In my last post, I reflected upon the sheer number of pupils who have a registered place in Alternative Provision (AP) (67,600) or are being home-educated (close to 100,000). I argued that mainstream schools will need to review how they tailor their offer for increasing numbers of pupils for whom standard, mainstream provision does not meet their specific needs.

As I pointed out, 167,000 pupils is equivalent to more than 167 average sized secondary schools in the UK. While new providers are joining the alternative provision market by the day, a combination of increasing demand, limited places and the rate of inflation remaining stubbornly high means that the prices charged for a place in AP are rising rapidly. Many mainstream schools, whose budgets are tighter than they have ever been, are finding it too expensive to commission places in AP. Everyone – pupils, parents and schools – are finding things hugely challenging.

The situation means one thing: more pupils who might have needed a place in AP are remaining in mainstream. So, how do mainstream schools meet the needs of increasing numbers of pupils, many of whom, as John D’abbro says in our forthcoming book, AP Huh, “have had their dignity destroyed”? Well, below is an extract from a conversation with Sarah Jones; the full interview appears in AP Huh, which I co-authored with Mary Myatt and is published on 24 May.

Sarah’s was a very special interview, for many reasons. It was the final Huh interview ever. We couldn’t have ended on a better note. As an erstwhile, long-standing mainstream secondary head, what Sarah said interrupted my thinking, seismically. She exemplifies how, perhaps, attitudes and approaches need to change in mainstream schools if we are to staunch our school system’s wounds and prevent any further haemorrhaging of pupils.

A conversation with Sarah Jones

Mary Myatt: It’s a pleasure to have you here, Sarah. Could you begin by telling us how you got into the world of alternative provision?

Sarah Jones: I was a head in a small mainstream school and saw a job advertised for an executive vice principal across four alternative provision settings with the Wellspring Trust in Lincolnshire, with pupils aged from four to sixteen. I then moved to Buckinghamshire where I was executive head of an alternative provision. I’ve now moved back into mainstream as a vice principal. I have responsibility for inclusion and pastoral, and I am trying to bring what I’ve learned in AP back into mainstream. I am aiming to have an impact a bit further upstream and to stop pupils falling into the river, so to speak.

I’d had moments back in alternative provision where I’d ask myself, ‘Why didn’t someone do something sooner for some of these pupils?’ And the answer to my question was that maybe I should be doing that ‘something’ and return to mainstream, hence I found myself back where I began, as vice principal with responsibility for inclusion and pastoral in a large secondary mainstream school.

I am currently working for a brilliant headteacher who lets me do all sorts of innovative, creative things, if I think they might work. And that’s sort of the spirit of AP. We ask ourselves, ‘What does this young person need?’ In mainstream secondary we have an increasing cohort of pupils with emotional based school avoidance, who cannot either get across the threshold or cannot get into lessons, once they’re in the building. We have young people who display that in anxious ways. We’ve got pupils for whom that leads to self-harm or eating disorders. And we’ve got pupils for whom that leads to some violent behaviour towards others.

One example of thinking laterally is working with one pupil with severe attachment difficulties who found it difficult to leave their parents. They were in Year 8 at the time, with scenes in reception when they were dropped off for school. So, I asked myself, ‘Why can’t the parent just work in my office?’. So, we had three weeks where the parent just worked online from my office, and if their child needed them, the child came into my office. Sometimes they needed to come in to see their parent, and sometimes the pupil could just see that they were there.

Sometimes, just being in the building, and knowing that their parent was also in the building, was incredibly helpful for them. After about three or four weeks, the pupil was feeling more settled, so the parent moved into the car park. They would come in at the start of the day, and then go to the car park, and work from the car. True dedication from this wonderful parent!

After a couple more weeks they moved to a coffee shop in the village, and we’ve found the slow acclimatisation, along with some access to counselling, working with CAMHS and building relationships with staff, means that the pupil now comes in every day. Their attendance is now above 97%, and if you met them now, you wouldn’t know that this was a pupil who had been out of school for four months and then weeping in reception for weeks.

It sounds really simple, doesn’t it? We’ll just let the parent work in school. But it’s also a kind of odd thing to do to have a parent virtually working from the back of your office.

MM: What would you say to colleagues who are thinking, ‘How would I make that work in my mainstream school?’ What would be the key message you’d give them?

SJ: I think if they’re asking that, they are already part way there to making reasonable adjustments. Sometimes, doing things that are a bit weird can be an absolute nightmare, and sometimes it’s just the most beautiful thing that you can imagine. And why not give it a shot? And I think the way that things are at the moment, there’s so much that isn’t working in schools for many pupils that we might ask, ‘What have we got to lose? What’s the worst that can happen?’

There was a London head I heard speak who said that as educators, we get to build a world in our schools that reflects the way we think the world should be. That has stayed with me for my whole career. We have some power to shape schools in a way that is more inclusive and more welcoming and fairer and more loving and kind.

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