why my department is committed to reforming alternative provision, and published its road map for doing so last March. We have already made progress and launched a £4 million AP innovation fund, which is delivering projects to improve outcomes for children in AP.

I am delighted to hear what the Minister said. As he knows, these young people, who have behavioural problems, have often been suspended from school, either permanently or temporarily, and are put in alternative provision. They are the most vulnerable young people. In a full curriculum, they should receive 25 hours of lessons. However, the problem is the many unregistered providers with no safeguarding or criminal checks, and which undercut costs. Local authorities and schools are placing young people in such provision. I know of a case where people with police records are teaching those children. Little wonder they get involved in gangs and drug culture. We must do something about this, and we can, by having no unregistered provision at all.

The noble Lord makes a very good point about the need to monitor and inspect these premises. The Ofsted team has achieved considerable success in identifying unregistered schools to stop them operating unlawfully. Between January 2016 and August 2018, 274 inspections of suspected unregistered schools took place; 63 settings were issued with a warning notice and 52 settings closed. I can say for the first time that on 24 October 2018, in the first trial of its kind, the courts found two defendants and the company guilty of operating an illegal school.

My Lords, does the Minister accept—and agree with the noble Lord, Lord Storey—that pupils excluded from school are more likely to get involved in anti-social behaviour, including crime and drug misuse/taking? Does he agree that, where possible, pupils should remain in a school setting and that, where that is not possible, they should receive outside that setting the best pastoral care possible and a structured education?

The noble Baroness makes a good point. Decisions to exclude pupils are taken with a great deal of care, and schools and head teachers look at this very carefully. It is important that every young person is safe and free to fulfil their potential. It should be pointed out that there is something called the VRU—I know the House loves acronyms—or Violence Reduction Unit, which has had considerable success in dramatically reducing exclusions in Glasgow. I understand that this programme is being rolled out to some other parts of Scotland, and I know we are looking at this with a great deal of care.

My Lords, I welcome the news of the plan that Ministers mention, but does Ofsted not also severely criticise the private providers in alternative provision, finding that their quality is generally far lower than that of the pupil referral units? Is the Minister looking carefully at those? Can he confirm that Edward Timpson CBE’s report on exclusion will be launched before Easter, as we expected?

I cannot confirm that it will be produced before Easter. I know it is due to be published shortly, and I think we all want to see what he comes out with. Ofsted certainly needs to, and does, view the private providers with as much attention as the other providers.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Storey, raised an important point about unregistered schools in the AP sector. I think the Minister—who is slightly out of his normal remit today in answering this Question—may have confused the Ofsted inspections of schools of faith character with those in alternative provision. However, I can give him a useful route map out of this problem for the Government. The Labour Government’s Education and Skills Act 2008 provided for the registration and inspection by Ofsted of unregistered schools for alternative provision. Plans for that to come into practice in 2012 were put on hold by the coalition Government, and that is where they remain. With exclusions in schools having risen by more than 50% in the last five years, why are the Government still refusing to implement fully the 2008 Act and ensure that all providers of alternative provision are registered?

I am not sure the noble Lord is right. My full understanding, having looked at the matter very recently—in the last two or three days—is that Ofsted is responsible, working with local authorities, schools and AP providers, for looking at AP settings that for a variety of reasons are unregistered. That continues to be the case.

My Lords, I am grateful for the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and for the Minister’s answers to previous questions. At the Aspire Academy in Hull, an alternative provision academy that forms part of the Sentamu Academy Learning Trust, a unique multi-professional team that includes a clinical psychologist, a psychotherapist, speech and language therapists and educational psychologists is in place to ensure that students’ mental health and special educational needs are met. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that mental health care and special needs provision are part of what it means for alternative provision providers to offer a quality education?

The right reverend Prelate makes an extremely good point. It is important that local needs are taken into account. She raised one example and I can give another: the Family School, an AP free school that opened in September 2014. Its ethos is built around supporting pupils to cultivate,

“a productive lifestyle, personal resilience and the values required to become responsible members of society”.

As the right reverend Prelate will know, we have a Green Paper out on children’s mental health.

My noble friend made the observation that a given number of schools have closed down. Of particular interest is what has happened to the children who were at those schools.

The local authorities have ultimate responsibility for ensuring that each and every one of those pupils is placed in a school that gives them equal chances to those who are in mainstream schools.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that every child has a fundamental right to an education? If we are not sure that an unregistered school or placement can provide that, why on earth are we sending children there?

I am sure the noble Lord will agree that there are genuine reasons why we need alternative provision schools. He is absolutely right that it is just as important that education is given at a very high level to those in AP schools, as in mainstream schools, and that those children go on to lead happy and fulfilled lives.