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. 

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.