Too much software or not enough? Digital strategy tips for small settings.

Digital strategy in small settings

In a small setting like an alternative provision, youth work organisation or independent school it’s possible to feel a bit isolated and overwhelmed in terms of support for your digital needs. Maintained provisions like schools have access to resources provided by the local authority, or they may be part of a locality network or Multi Academy Trust who can steer (or dictate) decision-making on digital strategy.

There are so many incredible software resources available for use in education, ranging from the well known and entirely free, to highly specialised and fairly expensive. Knowing what the best mix of options are to meet the needs of staff and children/young people whilst keeping within your budget is incredibly important. It’s also something that will need to develop and be reviewed over time. 

Thinking about the bigger picture in terms of how software affects processes on the ground is key. For example, the cheapest options may be great for getting off the ground but they don’t tend to be the best in the long run. As your provision develops in response to the changing needs of those it serves, basic inexpensive options tend not to be very flexible.

Using tools like spreadsheets is great, but over time can lead to more and more data being kept in multiple locations with issues around security and accessibility. Meanwhile, highly specialised or customised software can be expensive to develop and when it is time for it to evolve it can cost you even more. The solutions that claim to be able to run every aspect of your organisation should also be treated with caution – no one software solution can do everything, so be reassured if suppliers are very clear and honest about the limitations of what their solution can offer. 

A cautionary tale…

I worked with a school on digital strategy a number of years ago. They opted for a software package that ran all their school functions for students and went with a free-for-education package (Google) to run their emails, calendars and staff documentation. Having a great software product was not the cheapest way to do it, but they recognised the value and wanted to invest. The solution allowed them to streamline a lot of processes creating efficiency and ensuring nothing important could be missed around student safety or progress. Staff felt safe and knew what they were doing, had one password to log in for student-related actions, and built up a great base of knowledge about the system over a long period of time. 

After a number of years I came across an inspection report that detailed how student data in the school was poorly maintained with vital information slipping through the gaps. Upon enquiry, it became clear the school had swapped from their original system to a patchwork of many smaller software products with individual logins, some used by all and others used for different types of role in the school.

This had saved money (and I am sure school leaders had been under real pressure to achieve this) but had negatively impacted the quality of processes on the ground as well as an inspection outcome. By shopping around, the school had found they could make cost savings, but had created a much more frustrating environment for staff and far less secure and comprehensive arrangements for their data. 

I do not cite this example in order to suggest one big system is the best option – there are many best-in-class software products that might be used in combination. For example safeguarding systems or parent communication apps that integrate with an MIS, or software that allows staff to access multiple systems through a single interface.

What I am arguing here is that having a careful digital strategy that feeds into your organisation’s values, vision and purpose should lead you to think carefully and critically about the best possible balance between cost and efficiency. With this in mind, here are my top tips for creating a digital strategy in a small setting:

  • Assess and record where you are – what digital tools are you already using and what are they giving you/costing you?
  • Make digital part of your growth plan. Think about what will be needed as you grow your staff team and the number of people accessing your provision and make it part of your broader development strategy. Growth sometimes means more hardware and software, but sometimes it means an inventory and update of what you already have.
  • Think about devices as well as software – what approach will you take to children/young people and staff being able to access systems? Do staff have work smartphones/tablets or are they working on PCs? How are you planning to meet your statutory obligations to monitor and filter CYP digital engagement? Are there issues around digital poverty with your cohort/ their families?
  • Plan for how staff will feel about any changes – leaders mostly underestimate the impact of hardware and software changes; they can be incredibly frustrating for already overstretched staff. Building in time and identifying the positive change agents will be crucial to successful implementation.
  • See what you can get for free companies like Google for Education and Microsoft offer software free of charge for education settings or charities; these are a good starting point but will need to be reviewed as you grow. Don’t take for granted that free solutions will always be right for you.
  • Build in a review of your software and devices at least twice a year. This doesn’t have to be formal, but make some time to speak with users/stakeholders and keep in contact with current suppliers about their plans for development to help inform any changes now or in the future.
  • More expensive isn’t always better – get some advice on options before committing to anything that needs to be developed bespoke for you. A bit of cost for expert consultancy from someone who knows the edutech market will likely save you a lot of money in the long run.
What does the latest DfE attendance guidance mean for unregistered APs and Independent Special Schools

What does the latest DfE attendance guidance mean for unregistered APs and Independent Special Schools

Last week the Department for Education issued its guidance for education settings who must follow new rules on supporting, monitoring, and recording attendance as of this September. The guidance sets out how the Working Together to Improve School Attendance (May 2022) document will be implemented, once it becomes statutory for the 2024-2025 academic year.

There has already been significant public debate amongst education professionals on the headline issues. For example, the government’s decision to increase the penalties issued to families whose children fail to attend school, and that live attendance data be sent directly to the Department for Education as part of the new requirement to share daily school attendance data.

I have been thinking, since last week, about the impact of the new attendance guidance on the alternative provision settings I support from both a governance and EdTech perspective. AP across the UK is a mixture of maintained and non-maintained provision; it includes everything from independent special schools and medical provision, to pupil referral units and unregistered settings offering bespoke programmes. Many of the most vulnerable pupils are attending APs, and typically (though not always) have lower attendance than their mainstream counterparts. Students in AP have higher levels of SEND than in the wider school population, and are more at risk because of extended periods of time being temporarily or permanently excluded. 

Supporting, monitoring and recording attendance is something APs are pretty good at; the best APs I have worked with find innovative ways of catching pupils doing things well, including attendance. Some have even found ways to capture this digitally. I am absolutely sure that the maintained part of the AP sector will rise to the challenges outlined in this series of DfE documents, despite the difficulties they will face. 

However, my own concerns are for smaller, unregistered alternative provisions and independent special schools who support pupils with some of the lowest attendance in the country. These settings often provide highly specialised provision to children who have been excluded from multiple settings, or those at the more extreme end of the special educational needs spectrum. Will these settings be expected to implement the same guidance? If so, will they be ready to make a case for how and why their bespoke attendance systems work when they are often so different from the norm?  What if you are an independent special school with minimal Local Authority support, or a new provision starting small? Getting the right information when you don’t operate within a well-established network of maintained provision can be daunting, so here are my thoughts on what the attendance guidance might mean for unregistered AP and independent special school settings….

Do the DfE guidance documents all apply to independent special schools?

Well, yes. Working Together to Improve School Attendance describes itself as applying to:

“All school and academy trust staff, headteachers, governors, academy trustees, and alternative provision providers.”

While the guidance doesn’t specifically mention independent special schools, taken in conjunction with other DfE statutory guidance (for example the Independent School Standards and KCSIE) there is a strong implication that this will form part of the inspection process for these settings going forward from September. The document repeatedly refers to “schools” and a good rule of thumb here is that independent special schools operate within the DfE guidance even if it is not specified whether “all schools” refers to the independent part of the sector. This would be a minimum expectation whether your provision is inspected by Ofsted or not. 

Furthermore, the most recent document entitled Summary Table of Responsibilities for School Attendance (designed to compliment Working Together to Improve School Attendance)  refers to itself as both “statutory” and “for maintained schools, academies, independent schools, and local authorities” so there is far more clarity in the more recent document in terms of its application to independent schools. 

Similarly, the requirement that schools share their daily attendance data with the Department for Education (using the Wonde MIS integration tool) is also applied to “special schools (including non-maintained special schools)”. Independent schools of all kinds will be required to adhere to the two statutory documents, but on sharing daily attendance information it is only independent special schools that are expected to do this currently.  

Do the DfE guidance documents all apply to unregistered APs?

The list of settings to which the May 2022 statutory guidance applies includes “alternative provision providers” without specifying whether this refers to both registered and unregistered settings. It is kept deliberately vague, I suspect, because the SEND and AP Improvement Plan sets out the government’s agenda to gradually increase regulation of the unregistered AP sector by the end of 2025. The wording here provides wiggle room for the future without making it clear that unregistered APs must comply in the short term. 

Interestingly, the Feb 2024 document repeatedly refers to itself as being for “schools” but does not specify whether this includes AP of any kind. Many unregistered AP settings have relied upon delivering under 18 hours of education to avoid being classed as a “school” and thus subject to the constraints of Ofsted. Given the increased concerns by central government over the suitability of alternative provision settings not registered with Ofsted, the omission of AP from the category of “schools” is probably not to be relied upon as a reason not to work to the same guidance as maintained APs. The reference to “schools” almost certainly implies the inclusion of all maintained settings. It is also likely that the definition of what constitutes a “school” could be stretched to include unregistered settings in future. 

The requirement to share daily attendance data does include “non-maintained special schools” and “alternative provision” which is, again, not further defined. There is no specific reference to unregistered AP but the reference to “non-maintained special schools” suggests that non-maintained APs could arguably be included. By the letter of the guidance, unregistered settings probably cannot be compelled to share data currently, but it is worth thinking about whether this is best practice and whether abstaining sends the best message to your stakeholders.

The daily sharing of attendance information with the DfE is described as “voluntary”, but is it?

Despite the fact that the most recent guidance describes daily attendance data sharing as

“voluntary” it is hard to accept that there will not be an expectation that schools ensure this happens. For the majority of the school settings listed (90%, according to the guidance) this will just be a case of syncing their school MIS with the government’s free to access Wonde dashboard so there aren’t going to be many excuses not to do this even if it is supposedly “voluntary”. 

For unregistered settings this is far more complex. Technically, the sharing of data is “voluntary” and unregistered AP is not specified. However, there will likely be a strong expectation that unregistered AP, as far as possible, falls in line with what other settings are doing because local and central government will want full visibility. Unregistered APs will need to consider the message it sends to Local Authority commissioning teams and other stakeholders if they do not make efforts to send attendance data. They will need to keep in mind that the need for LAs to work in more joined up ways with alternative provisions has already been mandated as part of the DfE’s recent Thematic Review of Alternative Provision in Local Areas.

What are the barriers to APs & independent special schools complying with guidance?

If specialised settings are to comply with the May 2022 and Feb 2024 guidance on attendance, there will need to be significant work to review their existing policies and processes. Many specialist settings will have already thought very carefully about how they manage attendance, especially given lower attendance rates can be the norm for pupils who face barriers to full inclusion. Two key requirements stand out and are summarised here:

  • Where the policy/process has been adapted to meet the needs of the pupils in their care, APs must be able to explain precisely why this is appropriate.
  • Where a pupil’s attendance is poor there must be clear plans for how it will be improved and significant evidence of all that is being done to support them on an ongoing basis.

For specialist settings who often work with pupils with the most complex needs, there will be numerous reasons why attendance may be poor and these will be hard for staff to directly impact or mitigate. For example, the bar for attendance in schools may feel unrealistically high for unregistered APs and SEMH provisions, who will prioritise working slowly to build relationships with pupils and won’t be able to show results in the short to medium term. 

Settings will have to put work into reviewing policies to see where potential conflicts with DfE guidance may occur and may need specialised help to navigate the process. I think this is do-able, even for the most highly specialised provisions, but it will take some strategic thinking and may incur costs where consultancy is needed to support the process. Getting ahead of this will be key as the attendance guidance becomes statutory as of September 2024 and at any point could be imposed on unregistered settings as well as independent special schools.

What are the technical barriers for unregistered APs and Independent Special Schools?

There will be some serious technical barriers faced by some small specialist provisions. Most obviously, the requirement to send daily attendance data relies on a setting having its own MIS that will integrate with Wonde. The majority of smaller independent schools and unregistered alternative provisions won’t be using a standard MIS due to cost and/or suitability for their setting. Many operate using spreadsheets, have bespoke software, or rely on a combination of apps to manage attendance, behaviour and safeguarding. Settings may come under pressure from Local Authority partners to provide this information to help them meet their own statutory reporting requirements. 

Additionally, there are a great number of references, in Working Together to Improve School Attendance, to the importance of data in decision making and policies/processes. For example, schools must:

  • Monitor and analyse weekly attendance patterns and trends and deliver intervention and support in a targeted way to pupils and families. This should go beyond headline attendance percentages and should look at individual pupils, cohorts and groups.
  • Use this analysis to provide regular attendance reports to class teachers or tutors to facilitate discussions with pupils and to leaders.
  • Conduct thorough analysis of half-termly, termly, and full year data to identify patterns and trends. This should include analysis of pupils and cohorts and identifying patterns in uses of certain codes, days of poor attendance and where appropriate, subjects which have low lesson attendance.
  • Benchmark their attendance data (at whole school, year group and cohort level) against local, regional, and national levels to identify areas of focus for improvement.
  • Monitor in the data the impact of school wide attendance efforts, including any specific strategies implemented. The findings should then be used to evaluate approaches or inform future strategies.  

Specialist settings can often struggle to pull together this information, partly as they work 1:1 or in small groups with provision tailored to individual pupils, making it hard to make meaningful comparisons between students. They also work in ways which make a comparison to national benchmarks almost impossible. Access to systems that record the very specific types of progress made in specialist settings can be tricky, since there are few systems on the market that cater specifically for them; those that do can be expensive or not as flexible as required. 


Overall, it’s a mixed bag of news from last week.

My instinct is to recommend that unregistered APs and independent special schools begin the process as soon as possible by reviewing the documentation and asking for help if required. Where possible, all settings (maintained or not) should aim to implement the requirements set out in the two statutory documents as soon as possible. They should also contact their software supplier to discuss how data uploads to the DfE could be managed if they don’t have an MIS as this could well become a standard requirement either from central government or local authority partners. 

YOU HQ Article: From the extreme end of behaviour management

YOU HQ Article: From the extreme end of behaviour management

Originally published for YOUHQ 22.11.23

I spent the last eight years as a senior leader in an Alternative Provision for pupils excluded from mainstream settings. Many of the pupils I had the privilege to work with were from backgrounds where parents face genuine hardship as well as their own physical and mental health challenges. Like all education settings, we found ourselves having to plug the gaps in services against the backdrop of austerity, an increasingly stretched NHS, and a worldwide pandemic.


As the last option before a secure residential placement for a great number of our pupils we were always aware that making it work with us was essential; our policy was zero permanent exclusions, but this meant finding ways to ensure pupils with a range of diagnoses and health and social issues could succeed. It also meant figuring out how to take care of staff because a zero exclusions policy meant pupils remained with us even in the wake of major incidents involving staff.

Pupils had usually faced trauma upon trauma before arriving with us and behaved in ways that communicated this very clearly. The biggest circle to square was how to ensure that while supporting the wellbeing of traumatised pupils, the mental health of staff was also prioritised. How could staff be there 100% for those who could (and did) behave in ways that no school could manage, without creating a high-anxiety environment for staff?


What I learned from working at the extreme end of challenging behaviour has been in the context of small class sizes, a strong no-exclusion ethos, and extremely talented and committed staff. However, I want to share some key takeaways for managing staff and student mental wellbeing that are applicable no matter what kind of education environment you find yourself in.


Banking compassion vs reasoned empathy


The term “banking compassion” is not my own. It refers to the process of investing (or “banking”) time and energy in a pupil despite constant rejection in the form of withdrawal and/or challenging behaviour. To bank compassion is to recognise that we may never see a return on our investment but if we do, it’ll be absolutely worth it. It is the bedrock of good practice in alternative provisions.


However, being supportive, patient, empathetic and committed can take its toll on even the most experienced and positive member of staff. For this reason, banking compassion has to be balanced with what Paul Bloom describes (in his 2016 book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion) as “reasoned empathy”. For Bloom, reasoned empathy is the natural check to banking compassion – the recognition that to over invest too much empathy is to risk making it all about ourselves and not the person we are supporting. This is something that can happen when you work with vulnerable pupils: staff can begin to believe they are the only person that can have a positive relationship, the only person the pupil can rely on, and that can take its toll.


The concept that one cannot fill from an empty jug will be familiar to those with an interest in mental health and this draws on the same principle – to be available to bank compassion we have to manage our own reserves. When working with extremely challenging behaviour, managing our own mental health is about investing in our pupils in a professional and fully boundaried way that recognises that we are part of a team and we aren’t always going to be the superhero of every situation for that pupil. It is vital to understand what role we play, including our strengths and limitations, and how that can contribute to banking compassion holistically across our team.


How you look at a pupil always matters


A lot of pupils arrive at alternative provision schools having been the “worst kid” in their previous school. How do you stay mentally well and foster wellbeing in pupils in a whole school full of the self-labelled “worst” kids? One key concept is that of looking at a pupil in the way you want them to be rather than as how they are while behaving at their worst.


I worked with one student who came to us with the label of “worst”. His behaviour was unpredictable and had resulted in restraint at previous schools – he made staff very anxious and I am sure there had been a degree of power in that for him. His favourite thing to do was to access staff-only areas and he was genius at finding opportunities to do this. Faced with this behaviour, we made a conscious decision that we would look at him differently. Instead of being quickly (often physically) pushed out of places he shouldn’t be, we opted to actively welcome him in. We asked him to enter when he was on the periphery of a staff area and take a seat, tell us about his day/weekend/week, ignoring any negativity despite the temptation to challenge the problem behaviour continuously.


At first he was disruptive, but we continued to look at him like a person who was welcome (even though, frankly, we could have done without his visits) and eventually it became true. After weeks of looking at him like a person who could be trusted despite evidence to the contrary, he stopped the problem behaviour and settled into a new label – one that was much more positive. The impact on the anxiety levels of staff around the pupil was huge because we had stopped fighting the inevitability of challenge, physical restraint and damaged relationships and looked at the pupil like the best possible version of himself. In doing so we were able to open up a powerful space into which he eventually made the step. Staff mental wellbeing improved, and so did the pupil’s outcomes.


Positive language – fake it til you make it!


Language matters, and it can be a powerful tool for positive mental wellbeing in situations where behaviour is very challenging. Almost all the pupils I worked with had spent their time in education being told what they couldn’t do. The pupil whose name, spoken by a teacher, is always followed by a negative comment begins to stop listening at all after a while. The opposite can be true if they are spoken to in a positive way when this isn’t something they’ve been particularly used to. In my experience, it is essential to consistently challenge problem behaviour; it is not OK to let a pupil break rules or behave badly without challenge just because they are facing serious difficulties. How we verbally challenge is the important part.


The best verbal challenge to problem behaviour is clear, concise, and positive, focussing on what the pupil must start doing rather than what they must stop doing. For example, instead of saying “stop throwing things” say “put those away please” even though you suspect the pupil won’t comply. It is unlikely that switching your language in this way will have any immediate impact on behaviour. However, if done consistently it will create an environment where you can be assertive without the cycle of negativity associated with the sound of your voice. If it has no other effect, using positive language will equip you with something to try so that you can “fake it til you make it”. Done consistently, reframing the way you challenge can help establish an environment where language is carefully geared towards a growth mindset, encouraging positivity and mental wellbeing for you and for even the trickiest of pupils. It can’t hurt – so why not try it?

To register or not to register? – the Ofsted question in Alternative Provision

To register or not to register? – the Ofsted question in Alternative Provision

Why register with Ofsted as an Alternative Provision?

The SEND and AP Improvement Plan (March 2023) suggests that Ofsted will likely become more directly involved with monitoring “un-registered” provision in the future. The question of whether to register with the Department for Education as a school is becoming more and more prescient for many alternative education providers.

In the world of so-called “un-registered” alternative provision, Ofsted registration can feel like the wrong choice for a small organisation. The administrative burden alone can be overwhelming. Additionally, the shift from working in a highly bespoke way tailored to the individual student to a more structured “school-like” provision can be extremely challenging.

I worked as senior leader in an AP which found itself needing to register with the inspectorate. The provision had been operating successfully (registered with two local authorities) for sixteen years prior to registration as a school. I understand the complexity of needing to take staff and students on a journey that many did not sign up for. I have also experienced the frustration of trying to fit an odd shaped peg in a square hole in order to meet a set of requirements that sometimes feel like they are designed to make innovation impossible.


An Ofsted experience in Alternative Provision

Ofsted registration is a tricky process for small organisations. This is partly because the prerequisites for being a school (a permanent building, outdoor space, a formal curriculum, and a qualified Head Teacher, to name a few) are often the things without which APs can operate more flexibly than maintained alternative settings. Often, the very components that make a school recognisable as a school seem like an unhelpful model for provisions whose students thrive on more relational, less traditional forms of learning.

In my time as a leader we experienced two full three-day Ofsted inspections in an AP that had previously been “unregistered”. Both were physically and emotionally draining processes. Despite this, my experience (and that of my colleagues) was mostly positive and in some ways highly generative.

Ofsted has found itself under increased scrutiny in recent months following the tragic death by suicide of Reading Headteacher Ruth Perry. So, I say this with an acknowledgement of the very real and damaging impact that a difficult inspection can have on those involved. I also feel strongly that a change to the high stakes and low support inspection process is also long overdue.

My own experience, even when the overall result was not as good as I had hoped, is that our inspections were fair. I want to reflect on my most recent inspection experience as it pertains to the curriculum for which I was personally responsible. I want to do this because the experience revealed some of the positives about the current Ofsted inspection framework as it relates to alternative provisions, as well as the more obvious shortcomings.

    Ofsted registration for alternative provision

    AP Ofsted inspection through the lens of curriculum

    The Quality of Education section of the Ofsted inspection covers a range of requirements for Independent Special Schools. In particular, the need to demonstrate a “broad and balanced curriculum” that is:

    • appropriately documented
    • logically sequenced
    • differentiated for individual needs
    • has fundamental British values embedded
    • flexes to lower abilities but provides challenge for more able students.

    In our AP, we had a bespoke curriculum, having decided that the National Curriculum would not be appropriate for our students. When I took on the role, I focussed on whether the existing bespoke curriculum we had designed (ahead of our first full inspection in 2018) met the criteria set out in the new 2019 Independent School Standards.

    We were sure that the selection of subjects covered the necessary linguistic, numerical, technological, scientific, human and social, physical and creative and aesthetic ground. We were less convinced that we could show Ofsted inspectors that sessions were fully planned and sequenced in a way that would make sense to them. This was because our students made progress in nonlinear ways that were hard to plan for and even harder to record sometimes. 

    The challenge for getting a bespoke curriculum “signed off” by Ofsted

    The challenge was to create a system or process that allowed staff to plan sessions using schemes of work just like in a mainstream setting. However, we also needed with the flexibility to dart about and map cross-curricular outcomes when (as was inevitable) students covered the ground in very different ways. This was hugely difficult.

    We needed to show that there was an ideal plan and a direction of travel for each “subject” that was fully sequenced and allowed us to operate in a “best case scenario” way. But, we also needed to convince staff that schemes of work would be adaptable enough to allow dynamic planning for the issues they faced day to day.

    For example, staff often had to:

    • switch subjects to suit students’ interests and needs
    • change venues due to challenging behaviour or sensory overload
    • cater for huge gaps in underpinning knowledge
    • work around long periods of school refusal
    • deliver to mixed age groups with varying levels of SEND. 
    Alternative Provision Ofsted Quote
    What Ofsted says about being “radically different” in Alternative Provision

    Ofsted’s most recent inspection handbook for Independent Schools states that:

    We will judge schools that take radically different approaches to the curriculum fairly; inspectors will assess any school’s curriculum favourably when leaders have built or adopted a curriculum with appropriate coverage, content, structure and sequencing and implemented it effectively (27).

    I wanted to take this at face value, but I’d heard horror stories about schools whose inspection outcomes had been adversely affected by the personal preferences and assumptions of inspectors with no experience in alternative provisions or special schools.

    I was incredibly anxious that inspectors just wouldn’t “get” us or our students. This made my team and I focus all the more on refining a curriculum policy which would explain exactly why each subject was appropriate to the needs and aspirations of our students, and how each set of learning goals could be broken down over time in a way that allowed for a fair bit of “jumping” around. We wanted to demonstrate how ambitious we were for our learners whilst recognising that their individual journeys were never straightforward; progress would need to be measured and understood in the context of their own starting points.

    I was genuinely relieved to find that the inspectors recognised that, as a setting, we had put something meaningful together that was “well planned and sequenced” and moved students on from where they had been educationally “stuck”. The feedback was really positive and allowed us to feel a sense of confidence in what we were doing.

    Squaring the circle of a radically different curriculum

    I have reflected a lot since that inspection. I believe that it is possible to satisfy Ofsted while adopting a “radically different” approach but that it is a lot of hard work. In order to make it make sense, we had to use as our basis a very traditional model for sequencing a curriculum: year group based schemes of work for each “subject”. The radical bit came more from finding ways to use technology to track the various steps backwards and forwards across the curriculum so that it didn’t present like we were making it up as we went along.

    Learning to talk the inspectors’ language was also key. To do this we had to fully understand what else was out there in other settings and precisely why existing curricula wouldn’t work for us. We had to be able to provide justification for why we were doing things differently beyond the fact that our students really enjoyed it (despite knowing that, for us, this was the most important thing).  

    There were other parts of the inspection that were harder. At times it felt like one of the inspectors was unsettling the students and lacked a full understanding of the impact of his own presence and practice. Though Quality of Education was deemed to be good, there was also feedback about reading progress that made us feel like we were being penalised for working with students with very low levels of literacy. We were questioned fairly robustly about our approach to PE (breadth of experience over mastery of one or two sports) and were told it was “fine” but it still made it into our inspection report as a negative. All of this was a bit annoying given the huge strides we had made in these areas since our previous inspection.


    What I want to conclude by saying is that school registration after being an AP is not for the faint hearted – it takes a lot of work and can be incredibly daunting when you are working in “radical” ways. It is, however, do-able. My experience is that Ofsted inspections are rigorous, exhausting, and sometimes difficult not to internalise but they are also possible to get through if you are an alternative provision wanting to register as a school. It is not always a fun experience, but it can be done.

    The trick is to really know your students and advocate very clearly and logically for exactly how your approach meets their educational and other needs. If you can focus on that, a lot of the rest of the curriculum will follow.

    Being the Adult in Behaviour Management

    Being the Adult in Behaviour Management

    Behaviour Management in Alternative Provision

    Children who struggle to cope in mainstream settings often present with behaviour which the adults find difficult to deal with. There are different schools of thought about how best schools should manage problematic student behaviour. England’s Behaviour Tsar, Tom Bennett advocates  ‘zero tolerance regimes’ where children are sent out of classrooms if they threaten the learning of others.  In common with, from what I can see is most professionals who post on LinkedIn, I favour a needs-based approach founded on authentic relationships of mutual respect,  when it comes to creating the best outcomes for children, and this applies, perhaps most acutely, for those for whom inclusion is a daily challenge.

    Regardless of the philosophical perspective on behaviour management one adopts, I suggest that key to an effective strategy is the commitment of the professional to the role of “the adult” in the relationships they have with the children they work with.

    For many of the children who find themselves in ‘Inclusion Units’, Alternative Provisions or Special Schools, the adult/child relationship is a complex proposition; they will all have had difficult interactions with staff at school, for some, relationships with adults in their communities and families are painful and unsafe.

    For this reason it’s important to establish what a positive adult/child relationship entails, and to model it in our work. Jane Bluestein, the American educator, breaks down what she calls the ‘win-win’ approach necessary for a positive adult/child relationship in the classroom (Bluestein J, The Win Win Classroom: A Fresh and Positive Look at Classroom Management, Thousand Oaks, 2008).

    Jane Bluestein on Behaviour Management

    For me, Bluestein’s model is as good a description of being the adult and professional in working with children as I’ve seen, and I’d like to suggest that we could all benefit from acquainting ourselves with it.

    Bluestein notes the importance  of 8 key factors:

    • Suppotiveness
    • Boundaries
    • Integrity
    • Eliminate double standards
    • Win-win
    • Proactivity
    • Success orientation
    • Self care

    According to Bluestein, it’s the responsibility of the adult to ensure that all these elements are present at all times in our relationships with our students. We need to be sure that whatever we say or do is driven by supportiveness for the child; that we set and hold boundaries and communicate them clearly; that we create situations where the child and the professional both feel they have the outcome they need from any interaction; that every aspect of the environment is geared towards the child achieving success; that we are proactive in anticipating any problems and mitigating them in advance; that we have the integrity to stand up for what we think is right, even when it’s difficult; that we don’t demonstrate double standards and that we look after our own wellbeing and resilience so that we can continue to be a positive adult in their school lives.

    Bluestein’s model asks a lot from the professional, and balancing all 8 elements of being the adult can be an extremely big ask for staff working at the sharp end of challenging behaviour. The best possible model for implementing this doesn’t just ask for more from individual staff; it puts the onus on leadership to find ways to ensure these 8 features can be embedded in the fabric of the school or community. Using these 8 as a starting point can help ensure that processes, policies and practice are aligned to create the best possible set of circumstances for staff to “be the adult”.

    Being the Adult in Practice

    An example from my own experience involved the concept of eliminating double standards. One of the hard and fast rules of the AP I worked at was that fizzy drinks were banned from school grounds. In order to give this policy the best chance of succeeding, staff were also banned from consuming fizzy drinks on site, a policy which (during my first week) I had failed to register in my cursory reading of the staff handbook. I thus strolled into the lunch area one day with a can of diet coke in my hand, only to be met with (playful) consternation from one of my senior colleagues. He publicly challenged me on my consumption of the offending item and made me pour the contents down the kitchen sink in full view of our students.

    It was done with a light touch and in good humour, but it underscored for me the importance of being able to challenge problem behaviour in adults in order to show that the same rules apply to all. Had I been allowed to consume the diet coke in view of students, it would have contributed to a culture where students felt a strong sense of injustice around the ways the rules were applied. While in mainstream settings it could be argued that understanding the complexities of how rules apply differently to children and adults is possible, it is certainly not a great idea to operate a set of double standards in the context of children whose relationships with adults in education has been fraught. Here was an example of how integrity and the elimination of double standards had been built into the culture of a school in such a way that staff felt comfortable to challenge a senior person (new as I was). In this way, I argue, it is possible to embed these 8 principles in practice across a provision to ensure the best possible chance of success and limit the extra “work” staff need to do to inhabit the role of adult.

    In her book Bluestein also gives detailed examples of what this might look like in practice; it’s an accessible and insightful read and I recommend it. I want to suggest that by really thinking through our responsibility as the adults in our professional relationships with children, our philosophical stance will develop in ways in which ensure that practice is effective and outcomes for children and young people are consistently positive.

    Alternative Provision: The “Hidden Hive”

    Alternative Provision: The “Hidden Hive”

    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.

    SEND & AP Improvement Plan: Technical Solutions to Evidencing National Standards

    SEND & AP Improvement Plan: Technical Solutions to Evidencing National Standards

    Why is evidence of progress so important  in SEND and AP contexts?

    I want to preface this blog with the assertion that it’s important to have strong evidence of student 
    progress in Alternative Provision, not only because of the demands of commissioners and regulators, but because children in AP deserve the best possible opportunities to grow as learners and citizens and to make a contribution to their communities and society at large. It is our responsibility as the adults and professionals to be creative in devising ways of measuring outcomes against individual starting points and to evidence these to the world in ways that can be understood and appreciated for the work and achievement they represent.

    The SEND and AP Improvement Plan (2023)

    In March this year the UK Government published its SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement
    Plan: Right Support, Right Place, Right Time. The document asserts new evidence-based standards as the foundation for its planned ‘nationally consistent SEND and Alternative Provision’.

    It is proposed that Ofsted and/or the CQC are used to carry out area SEND inspections with a focus on ‘the outcomes and experience of children with SEND and in alternative provision’. It is also implied that as part of the imperative for financial sustainability, value for money assessment will favour targeted support in mainstream schools, time-limited interventions and transitional placements in external AP.

    The Improvement Plan makes clear the critical, if not existential, challenge for APs of evidencing
    their impact. It’s so important to recognise the contribution of AP to improving outcomes for
    children who don’t thrive in mainstream settings. However, in providing bespoke programmes which meet the needs of children and young people with SEND, APs create packages which resist
    standardised regulation. As leaders working in AP, we battle to account for the impact of our work to commissioners and other stakeholders; there is always a challenge in evidencing, measuring,
    recording and analysing progress against such varied terms of reference. Clearly the SEND and AP Improvement Plan heralds an era of increased pressure in this respect.


    Tech Solutions to the SEND and AP Improvement Plan

    The ed-tech industry has been prolific, particularly post-covid 19, in producing applications which
    attempt to address issues faced by alternative providers – from online teaching spaces to wellbeing and mindfulness platforms; there are also some good products which allow staff to upload evidence of student work in the form of, for example, student-created artefacts, photographs and witness statements.

    However, if we are to demonstrate compliance with a set of national standards on students’ experience and outcomes, we must focus on developing robust systems which can show impact both anecdotally and through so-called ‘hard’ data. There is very little on the market which can do this, because the task is difficult and daunting. The commercial motivation is limited because the number of children affected is relatively small in relation to the mainstream market.

    At Huis we have been lucky enough to partner with a team of leaders in AP committed to working on this problem. We were embedded in an AP for a number of years and with the help of colleagues in the setting we developed LearnTrek, a cloud-based portal which can record all aspects of a child’s progress, including in social, emotional and mental health, attendance, engagement, behaviour and academic achievement; it also manages safeguarding, since in APs the volume and seriousness of concerns are significantly higher than in mainstream or other types of maintained schools.

    LearnTrek has developed organically out of the needs of each setting which uses it. We meet
    monthly with all our clients to troubleshoot any problems and discuss additional requirements;
    these respond to ideas for improvement borne out of user experience, to changes in the AP’s offer,
    and to external drivers such as national or local regulation. Needless to say the demands of the SEND and AP Improvement Plan are on the agenda for many of our clients at present.

    What LearnTrek can do, which other systems cannot, is to record student progress numerically,
    regardless of the starting point, the tailored nature of the programme or fluctuations in the journey. For example, attendance can be recorded against a wide range of increments familiar to staff in AP. It’s a triumph for a student who has not been to school for many months to speak to a tutor or mentor through a bedroom door; the next time the staff member calls they may not speak at all, or may respond with aggression and swear words. LearnTrek can track and analyse such shifting patterns, it can recognise improvement and produce graphics and charts to illustrate the journey to the child, to parents, to colleagues, to funders and to other stakeholders.

    The biggest challenge to date in developing LearnTrek has been to add a curriculum function. This
    was a huge undertaking, for everyone involved in the project. The complexity of sequencing a
    bespoke curriculum and breaking down outcomes into the smallest imaginable units of achievement was a labour of love, as was the process of converting these into a system which could be expressed in a series of noughts and ones.

    What the work has produced, however, is a way of identifying and measuring students’ achievements, and of evidencing this with hard data. The information generated can be used for a range of purposes – to plan effectively and to identify staff training needs; to help students understand themselves as effective learners and members of the school community, and, of course, it can be used to prove impact to funders, commissioners and regulators.

    The impact of the SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan remains to be seen; it promises significant positive change for children and families and this is to be welcomed. The Plan is also a cause for concern among the large community of unregistered AP across the country who provide highly effective tailored programmes for children with SEND. It’s essential that we collaborate across disciplines to develop solutions which will maximise the availability of innovative and impactful provision.

    Social Mobility and Lost Potential – Why Progress Tracking Matters

    Social Mobility and Lost Potential – Why Progress Tracking Matters

    The Sutton Trust’s recent longitudinal study entitled Social Mobility: The Next Generation- Lost Potential at Age 16 (June 2023) highlights what many of us working with children and young people already know – the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged learners is already wide (or – “baked in”) from an early age and widens significantly by secondary education. The report focusses on the period of time between the end of primary school and GCSE exams, taking as its main indicator of disadvantage eligibility for free school meals and its baseline for potential (where a disadvantaged but academically capable child has the most potential for achievement) the final year of primary school.

    The measure of academic achievement used in the report is GCSE English and Maths results. Learners who are identified as academically capable in Year 6 are tracked through to their GCSEs. The study overwhelming shows that disadvantaged learners perform less favourably than their non-disadvantaged peers for a range of reasons including ethnicity, poverty, levels of parental involvement, young carer responsibilities, school demographics and admissions policies, and access to technology among other reasons.

    The study is hugely valuable and points to the complex mix of barriers to full potential experienced by disadvantaged children and young people, as well as the terrible cultural, socio-economic and wellbeing impacts of lost potential for these learner as well as the rest of society. The report also makes sensible recommendations for how schools and the government might help to close the attainment gaps it identifies.

    However, the research conducted did get me wondering about how we might measure lost potential in ways that didn’t rely on GCSE results as a measure of achievement or “success”. How, for example, could we look at the same sort of statistics for learners who show potential at Year 6 and who go on to realise that potential in ways not so easily measured or understood as successful?

    In the report, levels of Special Educational Needs are identified as “one of the biggest differentiators between the high attainer [cohort] and other disadvantaged groups”. The percentage of the disadvantaged high attainer cohort identified as having SEN in year 11 was just 9% compared to a national average of 60%, with the most common reason given as “social emotional and mental health”. While this suggests that the number of potential high attainers with SEN is much lower than those without, it is still the case that many learners with high potential find themselves unable to continue in mainstream education after Year 6. Often this will be for reasons related to trauma and mental health difficulties rather than difficulties with learning and cognition or physical and sensory SEN.

    For children and young people who find themselves without a school placement or in alternative provision or other non-mainstream settings offering something other than GCSEs – how could a similar journey be tracked from academic potential in Year 6 to outcomes by Year 11? Does the metric chosen by the study (tracking a cohort through to GCSEs) demonstrate the understandable problem of gathering data on the potential of a cohort of learners in non-mainstream education – a group more invisible to statistics in terms of its own (equally important) achievements?

    The answer is yes. Tracking attainment for children and young people who find themselves in alternative settings or without formal education is almost impossible at the scale demonstrated by The Sutton Trust’s important research. However, as leaders and educators we owe it to these children and young people to design ways of tracking their progress, whether through qualifications other than GCSEs or other metrics designed to assess them from their individual starting points and up to and including the GCSE achievements of their peers.

    Part of supporting children and young people to understand the value of their own contributions to society is helping them recognise themselves as learners with the capacity to contribute- to be “socially mobile”. Viewing success only through the lens of the National Curriculum (and by implications GCSE qualifications) is deeply problematic for the cohort who will inevitably view themselves as failing by this measure. 

    More importantly, recognising and valuing achievement more widely is a key factor in building the sort of self-worth that helps children and young people to have the confidence to go into the world and make that contribution. With the lifetime costs of NEET for children between 16-18 estimated to be somewhere between £12 billion and £32.5 billion there is an economic argument for finding ways to foster innovation in progress tracking in education and support settings. The onus is on us as professionals to innovate  so that all children and young people can socially navigate to appropriate successes depending on their own individual starting points.

    In my own work in Alternative Provision and in designing educational technologies, I have recently been very focussed on how to build a full and rich picture of attainment for those whose successes can look pretty different to GCSE results but for whom the success in no less of an achievement. This has been based on a strong belief the the first step in social mobility for this cohort must be the recognition of its possibility.

    The Sutton Trust’s study has certainly given me food for thought, as well as a few ideas about how to build this into future research and design of my own using both qualitative and quantitative data. I am so excited to begin sharing the new progress tracking options within LearnTrek over the next few months – hopefully, this will be a small but important step towards helping evidence potential (as well as the challenges in realising it) for other equally important  cohorts of disadvantaged students.