There were signs and there were rumours…
There was the 2017 hybrid LA-DfE competition for special schools, which culminated in 14 of 19 Local Authorities appointing providers for their new schools (a partial success in the face of a flawed process). There were rumblings that independent schools would no longer be able to convert into the state sector via the free schools process; justifiable, perhaps, for mainstream schools, which had in any case not been coming forward in any great number over the last waves of the programme.
Of explicit news on Alternative Provision free schools, however, there was none.
Until the announcement of wave 13 last month. Here we learnt, from the DfE’s mouth, that: “Government [will invite] local authorities to submit an expression of interest for a new special free school and/or AP free school…this is the only route that the department will use to fund special and AP free schools”.
Which is the point at which I banged my head on my desk, hard and several times.
Where to begin? After something of a primal scream on Twitter, with a caveat: this is a pretty good idea for special schools. It has its drawbacks. Where Local Authorities are ahead of the curve and in touch with what’s needed – as the best of them are – it can work extremely well. Where Local Authorities are ineffective, this process will do nothing to help providers, and therefore children. With some tweaks like better specifications and better marketing, there’s the potential for a decent process here. Local authorities remain so inextricably entwined with special education that this makes a sort of sense.
And that is the limit of my generosity. Here are the four reasons why the switch from national to LA-led process makes absolutely no sense for Alternative Provision:
1) When you pit AP against special schools, AP will not win
Young people with ECHPs – the majority of those in special schools – have statutory protection that young people in alternative provision – the majority of whom do not have ECHPs – do not. And even more importantly, the implementation of this responsibility lies with the Local Authority. If given the opportunity to bid for funding from a limited pot, an LA which needs more capacity in both special schools and AP is going to look to its statutory responsibilities. I say this not in condemnation, but with understanding. With High Needs Funding blocks squeezed almost past breaking point, why would they do otherwise?
Although the DfE’s phrasing is careful to allow Authorities to apply for both special and AP schools, there is only funding for 30 new schools in total, to cover the entirety of England. It is difficult to see, therefore, a scenario in which an Authority is successful in being awarded grants for both types of school, even should they be sufficiently bold to apply – and have the resources to do so credibly.
And thus, Alternative Provision suffers as it always has. The young people attending AP, either not protected by an ECHP or without anyone to advocate for the fulfilment of such, have their disadvantage increased by yet another entrenchment of a competition in which very few schools or providers actually wish to participate.
2) Failing to facilitate independent conversion betrays the sector
Here’s a scenario which is being played out across the country. An organisation, say a charity or sports club, starts to run a programme for young people who aren’t thriving in mainstream schools. The programme is brilliant, the staff have a gift for this, and gradually word gets around: more young people self-refer, schools begin to refer too, and eventually the Local Authority takes notice. Being a socially responsible organisation, our heroes realise that they can’t run the kind of programmes they want to run, for the number of young people they want to help, without being Ofsted-registered.
From 2011 to about 2016, every six to twelve months they could make an application to the free schools programme, which would grant the best of them government support and capital funding to set up their school. Since 2016, with Wave 13 of the free schools process doing its best impression of Christmas in Narnia, these organisations have had a different choice: register as independent schools or act illegally. Our heroes have, of course, chosen the former path, and expended significant time and energy on that process. They are now operating as independent schools, waiting for the time when Wave 13 was released and they would be able to apply to convert into the state sector, as has been their wish all along.
What these organisations have been waiting for, it transpires, is a process which almost certainly won’t apply to their local authority, and if it does will almost certainly rule out independent converters (as the mainstream process now does). This is an egregious betrayal of brilliant providers who only ever wanted to help vulnerable young people and play by the rules. The irony is that if they hadn’t done the latter, they would have a better chance of being supported by the state to do the former.
3) Wither innovation?
“[strong applications will] have a new or innovative approach…. explain how your proposed school will bring innovation to the wider schools system”. So says the DfE in the criteria for Wave 13 mainstream free schools. Alternative Provision is an absolute hotbed for innovation. Whether that’s specialised curricula like WAC Arts College in Camden, or new models for collaboration like the EBN Academy in Birmingham, or Catch 22’s multi-agency approach, AP is one place where the boundaries of what education looks like, and what it does, are constantly pushed.
This year, we have been applauding the sector. In March, ‘Creating Opportunity for All’ promised a new consultation, a multi-phase research project and more Alternative Provision free schools. But it is hard to overlook the DfE’s sluggish approach to consultation responses. Research projects take a long time – as they should – to have an impact on policy. And funding for the new schools is going back into the hands of Local Authorities who need to use the cash for something else.
What an odd way to promote and cherish innovation.
4) Who’s leading this system anyway?
The free schools programme was a way in which Trusts – schools – could establish and run alternative provision. I’ve already mentioned EBN. Love them or loathe them, Harris keeps its AP learners in the family via their AP free school too. Then there are the specialist MATs like Olive Academies and the Engage Trust. So far, so in keeping with what those of us who broadly support the post-2010 world want to see: an education system run by autonomous school leaders, collaborating at a local level and overseen nationally.
It is not, therefore, obvious that the way forward was to remove control of the establishment of AP from school leaders, put it back into the hands of the very Authorities whose commissioning role dwindles following each academy conversion, and arbitrarily limit the numbers available not once (by funding a maximum of 30) but twice (that 30 also includes special schools). But it is the way that has been chosen.
Once might argue that this choice is implicit, that it is – to quote myself in about 50% of meetings I ever have – classic government: incompetence rather than malice. But this simply won’t do. The brilliant people working in Alternative Provision deserve better than incompetence. The vulnerable young people educated in AP deserve well thought through decisions made with their best interests explicitly at heart.
I don’t wish to be a Cassandra. I think this is fixable. If New Schools Network has the stomach for some lobbying, if the DfE remains open to quietly correcting its own mistakes, and if potential applicants remain prepared to watch and wait, as they have for so long, all may be well. PAG is standing ready to support providers, Trusts and Local Authorities navigate this world as it changes and I will continue to shout about this to anyone who will listen. We may yet see a new wave of Alternative Provision free schools open during this Parliament to do right by a constituency that has been ignored by too many in government for too long.