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.