APs are a hive of innovation

I have spent a fair bit of time thinking lately about the industrious nature of alternative provision settings. Despite facing the same huge challenges around resources as mainstream schools, APs often deal with even higher levels of need around supporting behaviour, attendance and other types of pastoral services while needing to ensure academic progress. It has always been the case that APs can deliver excellent provision with benefits that feel very tangible to staff on the ground. However, it has been harder to evidence this in ways that funders, colleagues in mainstream education, parents (and sometimes students) can understand and value.

The LearnTrek team has been working alongside colleagues in AP settings for many years and we’ve always marvelled at the levels of ingenuity, resourcefulness and determination which exist among the professionals working in small, independent settings. When it comes to improving outcomes for children who don’t flourish in mainstream education alternative providers apply themselves to the challenges presented by an education landscape where its students are marginalised and where the commercial market finds little incentive to invest in finding solutions.

Between 2016-2023 I was privileged to be embedded in a small AP; in 2017, in response to the Green Paper on SEN and DisabilitySupport and Aspirations , the setting was working towards registration as an Independent Special School for children who have Social Emotional and Mental Health difficulties.

Curricclum can be the biggest challenge in AP

The biggest challenge for the team working on the application for registration, was in producing evidence of a fully sequenced curriculum. Leaders at the AP were confident that children were receiving a ‘broad and balanced’ offer which was entirely tailored to their needs and interests; qualifications were delivered in a range of responsive ways and students were making great progress.

As a team we’d spend many hours poring over the National Curriculum in an effort to understand what a fully sequenced curriculum would look like. We were daunted, to say the least, and it was clear why this format had not worked for our students in the past. We scoured the market for AP curricula which our work could fit into and, in 2015, we found nothing appropriate for our students. Leaders realised that the team would need to start from scratch and create a bespoke curriculum which would be structured enough to satisfy the DfE yet relevant and meaningful to our students’ and deliverable by our staff. 

Innovation is a team sport

Lara Penfold was our Head Teacher and curriculum specialist at the time. Lara is a genius in assessing a problem, breaking it down into component elements and creating workable solutions; she also has an acute understanding of our students and a passion for working alongside them, helping them to recognise and fulfil their potential.  Our focus was on building a curriculum based on what students need and want, at school, in their families and communities and in the wider world. We wanted to deliver schemes of work which would build towards inspiring and achieving students’ aspirations for their future. 

Our discussions were lively and often more ‘stream of consciousness’ than efficiency demanded; but this was part of the process of creative co-production and it took time. The work was hard and there were barriers along the way – not least in terms of capacity when we were all flat out running an AP. Time for the project was hard won and carved out of busy working weeks, – tasks often intruded on evenings and weekends too. The process was disrupted by the 70% of AP life which cannot be planned, such as responding to incidents, safeguarding concerns and so on.  

We thought about what’s important to our students, and we asked them about this. We talked to parents, our staff team and colleagues who are external stakeholders in our work. We thought about our history and our values as an organisation; we thought about the world at large and what our students needed to succeed in it. I remember I’d read  Al Gore’s The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change around that time and, much to the occasional exasperation of my colleagues, I took my learning from this into our curriculum development conversations! 

Alternative provision progress tracking is essential 

Together we created a programme which we all believed in, which could be delivered in ways to engage students and could flex to their needs. The curriculum has developed organically since then in response to lessons learned, changing educational landscape and the demands of the world outside school. The piece of work we did together at this setting is one example of the many brilliant solutions  created across the country in small, independent provisions whose passion and talent more than make up for barriers they face.

Out of these collaborations LearnTrek has been developed to deliver alternative provision progress tracking, including student progress and AP impact. We count ourselves lucky to be part of the journey of many small settings whose work generates magic out of challenge and adversity – a hidden hive of excellent practice that deserves to be celebrated.