Discussions about our education system all too often focus on the largest, most visible components of that system: the attainment of young people in mainstream schools. While debates about educational equity are at the forefront of current policy discourse, with the Pupil Premium explicitly targeting the gap between the attainment of young people receiving Free School Meals (FSM) and their peers, these discussions, too, are framed in terms of the relative performance of young people in mainstream schools. However, more than 20,000 pupils each year receive their education outside the mainstream system, through some form of ‘alternative provision’. Seldom do we turn our attention to these young people who, in Pat Thomson’s words, are “eased out, pushed out and kicked out of school.”
Particular groups of young people are disproportionately at risk of being excluded from mainstream education: pupils with special educational needs account for seven out of ten permanent exclusions; boys are three times more likely to be excluded than girls; FSM pupils are four times more likely to be permanently excluded than their peers. Once they find themselves outside the mainstream, young people are far less likely to enter adult life with the educational outcomes their peers enjoy. Figures recently released by the Department for Education reveal that only one per cent of pupils in ‘alternative provision’ and pupil referral units (PRUs) achieved five good GCSEs in 2013-14 (A*-C including English and Maths). Furthermore, of those entered for a GCSE in Maths or English, only one in ten achieved a grade C or above.
A recent report into ‘pushed out’ learners highlights the unique and extraordinary pressures under which alternative providers operate: the young people they work with often struggle to make the most of learning because of a combination of hunger, low literacy, innumeracy, poor social skills and unsafe conditions at home. The report also highlights how alternative provision is all too often seen as a ‘necessary evil’, held at arms length from the mainstream education system, despite the crucial role it plays in re-engaging often profoundly marginalised young people with learning. The interviews we conducted during the course of our research found that highly effective alternative provision must expertly navigate a difficult binary: engaging young people with highly individualised curricula and learning environments (as recommended by existing academic research) whilst holding them to the same ambitious expectations we maintain for those in mainstream education.
The situation of ‘pushed out learners’ should command far more of our attention. We have a duty as researchers and practitioners to respond to the marginalisation of such a sizeable cohort of individuals. Moreover, examining the situation of those outside the mainstream system forces us to address the fundamental principles upon which our education system is designed and implemented: who, and what purpose, is our education system there to serve? Can mainstream schools meet the specific needs of each individual young person and, if not, are ‘alternative’ forms of provision the answer? If so, what should these forms of provision look like? What goals should they set themselves, and what standards should we hold them accountable to? These are precisely the sorts of questions the Fair and Equal Education manifesto encourages us to address.