Free article: Working with students in alternative provision

Published: Tuesday, 16 April 2019

How can professionals support and maintain the good attendance of students attending alternative provision? Victoria Franklin considers the risks and the barriers and suggests ways to overcome them.


  • There are big differences between student attendance statistics at mainstream schools and those in alternative provision.
  • It’s important that the pupil’s mainstream school continues to take a close interest in their attendance.
  • Schools and alternative providers must work closely together to ensure good outcomes for students.

Supporting vulnerable young people to engage in mainstream education can present a tough challenge to professionals who work in this role. However, the challenge can increase when a young person is allocated a place at an alternative provision (AP).

The settings

Alternative provision is defined as 'education arranged by local authorities or schools for students who do not attend mainstream schools for a variety of reasons'. The alternative provision landscape is a diverse one and meets the needs of some of the most vulnerable young people in society.

Provision includes pupil referral units (PRUs) maintained by local authorities, alternative provision (AP) settings that are free schools or academies and also includes private and voluntary providers.

Routes into alternative provision vary and can be for the following reasons:

  1. Behaviour – as a result of exclusion or prevention of exclusion.
  2. SEND – where a pupil is awaiting assessment or placement for a special school.
  3. Health – where physical and mental health needs cannot be met by mainstream school.
  4. Curriculum – as part of a personalised timetable where the mainstream curriculum is not being accessed suitably.

Placements at alternative provision consist of long- and short-term arrangements with full- and part-time curriculum offers. This complex picture makes it harder for practitioners to navigate different systems and procedures in each setting and comply with safeguarding and registration requirements.

Attendance concerns

Only attendance data for pupil referral units is collected by the DfE; not for other alternative providers. This is important as it purely gives a picture of attendance for a specific section of this provision. Absence information is collected via the school census and is published three times a year through the statistical release.

The latest published data (18 October 2018) compares starkly to data for mainstream settings. Overall absence rates for PRUs was 34.6%, compared to primary and secondary mainstream settings of 4.7%. The rate of persistent absenteeism was 74.3% (26,875 students), compared to a combined mainstream setting figure of 11.3%.

Both overall and persistent absence levels have increased in PRUs compared to the same time last year. Increases in absence are found in both authorised and unauthorised absence. A particular increase has been noted in absence recorded as 'other authorised absence'.

This may, in part, be accounted for in the use of personalised or part-time timetables for some students. This is an area of concern where use is prolonged or does not form part of an integration plan. Students attending alternative provision are entitled to access full-time education as they would do if they were attending a mainstream setting.

Data shows that these students achieve significantly lower GCSE grades than students at mainstream settings. Both the government and Ofsted recognise that more needs to be done to ensure a young person in receipt of alternative provision receives good quality education in a safe setting.

Research and investigation into this area has been undertaken by a cross-party group from the House of Commons, that is looking at standards and practice across the country. This is closely linked with investigation into exclusion practice, 'off-rolling' and the use of unregistered providers.

Correct monitoring

It is important that attendance is monitored and compliant with the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006.The correct coding of students attending alternative provision ensures transparency and safeguards the student.
Students attending alternative provision are often dual registered. The code ‘D’ can be used only when the student is attending a provision registered with the DfE. All other alternative provision should be coded as ‘B’. The DfE school attendance guidance for September 2018 provides a full explanation of this.

Particular care should be taken when using the ‘B’ code with regard to safeguarding responsibilities. Communication is of the highest importance when young people are attending more than one educational setting or are temporarily placed in alternative provision.

It is vital that robust systems and procedures are evident and in use and are shared between settings. An unsatisfactory situation would be where responsibility for the student was left completely to one setting.

Risks to students

There are alarming reports of vulnerable students in alternative provision being actively sought out and targeted by gangs, drug dealers and others. They wish to exploit children that are marginalised, often grooming them to secure a sense of belonging before involving them in criminal activity. This can become an attractive alternative to attending provision. Excluded students are at particular risk and this risk increases when the alternative provision is offered on a part-time basis.

Demonstrating commitment

The best way to support students to access education at alternative provision is to demonstrate a commitment to the provision from the outset. Building relationships with the provider and having an understanding of how it works is a key factor in building the confidence of a young person to engage and attend.

An example of this is knowing the different time structure that an alternative provider may adopt. For example, if registration at an alternative provision is different to a mainstream setting, follow up after an agreed time, such as 30 minutes, to check attendance.

In many schools it works well when a dedicated member of staff has a role overseeing alternative provision placements as this provides consistency of approach for both the student and staff at the setting. This role should involve transition work into the alternative provision setting and daily communication about any concerns, particularly about attendance, so that patterns can be noted and actions taken.

Work together

It’s important that the mainstream school and the alternative provider work closely together. This should involve joint agreed actions and recording of outcomes using each setting’s information management system. Calls, visits to parents and regular meetings attended by both settings should be part of this. Joined-up working gives a strong message of provision as part of a connected system.

An effective tracking system for all students in alternative provision is one that keeps weekly updates on:

  • those who have crossed the persistent absence threshold
  • where the type of absence has changed
  • those whose attendance has dropped
  • incidents where there have been difficulties contacting home.

Where students are full time in alternative provision, good practice would be to ensure students and parents are kept informed of all mainstream school news and activities, as well as those at the alternative provision. Isolation can lead to disaffection. Frequently, students return to school with little knowledge having been shared with them about current issues.

You should include student and parent voice in finding out how support can be improved. For some young people where a placement in alternative provision is well managed and supported, it can be an opportunity to experience a positive educational intervention.

Such is the level of importance of this issue that the DfE has allocated up to £4 million to fund several projects in connection with it. These are looking at ways of reforming alternative provision, including a focus on improving attendance.

Further information

  • Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions, House of Commons Education Committee, 2018:
  • Alternative Provision: The findings from Ofsted’s three-year survey of schools use of off-site alternative provision, Ofsted, 2016:
  • Alternative provision innovation fund: successful applicants, DfE, 2018: 

About the author

Victoria Franklin is a qualified social worker with more than 25 years’ experience working in education settings. She is currently a senior education welfare consultant working across all phases of education. Victoria is the President of the National Association of Support Workers in Education (NASWE) and delivers national training on a wide range of attendance matters.