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Bristol Alternative Learning Provision Report Finally Released

  • Bristol ALP report had previous been withheld
  • 31 recommendations have been made for ALP improvement
  • There is a lack of capacity to challenge schools on inclusion and exclusions
  • Negotiated Moves through schools occurring without Bristol Inclusion Panel
  • Issues include over use of ALP
  • Majority of places taken by pupils with EHCPs or going through EHCNAs
  • ALP issues unlikely to be resolved within two years
  • Alison Hurley’s response to Bristol Schools Forum June 2021

An independent report commissioned by Bristol City Council to look into the city’s Alternative Learning Provision (ALP) was quietly released online ahead of Bristol Schools Forum this month.

The report, Review Report – Bristol Alternative Learning Provision October – November 2020, was mired in controversy months ahead of its final release.

In March 2021, Director of Education and Skills Alison Hurley, promised People Scrutiny Commission that the report would be brought to Bristol Schools Forum in April 2021.

The subsequent withholding of the report at Schools Forum received backlash from members of the Bristol Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Send) community as well as some Bristol Schools Forum members.

It wasn’t until June that the report was found online. Despite it relating to the Written Statement of Action (WSoA) the report was slipped onto the ALP section of the council’s website rather than the Bristol Local Offer.

At Bristol Schools Forum in March, Hurley told members that bringing the report without showing how Bristol City Council were going to tackle 31 recommendations for improvement would ‘create more concern’.

At the time, Hurley said: “So you know, people can see the concerns that were raised but actually, see at the same time what the local authority through that coproduction are going to do about it. And I just think the gap between the two will create more concern and anxiety than putting them out together.”

The report has now been released without the apparent coproduction that was originally deemed necessary, although in the interim, a local election has now finished.

An email address associated with the coproduction is not working.

Rather than spark predicted anxiety and concern, questions were asked about why the report had been withheld for so long. Co-founder of Bristol Send Justice Sally Kent said: ‘Hang on? Why has this report been released before the crucial co-production which caused the delay pre election has taken place?’

Send Advocacy also raised concerns about ALP on the day the report was released saying: ‘The seemingly common practice of LAs outsourcing responsibility for educating Children and Young People with SEND to often under-resourced, inexpert and inappropriate Alternative Provision settings, further compounds existing failings towards traumatised and vulnerable learners.’

ALP is education outside of school which has been arranged by Local Authorities (LA) or schools themselves. It is for pupils who have been permanently excluded, are at risk of exclusion or for those whom mainstream education is not appropriate.

This is for a variety of reasons such as the pupil’s health, social or emotional reasons or schools being unable or unwilling to meet need. In Bristol, there are various forms of ALP. These range from Pupil Referral Units (PRU) for excluded pupils, Hospital Education, tuition services to Independent Alternative Learning Providers (IAPs).

Pupils who have not been permanently excluded mostly remain dual rolled. This is where the pupil remains on roll at their original school whilst accessing ALP. The aim is to prevent exclusions, and meet specialist need as a short term provision which will see pupils return to their original setting – revolving door provision.

In addition to schools, there are a number of resource bases. These are either within a mainstream school or located next to it. And, there are part time ALPs which are listed in the Provision of Alternative Learning System (ALP Catalogue) Provider Catalogue for use by Bristol City Council and Bristol Schools.

There has been historic concerns about ALP being used as a ‘sole education offer’ for children, especially provision that is unregistered with the Department for Education (DfE).

The new independent ALP report commissioned by Bristol City Council stretches over 44 pages. Some information has been withheld in the publicly released document to protect the anonymity of individual case studies.

The report was put together with interviews with all current ALP providers at CEO and Head Teacher level. Data from exams, finance and the Bristol Inclusion Panel (BIP) was examined. Researchers also interviewed professionals working with students and had meetings with the Chair of the Management Committee of the Bristol Hospital Education Service. A ‘deep dive’ of 39 case studies was undertaken as well as plans from Bristol Schools Forum and data from comparable statistical neighbours to Bristol.

Whilst time was given interviewing those associated with ALP, it was not found to gather the voices of pupils or parents affected by the many issues in the review.

The report stated, although without going into depth on the ‘obvious’ reasons why: ‘Obviously, due to the COVID pandemic and time constraints, it has not been possible to hear the pupils or parent voice during this review.’

Bristol Schools Forum papers show the purpose of the report aims to give a ‘full understanding’ of how ALP is being used in Bristol. It will ‘enable transparent decision making for future placements and consistency across settings.’

Its purpose is also to feed into a ‘collaborative approach’ to specialist education in Bristol and agree how ALP will be used in the future. It will also inform future ALP recommissioning.

The report found 31 recommendations for improvement, all of which Bristol City Council accept and say they are working on improving. Bristol is described as a ‘very high user of ALP against National trends’.

One major issue uncovered was that the budget doesn’t add up. The ALP Budget for Bristol is around £3,514,712.67, which includes £600,000 for Early Intervention. But the cost centre only reported it at £300,000. The total ALP actual spend was found to be closer to £3,940,000 but the ‘cost centres and the budget lines do not match’.

A lack of joined-up approach on AP commissioning for Send pupils showed there was ‘no clear idea about the complete spend on ALP’. Bristol City Council has ‘no sight’ of what schools spend on ALP, meaning working out the entire city spend on provision is ‘impossible’.

The Bristol SEN team were found to be arranging ‘bespoke ALP’ that the ALP Hub had ‘no knowledge’ of, with some pupils concerned being on different systems with each system reporting on the same child.

The overall inaccuracy of Send data was another issue raised. This has been a recent historic issue in the city, with the reviewer finding again that ‘data capture given was unreliable and incorrect on many of the fields’. This was found in the report to cause ‘difficulties’ around the LA reporting and planning accurately.

The report states: ‘The June 2020 data capture was incorrect when tested against other information from Providers and the Hub. The use of ALP over the last few years lacks centrally held data. While there is information in the 2016 ALP commissioning review that established the ALP Hub, the main data for the department is now only held by the ALP Hub team. Different teams within the LA are collecting information on the ALP pupils.’

Despite an independent data review commissioned by the council as far back as 2019, ‘insufficient and incorrect data makes it difficult to strategically plan ALP.’

A critical lack of specialist school places in Bristol was a major feature in the report, which stated ‘to a large degree the ALP budget is covering lack of SEND placements’. This has effectively made Bristol ALP unofficial special schools.

The report’s authors estimated that around 70 per cent of ALP places are filled by pupils who have Send or are going through the needs assessment process for an Education Health Care Plan.

‘Some ALP providers are at risk of turning into special schools but are not registered as such,’ the report warns. It also states that it is ‘normal’ to have some Send pupils within ALP ‘but not to see the numbers at this high percentage’.

Bristol City Council does not have ‘visibility’ of what academies are spending on ALP. Schools can and do make their own ALP arrangements ‘especially for part time learning’.

Another issue raised was surrounding the lack of clarity about who is responsible for ‘quality assurance’ around the Send placements. The report says: ‘Though the Head of Safeguarding in education accompanies Officers on QA visits it is not clear how often these visits take place and the visits have been suspended due to COVID. Having safeguarding policies from settings is not enough to ensure good safeguarding working practises.’

A failure was found with schools carrying out checks on providers that pupils were placed with, with the report saying: ‘Schools are ‘rarely’ checking providers, tending to leave that to LA. Lack of capacity in the ALP Hub and difficulties for the team to challenge schools and ALP Providers means that the QA is not as rigorous as it needs to be.

The council was found to quality assure the providers in the Provision of Alternative Learning System (ALP Catalogue) Provider Catalogue. It allocates each provider with an overall quality score of satisfactory, good or excellent. But it does not show these scores in the catalogue to those buying in or using the ALP.

Bristol has had historic issues with exclusion in schools, once boasting the highest number of permanent exclusions (PEX) in the country. Whilst this had until recently reduced to zero, the report found that exclusions in the city are still higher than Bristol’s statistical and geographical neighbours. It was found that the availability of Early Intervention Bases designed to mitigate against PEX is ‘poorly’ distributed in some areas of the city. North and Central East Bristol had more support than South Bristol.

Lansdown Park Academy PRU was found to have showed signs of improving outreach to address the uneven balance of distribution, but this was considered to be a ‘temporary’ situation due to the fewer referrals of pupils because of the Covid pandemic. An education officer told report researchers that ‘inclusion can’t wait’ for the pandemic to finish.

The report talked about school exclusions as being two types of exclusions – fixed term exclusions (FTE) and permanent exclusions (PEX). But this fails to acknowledge an area of concern amongst the Bristol Send community that unlawful exclusions are not being dealt with. An unlawful exclusion is removal of a pupil from the school during the day by using unofficial means that are usually not recorded. They certainly do not end up being collected as official data capture.

Unofficial exclusions occur when a parent or carer is phoned to collect their child during the day because they may be having a meltdown or because there has been an incident. These type of exclusions disproportionately affect pupils with Send. School governing bodies often do not hear about them because the school does not follow the lawful procedure for excluding pupils. Remedy for this can successfully be found at the First-tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability) – SENDIST – for Disability Discrimination. A permanent version of unlawful exclusion is off-rolling.

Concerningly, although the number of pupils being permanently excluded in Bristol has dropped – although there has been a ‘recent rise’ – permanent exclusions of Bristol pupils in other Local Authorities has been flagged in the report.

There is an ‘overrepresentation’ in Bristol school exclusion statistics for boys, pupils from financially deprived areas, children with Send and children and young people from BAME communities.

West Brislington was pointed out as an area of social deprivation yet an exception for school exclusion, which the report found ‘may indicate a more inclusive practise in this area or better use of appropriate support services.’

The report suggests ‘the increase use of ALP may be in part related directly to the reduction in exclusions over the last couple of years.’ The report highlighted the fact that the majority of FTEs are from secondary schools, with ‘most’ Bristol schools using ‘Ready to Learn’ or similar ‘Behaviour for Learning’ as behaviour policies. Schools described the programmes in ‘positive terms’ with some saying it was ‘transformational’, although it does ‘initially’ generate high numbers of FTE.

‘Whilst some might consider ‘Ready to Learn’ as a zero-tolerance or no excuses policy its supporters say it does allow for flexibility with some (cohorts of) children,’ the report states. But it also finds that ‘schools have to take into account disability (discrimination) and equalities factors. Looking at the characteristics of both FTE and PEX pupils this does not always seem to be the case,’ the review found.

Worryingly, the report states: ‘There is a lack of capacity to support and challenge schools around the area of inclusion/exclusions. ALP Hub does this strategic work as well as all their other duties. There is new SEND School Improvement post starting in January 2021 which will be a positive move forward. However, it will be difficult for this post to also focus on ALP and SEND but there is a need to consider or resource an ALP focus within School Improvement. Lack of resources from LA means schools may not be as ‘inclusive’ as they need to be, Head of Learning City (School Partnerships), acknowledged that schools need more support and challenge on exclusions and management of behaviour.’

A series of case studies of 39 pupils in or who had recently been in AP, highlighted that there were ‘high numbers’ of long term placements instead of revolving door support. Case studies also found:

  • There were high numbers of pupils who have been moved around the Bristol education system ‘a number of times’ to different settings.
  • There is a lack of sufficiency for ‘hard to reach’ and ‘hard to place’ children and young people. Children were forced into ‘fitting settings rather than settings fitting children’.
  • Children going through Managed Moves – also known as Negotiated Transfers – without appropriate support had a poor chance of success at their new setting.
  • Potentially undiagnosed education needs, especially speech and language issues were found.
  • Schools resorted to ALP before more than one mainstream school was attempted.
  • Schools were even found to be ‘too risk averse’ refusing pupils based on ‘hearsay’ of criminality rather than evidence.
  • A lack of information surrounding educational difficulties was not being forwarded to a child’s new school.
  • Schools and ALPs were both found to offer pupils ‘inappropriate’ amounts of offsite education due to behavioural support needs.
  • Some pupils were having to wait weeks to start at an ALP after being allocated at place through the BIP.
  • A lack of using the graduated response and behavioural support at mainstream school is leading to an ‘over reliance’ on ALP to support and manage the city’s ‘hard to place/reach’ young people.
  • Information from schools ‘needs to improve’.
  • Evidence showed one young person in an ALP who had been moved around 7 schools for ‘extreme’ behavioural incidents all sharing the features indicative of past trauma.
  • Post 16 pupils in ALP experienced a ‘lack of transition planning’ with ‘large numbers’ of young people going on to college with a large range of ‘un-met’ needs and some with ‘very poor attendance’.

Most of the ALP places are for pupils aged 14-16 years of age and for Key Stage 4 provision, with a total of 160 places available. For pupils aged 11-13, there are 70 revolving door PRU places in North, South and East Central areas of Bristol. But, 70 per cent of those places are being used by pupils with EHCPs or who are in the process of being assessed for EHCPs. It was not possible to obtain exact figures due to the information held be the LA differing from that held by ALP providers.

When it came to the Bristol Hospital Education Services (BHES) the report found there is ‘anything up to 500 children’ accessing the service at any one time. Around 250 of those were using the service in hospital. The other 250 were pupils either on 1:1 learning at home, part time programmes – most likely at the Falkland Road base and the remainder at the Riverside base. All referrals for BHES provision come through health professionals, rarely going through the Bristol Inclusion Panel (BIP).

Little surprise is the ‘demand’ on the High Needs Block pre-EHCP funding. Schools can apply to the LA before statutory assessment which the report describes as a ‘support that is both unusual and unmonitored’.

It is the job of BIP to oversee the process of Managed Moves, reduce permanent exclusions and provide ‘alternatives’ to exclusion.

A Managed Move happens when a pupil moves between schools to reduce the risk of permanent exclusion. These may only happen under formal agreement with all parties involved – including the parents.

The process may differ between schools and LAs because there is not a prescribed process. Parents should not feel pressured into the process and the move must benefit the child and not the school.

The report says that the LA should ‘take a stance’ on Managed Moves and Negotiated Transfers as part of a ‘strategy on inclusion’. Moving children into AP through Managed Moves is ‘less transparent nationally than official exclusion’. This is because data is only recorded locally.

The report found that ‘some’ Managed Moves are monitored by BIP, but others are ‘negotiated moves between schools’ and do not have LA involvement. Whilst there are ‘clear records’ found for Managed Moves through BIP, there is ‘no capacity or means to monitor’ Negotiated Moves between Bristol schools.

In March 2016, Bristol City Council released a commissioning plan – Meeting the needs of ‘pushed out’ learners Education for students with additional
social and emotional needs. This plan contained proposals to ‘meet the needs of students at risk of being ‘pushed out’ of the education system because of their behaviour, additional learning needs, special educational needs and/or other challenges.’

The new ALP report found that not all of the recommendations in this plan had be followed, stating: ‘The 2016 commissioning review of ‘Pushed out Learners’ did an extensive needs analysis and made clear recommendations. It would be helpful to the LA to return to the report to determine to what extent the actions have been carried out and implemented successfully. It established the ALP Hub and reorganised some ALP, but it appears that not all recommendations have been fully realised.’

The report concludes that ‘Bristol needs to keep its eyes firmly fixed on the best interests of the children concerned when planning provision and shaping policies to tackle these issues. The children this concerns are somebody’s children and there needs to be a real commitment not to marginalised children with SEMH further…What Bristol needs now is not only ‘innovators and trailblazers’, though these are welcome if they support inclusion, they need the careful development of policy and provision based on empirical evidence.’

Director of Education and Skills in Bristol, Alison Hurley was at Bristol Schools Forum this week to discusses the Bristol Alternative Learning Provision Review.

Hurley told forum members that the report was ‘comprehensive’ and one which was welcomed. She said the council is on an ‘improvement journey’ in the city.

The plan to tackle issues is ‘very much a draft’, she said, which will more fully developed over the coming months alongside ‘engagement’ and ‘coproduction’.

For the Schools Forum meeting, Hurley concentrated on sufficiency and finance. She cautioned: ‘just remembering the actions that you’re looking at now are very much a work in progress.’

Hurley said: “With regard to sufficiency, obviously again you’ve got the details to refer to but these really relate to placements and packages of support and that includes commissioning arrangements as well, which is being a piece of work that’s being undertaken by the children’s commissioning team.

“So the wider strategic place planning will be included as part of that longer term sufficiency planning. So when we think about this sufficiency this needs to be very much part of it including mainstream, specialists and alternative. That long-term plan, work on that will start to commence in September. So that will be a very big piece and that will be our long-term plan for Bristol.”

Hurley said that ALP had been negatively impacted by Covid in terms of funding and underoccupancy, leading to a ‘real uncertainty’ about the type of future demand to be seen as well as well as any potential post-covid increase. She said they were not in a position to do modelling around long-term need until the post-Covid demand for ALP was seen from September.

A shift towards early intervention and reducing the need for ALP was also mentioned.

Hurley said: “We’ll also, through this plan, you’ll see in terms of sufficiency and how we’re funding that is to move towards a shift that’s about providing more early intervention as well. So if you think of that work in terms of identifying early need, early intervention and making sure we reduce escalation in our systems. So thinking about how alternative providers can work within our mainstream schools.

“Again, this is the type of intervention that will need to be captured through the DSG (Dedicated Schools Grant) management plan, there’s an example of one of the levers that we would have control over on this.

“So in terms again of the use of provision so thinking about that sufficiency and the use of alternative provision for children with Send, including undiagnosed need, and that comes out really clearly in the plan, that’s another key piece and therefore needs to be part of that wider specialist provision work. So to ensure we’re more, we move to a model where alternative provision is used appropriately and as a revolving door provision.”

Hurley said that the council needed to bring ‘transparency’ and ‘consistency’ across the system to the way ALP is funded, including relating to the bigger funding projects such as top up funding.

“This isn’t sort of sitting as an isolated piece, ” Hurley told Forum. “It really does link into a lot of the work that’s happening and that’s going on across the system more generally.”

Head of St Matthias Academy, Aileen Morrison said: “I think one of the things that came out in the report is the use of AP. And Alison’s already mentioned the fact that there’s a lack of specialist places. So I think it’s just to be mindful that while we talk about much overuse of AP within the city, there’s also a dearth of special places in some areas in the city and we’ve got a lack of space. There are some pupils at the moment who should be in special school but are in alternative provision.

“So I think that just, it doesn’t quite balance each other out but I think it’s worth being mindful of where the spend sits and where it actually should sit. And that’s quite clear in the the AP review and and it’s just something for Forum to be mindful of.”

Hurley said it was a ‘good point’, continuing: “The way that funding is reimbursed is different as well. And again back to that best value element of it as well as the the fact it might not be the most appropriate long-term provision. And so as we as we start sort of delivering more under the specialist provision the two really will start overlapping and we should be able to move away from placing children with special educational needs in that provision as you say as an alternative to specialist provision and actually it’s used as a more appropriately in terms of that revolving door piece. So a really good point in terms of the balance out for the finances.”

Christine Townsend asked: “It’s just about timelines I suppose and milestones. Have you’ve got any idea how long it’s going to take the council to get to the point where children with SEN are not being given ALP placements? And children with SEN are having their needs assessed in the environment, largely the mainstream where it should be happening? You got any idea how long that might take?”

In response, Hurley replied that at this stage, there was no ‘definitive date’.

Responding further: “Certainly the focus and work of the action plan really just takes us through those first 12 months and it’s quite an intensive amount of work in that time. Obviously in terms of the specialist provision piece we are looking at the next two years in terms of bringing numbers online. So as I said there’s going to be that point where we’re starting to get the the right numbers of specialist provisions available in the city. So I would be certainly looking over the next year to two years to start really seeing the impact of that on those placements in alternative learning, However a sort of cut off date – this is the point we’ll be at – I think would be quite challenging to say at the moment. But I think going back to the point about milestone reporting through the Schools Forum that is definitely one that we would want to be tracking.”

Councillor Ruth Pickersgill asked: “I’m just wondering – timescales as well really around how the Equalities Impact Assessment process is going to actually inform the decision-making process, because it’s kind of meant to happen before there are any decisions. And we’ve got sort of a bit of information already in the draft Equality Impact Assessment. But what it doesn’t include as far as I can see is a lot of consultation with community groups that are involved.

“It’s you know, it’s got consultation with other people. But how are we going to be consulting with, for example, Black and Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities where there’s over-representation with disabled adults, where there’s over representation. And how we going to make sure that what they say, which is the real lived experience of people who’ve been through the system, actually does inform the decision-making rather than it’s something afterwards.”

Hurley said: “It’s exactly why what’s come out in the action plan is very much a draft. So it’s been, there’s been some co-production particularly thinking about leadership it’s been to some of the core groups. But it is very much officer led at the moment. So that that co-production document which is really about the commitment of building up the actions and agreeing what the the outcome looks like and doing that together is the piece of work and that will be happening over the next12 months. So we’ll be building it and making that decisions ongoing.

“It’s why the Equality Impact Assessment is not complete because that has to run along parallel to that. So that as we get that input from our communities, from our young people and we’re able to then reflect that in the decision-making and again have a very live equality impact going on going on at the same time for all of those different elements rather than a sort of static document that we feel we’ve done now because we just wouldn’t be in a position to put the right information at this stage. So I think again with this one and the DSG management plan it’s very much about building it and developing it as we move forward but being very transparent in that process.”

Pickersgill checked: “So as well as the comments of the young people it will include adults with particular characteristics who’ve been through the system who can kind of reflect back on it and see how it affected their paths and and what worked, what didn’t work. Because I think that’s where we learn most is talking to the people who’ve been through it and I think we sometimes forget to do that. We talk to parents and carers or we talk to young people but we don’t talk to, you know, the people have been through the process.”

Hurley confirmed that’s what would be happening, saying: That’s exactly the ambition that we would want to be reflecting and so again as you said lived experience really really feeding into those.”


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