“What’s the alternative? Effective support for
young people disengaging from the
Pat Thomson, Professor of Education, School of Education, The
University of Nottingham
February 2014, updated in September 2014.
This literature review accompanies the report ‘What’s the Alternative?’ by Prof. Pat Thomson and Jodie
Pennacchia of Nottingham University, found on The Prince’s Trust learning hub website: princestrust/learninghub
The research project “What’s the alternative? Effective support for young
people disengaging from the mainstream “ was commissioned by The Princes
Trust with funding from HSBC. This literature review does not represent the
views of either The Princes Trust or HSBC.
ABOUT THIS LITERATURE REVIEW
The context for the literature review
This literature review was written at a particular time and for a particular
purpose. It was the first stage of a research project commissioned by The
Princes Trust to address changes in the ways in which schools and alternative
education providers interact. The purpose of the literature review was to
determine questions to guide and reflect on the empirical study.
In Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, responsibility for alternative
education lies largely with local authorities. In England, responsibility for
ensuring the educational entitlements of young people in the compulsory
years has been shared between schools and local authorities. Local
authorities have been the providers of educational services for young people
who are permanently excluded from school or who have particular educational
needs due to illness, school phobia and the like. Schools have had
responsibility for young people on their rolls, including those who they
suspend and exclude on a short-term basis. Schools have been able to call
on local authorities to assist them with specialist services, and with
transferring students from one site to another, although in some locations this
has been taken over by clusters of local schools acting together to ‘manage
moves’ (Abdelnoor, 2007, p. 21; Thomson, Harris, Vincent, & Toalster, 2005).
The local authority Pupil Referral Units and other support services as well as
schools are able to use a range of alternative education providers in order to
provide enhanced options for young people.
There has been a range of concerns expressed about these arrangements
(Centre for Social Justice, 2011; House of Commons Education Committee,
2011; Office of the Children's Commissioner, 2012, 2013; OfSTED, 2011;
Ogg & Kail, 2010; Reed, 2005; C. Taylor, 2012). As in Wales (Estyn, 2007;
Welsh Assembly Government, 2011) and Scotland (PINS Scotland, 2012),
there have been concerns in England about, inter alia: inconsistency in
approach across schools and local authorities; variable times out of
educational programmes; lack of effective reintegration; costs of provision;
and inadequately monitored and sometimes inappropriate provision being
offered to young people.
England is now changing the ways in which statutory obligations are to be
met. Some funding for specialised support services has already been
devolved to schools. Pupil Referral Units, previously run by the Local
Authority, are now able to become Academies. The government has trialed
the devolution of other statutory responsibilities to schools so that they
become responsible for ensuring that permanently excluded young people
and others unable to attend school are ensured a full-time education.
The government in England have recently concluded a pilot programme in
which schools moved from becoming partial commissioners of alternative
education services and programmes to becoming much more responsible for
the educational needs of all young people on their rolls. This pilot was
designed to address multiple policy agendas but the most pertinent to this
(1) the clear intention to address a problem which previous research had
highlighted viz. the ways in which some schools had exhibited an ‘out
of sight out of mind’ approach to excluded young people with the result
that their entitlements to a coherent educational pathway was
diminished. Rather than simply sending young people off to an
alternative educational programme or full-time placement, the new
approach requires schools to develop a greater range of in-school
interventions and supports, as well as personalized learning plans for
those enrolled students who are not benefitting from their current
(2) the promotion of more choice between schools. The development of
alternative academies and free schools means that it is now possible
for young people and families to exercise their own decision-making
capacity, and choose to leave one school in favour of one offering a
different and alternative approach. Referral is now not the only way to
access alternative provision.
The government commissioned an evaluation of the trial; this highlighted
some issues that needed to be addressed if the policy is to extended, as well
as good practices in commissioning. The evaluation (Institute of Education
(University of London) and the National Foundation for Educational Research
( NFER), 2013, 2014) showed a general willingness on the part of both trial
and ‘control group’ schools to do much more within school to cater for young
people on the edges of education. The trial also demonstrated that schools
were keen to take charge of the commissioning process.
The research, of which this literature review was an integral part, was
intended to complement these changes. Written with the interests of
alternative education providers in mind, it addresses another problem which
has been consistently raised by schools, by OfSTED, researchers and by
alternative education providers themselves – How are young people, their
parents and/or caregivers, and schools to know what is a quality
alternative education provision? There is ample evidence to suggest that
what is on offer, in what OfSTED (2011, p. 4) called “an unregulated and
largely uninspected sector”, is diverse. OfSTED noted that alternative
education providers did not necessarily register with any official body, and
there was no consistent arrangement to evaluate quality. They observed that
there were various approaches taken by alternative providers to costing,
advertising and recruiting, programming, monitoring and assessing progress,
communicating with schools and families and evaluating outcomes (c.f.
Gutherson, Davies, & Daskiewicz, 2011; Thomson & Russell, 2007). Points of
comparison between programmes were thus difficult.
At a time when there is more choice in the system and when the locus of
commissioning in some jurisdictions is changing, the question of what counts
as a quality alternative education provision is more pertinent than ever. This
was the focus for this literature review.
The process used to review the literatures
There is, unsurprisingly, a great deal of literature about alternative educational
provision. It is international in scope. It ranges from evaluations of particular
programmes, reports of local authorities and school districts, compendia of
good practice, investigations of young people’s and staff experiences to
conceptual and theoretical work. There is a lot of work which documents best
practice which, as will be seen in Section 2 of this review, is remarkably
consistent across countries and time. While questions of quality appear in
much of this work, there are surprisingly few texts which take quality as the
major focus. Of those that exist, most are written from the point of view of
state education systems or school districts. There are only a handful of texts
which directly address quality frameworks from the point of the alternative
providers themselves. This literature review therefore has brought together
diverse works which have something to say about quality and the kinds of
issues that need to be considered when thinking about what a quality
framework might include.
The researcher has an existing set of literatures on alternative education
dating from the early 1980s; this corpus has been periodically supplemented.
A new search was undertaken in November and December of 2013 to update
these existing materials. Four major academic journal and book publishers’
sites were searched, using the terms ‘school exclusion’ and ‘alternative
education’, and a web search using both Google and Google Scholar was
undertaken using the same terms. The most recent search produced some
200 new items from which points relevant to quality have been extracted.
The texts were not examined using an ‘evidence-based’ protocol. This is a
narrative review which sought to find common themes and questions across a
range of texts. There was no systematic attempt to find further areas for
research, although it is clear that there is considerable research to be
undertaken about the question of the outcomes and benefits to young people
of participation in alternative education. A deliberate attempt was made to use
the literature review to establish questions which could be pursed through the
subsequent case study research.
The literatures were categorized under three major headings: definitional
issues, best practices and quality issues. These three form the organisers for
It is important to note that many of the literatures reviewed have not been
cited in this written text. The decision was made that for ease of reading
references have largely been kept to an indicative list.
WHAT IS ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION? WHO IS IT FOR? WHAT
DOES IT DO?
The first section of the literature review considers some definitions of
alternative education that are used in policy contexts in England. It then uses
British and international literatures to explore issues related to purpose, target
students and expectations. These are the first issues to be probed in relation
to quality, as they draw the boundaries about what is included and excluded,
as well as establish some major debates in the field.
Defining alternative education
Official guidance to English schools about statutory requirements for the
education of children under the school leaving age states that alternative
… for pupils who, because of exclusion, illness or other reasons, would
not otherwise receive suitable education; education arranged by schools
for pupils on a fixed period exclusion; and pupils being directed by schools
to off-site provision to improve their behaviour (Department for Education,
Here, alternative education has a particular enrolment – it caters for a
specific group of school students who are not attending school - and location
– it includes off-site provision.
However, in their survey of alternative education OfSTED (2011) offer a
slightly different definition:
… something in which a young person participates as part of their regular
timetable, away from the site of the school or the pupil referral unit and not
led by school staff. Schools can use such provision to try to prevent
exclusions, or to re-engage students in their education. Pupil referral units are
themselves a form of alternative provision, but many students who are on the
roll of a pupil referral unit also attend additional forms of alternative provision
This takes the off-site location and the emphasis on students not benefiting
from their current schooling arrangements, and adds time as another factor.
Alternative provision may be full time, as in the case of a Pupil Referral Unit,
or part time, as in the case of a course led by non-school staff members, but
which is still part of the student’s overall timetable.
The interim evaluation conducted on the trial devolution of responsibility for
commission alternative programmes to schools (Institute of Education
(University of London) and the National Foundation for Educational Research
( NFER), 2013) lists fifteen types of alternative provision on offer to those
students a school might designate as ‘at risk of permanent exclusion’. These
1. Specialist support e.g. CAMHS
3. Individual work placements
4. Additional services provided by the LA e.g. traveller education support
5. Time spent in FE college either full time or part time
6. Time spent in another school
7. Private sector organisations e.g. offering learning and training
8. Home tuition service
9. Independent specialist providers e.g. behavioural
10. Voluntary and third sector organisations
11. Youth work organisation
12. Sports clubs e.g. boxing academy, football club
13. Hospital school
14. E-learning provision e.g. notschool.net
This survey introduces the notion that alternative provision contains many
different types of programmes and many different providers.
OfSTED’s (2011) report on the results of their own survey also focuses on
diversity of provision and lists seven different types of programmes on offer.
But it discriminates between programmes on the basis of the content of the
programme and the purpose:
(1) Individual work-related placements. These consisted of extended work
experience for one day a week, based on the students’ interests, such as
building, retail, childcare, care of the elderly, hairdressing. They were
generally not accredited.
(2) Placements focused on learning a specific work-related or trade skills, such
as construction, plumbing, electrical, hairdressing, beauty or land-based
work. These were generally structured, accredited courses, with part of the
time spent on theory and part on practice.
(3) ‘Personal development’ placements, focused on the development of aspects
such as self-esteem, confidence, self-management and teamwork, as well as
specific elements such as alcohol awareness and the prevention of knife-
crime. These sometimes took the form of a time-limited course, for example,
for half a term, and often had a strong outdoor element.
(4) Music and arts related placement such as digital media projects and learning
composition and disc-jockey skills in a music studio
(5) Placements with a therapeutic element such as woodturning and hedge
laying, riding and caring for horses, grooming or caring for small animals
(6) Placements which provided a complete full time alternative to attending a
school or pupil referral unit. These generally provided a fairly standard
curriculum in small groups, with some additional focus on personal
development and sometimes on vocational skills,
(7) College placements to take specific courses, which were sometimes taster
packages which included various subjects (OfSTED, 2011).
The OfSTED list also includes full time provision which is not a PRU.
Alternative academies and free schools can now also be added to this list as
part of the full time mix. Until the establishment of these schools, most other
full time and autonomous alternative schools were in the independent sector.
But the addition of academies and free schools into the state sector
introduces a further complication, whether enrolment in an alternative is
voluntary, by choice or whether it is by a referral process and part of an
intervention in a student’s educational programme.
It is clear that in the current policy context, what counts as alternative
education is not a clear-cut matter. Who enrols, the location, the time
attended, the types of programmes and their purpose and content, the
provider, and the path to enrolment are all important. This makes the notion of
a quality framework for alternative education a complex matter.
Perhaps the answer lies in creating a typology of alternative provision.
Making sense of the diversity of alternative provision
When we come to the challenge of creating some sense of order from the
diversity of provision and we go to the wide body of national and international
literatures then we find three interesting points:
(1) The range of alternative education on offer in the UK is not dissimilar to
that found in other places.
(2) Alternative education is not a new phenomenon – it has existed alongside
mainstream public education since the first half of the nineteenth century
(Miller, 2007; Sliwka, 2008).
(3) There is general agreement that there is no single definition of alternative
education, and that there are significant tensions and differences in the
task of imposing some kind of order on the diverse range of alternative
education that exists.
In the early 90s the US educational reform scholar Mary Ann Raywid (1990, p.
Programs differ according to their missions (providing a more humane and
effective education; segregating, containing and reforming and disruptive
population, healing the wounded). They differ as to what to look to and begin
working on when education fails (the student’s misbehavior, the student’s
psyche, or the school’s environment.) They differ according to the functions
formally assigned them, and the expectations and demands of those to whom
In this statement, Raywid identified important and ongoing tensions and
debates about alternative education. There are differences between
disciplines in the ways that researchers approach their empirical studies of
alternative provision, but there are key debates that transcend them. These
debates centre on some key questions around enrolment and purpose:
(1) whether alternative education is only for those who do not fit into the
(2) whether the problem for those students is the result of something about
them, or something about the schooling system, and
(3) whether the goal of alternative education is to ‘fix’ the student in order
that they can re-enter mainstream education and training, or offer a
different pathway to outcomes which includes education and training,
but also encompasses citizenship, spiritual and aesthetic development
and so on.
The answers to these questions are at the heart of the task of making sense
of the wide range of what counts as alternative education, as a survey of
literature soon shows.
Raywid’s view (1994) was that the most ‘authentic’ alternative education was
that which offered a full time and permanent education option to anyone who
chose to take a route different from the mainstream. However, she recognized
that there were also alternative education options designed specifically for
populations of young people who were not faring well in their mainstream
schools, and she divided these into two types – those which attempted a
‘quick fix’ and those which offered a more holistic approach. She was clearly
in favour of an alternative education which was ‘genuinely transformative’ of
both outcomes for young people, and of the practices of schooling. However,
she also considered that the holistic approach taken in ‘remedial’ alternatives
was potentially of benefit to young people, even if it did not change
mainstream schools (see Fig 1).
Type of schools
Type I alternatives make school challenging and
fulfilling for all involved. Their efforts have yielded
many innovations, a number of which are now
widely recommended as improvement measures for
all schools. Type I alternatives virtually always
reflect organizational and administrative departures
from the traditional, as well as programmatic
Type I alternatives are schools of choice and are
usually popular. They sometimes resemble magnet
schools and in some locales constitute some or all of
the options in choice systems. They are likely to
reflect programmatic themes or emphases
pertaining to content or instructional strategy, or
Cost effective. Successes
more pronounced and longer
Small, ownership, chosen not
referred, mini-schools within
mainstream, free from district
These schools generate and
sustain community within
them, make learning
engaging and provide the
school organization and
structure needed to sustain
the first two.
“Last-Chance Programs. Type II alternatives are
programs to which students are sentenced—usually
as one last chance prior to expulsion. They include
in-school suspension programs, cool-out rooms, and
longer-term placements for the chronically
disruptive. They have been likened to “soft jails,” and
they have nothing to do with options or choice.
Typically, Type II programs focus on behavior
modification, and little attention is paid to modifying
curriculum or pedagogy. In fact, some of these
programs require students to perform the work of the
regular classes from which they have been
removed. Others simply focus on the basics,
emphasizing rote, skills, and drill.”
Yield few benefits to those
who attend. Do not change
drop out, referral rates,
suspension or exclusion,
“Remedial Focus. Type III alternatives are for
students who are presumed to need remediation or
rehabilitation—academic, social/emotional, or both.
The assumption is that after successful treatment
students can return to mainstream programs.
Therefore, Type III alternatives often focus on
remedial work and on stimulating social and
emotional growth—often through emphasizing the
school itself as a community”
Behaviour attendance and
improves. But costly, and
behaviour often returns when
students return to school.
Figure 1. Raywid’s three part typology of alternative schooling.
Other US scholars have sought to add to Raywid’s typology, primarily to cater
for the range of alternatives on offer to young people not faring well in
mainstream education. Lange and Sletton (2002) for example offered ‘second
chance schooling’ as a fourth type. ‘Second chance’ schooling dealt with ‘at
risk’ populations and had links to multiple health and welfare agencies which
attempted to deal with individual and social issues that young people faced.
There are critiques of Raywid’s typology. Heinrich (2005) for example, a
practitioner, suggested that Raywid’s approach worked from an assumption of
a student or curricular deficit. Heinrich maintained that success in alternative
education could not be achieved by segregating students from their peers in
mainstream schools who, he suggested, should also spend time in alternative
provision while those from the alternative should maintain contact with the
mainstream. He argued for an alternative education which combined a
humanistic philosophy, a progressive pedagogy with insistence on
behavioural compliance and an overall goal of emancipation. He was most
insistent that the notion of ‘second chance’ education was coercive, and that
of ‘another chance’ was preferable. Kellermayer (1995, 1998) also takes this
position, arguing that most alternative provisions are pseudo-alternatives –
ineffective and often punitive, they isolate and segregate students from peers
in the mainstream. Kellermayer suggests that ‘genuine’ alternatives are
voluntary, distinctive from traditional education and offer a student-centred
learning environment and a comprehensive set of objectives.
Some have attempted to both acknowledge and avoid these debates by
developing more descriptive typologies of the field. This is the approach taken
by Aron (2003, 2006; Aron & Zweig, 2003). Aron rejected Raywid’s three part
typology on the grounds that these were not, if they ever had been, clear-cut
‘types’ and that in reality the practice in real alternative education programmes
and schools showed blurred and overlapping elements of each of the three.
Together with Zweig (2003), she analysed ways of understanding alternative
education and concluded that there were a variety of ways of understanding
the field, via:
historical, legal and operational definitions
defining purposes compared to mainstream schools
describing schools, programmes, and approaches
by population and psychological social needs
by operational setting
by content, qualifications and/or intended outcomes
using Raywid’s three types or variations on her typology of effectiveness
by educational needs
Aron ( 2006, p 6) opted for a definition of alternative education as
… schools or programmes that are set up by states, school districts or other
entities to serve people who are not succeeding in traditional public
environments. Alternative education programs offer students who are failing
academically or may have learning disabilities, behavioural problems, or poor
attendance an opportunity to achieve in a different setting and use different
and innovative learning models. While there are many different kinds of
alternative schools and programs, they are often characterised by their
flexible schedules, smaller teacher-students ratios, and modified curricula.
This definition eliminates students who are coping or even doing well in
mainstream schools and who might choose an alternative school or
programme simply on the grounds that it is different. It does however begin to
delineate something of the pedagogy characteristic of alternative education.
Aron’s typology (see figure 2) allowed for the individual characteristics of
programmes to be mapped.
General type of
• Separate school
• Separate program
• Perspective/strategy with a regular K-12 school
• pregnant/parenting teens
• suspended/expelled students
• recovered drop-outs
• delinquent teens
• all at risk youth
• Academic completion/credential
• Career preparation/credential
• Transitional (e.g., out of treatment or detention, or back to K-12)
Operational setting-proximity to K-12:
• resource rooms
• pull-out programs
• separate self-contained alternative school
location of activity
• regular school during school hours
• school building during non-school hours
• community or recreation center
• former school building
• juvenile justice corrections or detention center
• store-front neighborhood organization
• public housing project
• homeless shelter (emergency and transitional)
• medical or mental health facility
• community college or other post-secondary campus
• short-term bridge back to schools for students who are off track
• students prematurely transitioning to adulthood
• accelerated program for students needing a few credits to move on
• students who are very far behind educationally
• non-profit and community-based organization (CBOs)
• state or local education agency
• charter school
• adult education division or agency
• juvenile justice agency
• K-12 public or private school
• health or mental health agency or institution
• federally-funded program and contractors (e.g., for Job Corps)
• Regular high school diploma
• General Educational Development (GED) diploma
• Occupational and skills certification
• No credentialing
Funding sources (and
• Federal funds
• State funds
• Local funds
• Private funds
Figure 2: Aron’s typology
One can imagine that this typology might lend itself to a ‘scorecard’ on which
providers would be able to tick the point in each category which applied to
Thomson and Russell (2007) took a programmatic approach to mapping
alternative provision suggesting nine different foci (see Fig 3), an approach
which chimes with that taken by OfSTED (2011).
Nature of programme
Type of activity
A programme that is
specifically gained towards a
Often offering an actual
qualification that will help a
young person to enter the
‘world of work’
Hair and beauty
Generic work skills are
developed such as ‘being
able to follow instructions’
General experience on
English, Maths, Science and
IT are offered (not
necessarily at GCSE level)
General skills needed to
function in society are
developed, such as social
skills, cooking, talking without
The programme has an
The focus is on teaching
young people about nature
and how to utilise materials in
the outdoors and survive
Work in forests
Has a focus on teaching and
learning the arts
Dance, media, music
and drawing, pottery
Focuses on offering a
Various work placements that
form part of a young person’s
educational package, some
are offered as part of actual
Has a strong scholastic
focus, with an emphasis on
qualifications such as GCSE
Figure 3: A programmatic typology (Thomson and Russell, 2007)
A mapping approach was also proposed by Australian scholar Te Riele
(2007). Unlike Aron’s more pragmatic stance, she argues that the question of
purpose cannot be ignored. In the post-compulsory sector at least, she
suggests, programmes must first be differentiated by whether they have a
youth at risk (fix the student) or learning choice (expand educational options
and horizons) focus. The difference between the two can be determined,
according to Te Riele, by examining programmes for: the purpose or
objective, target population, educational content and planned
outcomes/credentials. But, she suggests, the provenance of the programme
also makes a key difference, so it is vital to also consider a programme’s
sponsor, duration, and stability (e.g. short term funding or established unit).
Alternative programmes can be mapped into four quadrants (see Figure 4),
where axis one is the purpose of change (young person or provision) and axis
two is the stability of alternative programme.
Figure 4. Te Riele’s ( 2007) map of educational alternatives
Te Riele’s model has been taken up by an Australian private sector
educational charity, the Dusseldorps Skills Foundation, and used as the basis
for developing a national mapping of alternative education programmes (Te
In the UK, Rix and Twining (2007) also developed a descriptive typology for
alternative education. They suggested that one apparently simple way of
categorizing alternative education was around a set of basic questions:
• WHO: At risk/ School refusers/ Low-achievers/ Excluded young parents
• WHERE In a school/Alternative school /In a non-school formal setting
• WHAT Therapy/Discipline/Regular lessons/Creative approaches
• WHEN Formal school hours/Out of school hours/Short term Long term
• WHY Formal qualifications/Personal development/Skills development
• HOW Administrative characteristics (charity, church, state, not-for-
• WHICH Type of school (public/private)/Programme across or within
settings/Strategies, beliefs, services. (pp. 5-6)
But, having outlined this simple mapping approach, they then reject it arguing
that it focuses too much on descriptive organizational matters and not enough
on the programmatic and purposeful. They offer a second preferred typology
consisting of nine organizational types:
Type 1 Alternative eg A Reggio Emilia school
Type 2 Last chance e.g. In-school suspension programme
Type 3 Remedial e.g. In-school withdrawal programme
Type 4 Special e.g. Special school
Type 5 Home e.g. Home education
Type 6 Selective e.g. Private school
Type 7 Comprehensive e.g. State secondary school
Type 8 Schome e.g. A lifelong learning programme
Type 9 Adult e.g. University
Rix and Twining state that each of the nine types can be further differentiated
by descriptors which address: programme title, programme length, dominant
educational approach, degree of learner choice, opportunities to access
setting, age range, regulation and location. An enormous number of variations
are made possible by using this typology.
However, the question in relation to quality of alternative education is not
simply one of describing types. As already noted, quality has to do with the
locus of the activity, thinking about who is the beneficiary and what are the
expectations. The next two elements of this section consider these. As we will
see, the same kinds of debates and differences of view that are manifest in
the literatures about typologies also appear in relation to attendees and
Who attends alternative education programmes?
Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the literatures that address alternative education
as something other than a voluntary choice that also delineate who the
provision should serve. These literatures can be divided into policy texts that
provide statutory advice or administrative guidelines for practice and those
that are grounded in practice and/or research.
Administrative guidelines generally offer a list of those eligible for alternative
education including: school refusers and phobics, young parents, those with
chronic illness as well as descriptors of those characterised variously as
‘marginalised’, ‘vulnerable’ ‘at risk’ or ‘disengaged’ and/or ‘disruptive. These
lists are very specific when attached to funding. Indeed, one of the
consequences of directing funding to schools and school districts is the
development of relatively tight definitions of who is entitled to access to
New Zealand, for example, which already requires schools and networks of
schools to commission alternative education programmes, describes those
who attend full time alternative schools as ‘alienated from the mainstream,
who drop out or who are excluded’. This is very clearly elaborated as
…13-15 year olds who have either:
been out of school for two terms or more, or
had multiple exclusions ( from more than one school) , or
a history of dropping out of mainstream school after being reintegrated, or
dropped out of Correspondence School after enrolment as an ‘at risk;
been referred by a school and verified for Alternative Education following
a meeting of representatives of the school the students and his or her
parents or caregivers, representatives of other agencies involved with the
students and the AE Coordinators
And the Pennsylvania Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth
(Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2013) caters for:
Disruptive students - those who show disregard for school authority, use
drugs, carry weapons, engage in violent or threatening behaviour, committed
a criminal act on school property, or demonstrate misconduct that would merit
suspension or expulsion. Students returning from delinquency placement
should be dealt with individually, not automatically placed in AEDY.
These narrower eligibility criteria can be compared to looser criteria for state
funded and provided provision e.g. “In Indiana, the programs and models
designed to meet the needs of disaffected youth are as diverse as the
students themselves”. In Indiana, eligibility includes anyone “who intends to
withdraw, or who has withdrawn before graduation
. Here, alternative
education is seen as a way of avoiding students leaving without their final high
school qualification. This is the equivalent of the Australian focus on Early
School Leavers, and that of NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training)
in the UK.
It is inevitable that those who advocate that authentic alternative education
should operate as a choice and without any form of compulsion are perturbed
by policies that require diagnosis, intervention by school authorities and the
use of referral panels. However, there is also significant disquiet from the
practice and research communities about aspects of these kinds of diagnostic
and referral processes. This often emerges in debates about terminology.
Alternative education programmes are often seen as ‘other’ to the mainstream
or regular school (Gale & Densmore, 2000; Mills & McGregor, 2013). The
dominant model operates as the norm, against which any other kind of option
is seen as not only different but also somehow lesser, inferior, deviant (Slee,
2011; Valencia, 1997). The stigma of alternative is not just confined to the
types of schooling; there are also reports of students who experience
stigmatization from being and working in alternative education (e.g. McNulty &
One way to avoid this kind of ‘othering’ and stigma is to employ a different
framing - perhaps that of traditional rather than mainstream schooling -
against which alternatives can be seen as innovative (Raywid 1994, Heinrich
2005 and Kellmayer 1995 all opt for this). Some Australian programmes
speak not of alternative education but of ‘flexible learning choices’
, a term
taken from the distance and open learning field. This terminology places the
emphasis on the difference in mode of learning, rather than on any notion of
the population served or their prior educational attainment. The Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation (undated) suggest that an educational system
should consist of four types of mainstream schools, rather than one which
could be called mainstream and alternative. Their four types of schools are:
(1) academic – offering discipline based content
(2) applied – seeing the student as worker
(3) alternative – student centred learning and support
(4) affiliated – schools offering a common world view (usually faith-based)
This schema is an attempt to create parity of esteem between all four
There is also considerable debate about the language used to describe the
young people for whom alternative education is often designed. Terms such
as ‘disaffected’, ‘marginalised’, ‘disadvantaged’, ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at risk’
dominate the field. Critics (e.g. Barone, 1989; Bessant, 1995; Bullen, Kenway,
& Hay, 2000; Donmoyer & Kos, 1993; Munns & McFadden, 2000) argue that
these terms imply that the young people in question are fundamentally
different from those who appear to be coping in their school setting, and that
this is not the case. Furthermore, this naming makes it relatively
straightforward to suggest that ‘riskiness’ or ‘vulnerability’ is related primarily
to factors attached to the young person – their psychological makeup,
personal education history and behaviours, and social environment – rather
than to the workings of the educational system. Rather than talk about the
young person being ‘at risk’, these critics suggest, we should ask what there
is about the way in which schooling functions which places them at risk,
makes them vulnerable, (Thomson, 2002). Some scholars attempt to find
ways to avoid this language completely – for example, using the notion of
students ‘at promise’ rather than ‘at risk’ (Swadener, 1995).
See for example www.learningchoices.org.au
Practitioners are often torn about these kinds of debates. They want to stress
the ordinariness of the young people they work with and how much they are
like their peers. The young people themselves also very often want this
(Smyth & Hattam, 2004; Vincent, 2012). Practitioners want to deal afresh with
the young people in their programmes and give them an opportunity to make
a fresh start. But they often find themselves faced with young people for
whom the long processes of exclusion have been traumatic and/or whose
lives are very troubled and troubling (Arnold, Yeomans, & Simpson, 2009;
Cullingford, 1999; Lloyd, 2005). They must therefore provide or access the
kinds of support and services that are needed in order for young people to get
the most from the alternative programme on offer. They do not operate in an
Nevertheless, empirical research and government data collections in the UK
tell us that the group which participates in programmes for those designated
as marginalised, do share certain characteristics:
Boys are far more likely to be formally excluded than girls (Institute of
Education (University of London) and the National Foundation for
Educational Research ( NFER), 2013; McCluskey, Lloyd, Riddell, &
Fordyce, 2013). Recent Scottish data for exclusions puts boys at 6.8%
of the total school population with girls at 1.8% (PINS Scotland, 2012).
However girls and boys truant at roughly equal rates
, and girls are
often over-represented in data of those missing from school without
adequate explanation (Osler & Vincent, 2003; Stanley & Arora, 1998).
Those who are formally excluded are more likely to be living in poverty
(Institute of Education (University of London) and the National
Foundation for Educational Research ( NFER), 2013; Parsons, 2011;
PINS Scotland, 2012).
BME young people are disproportionately excluded in the middle years
of schooling, but in the past have also tended to be informally ‘written
off’ by some schools (Wright, Standen, John, German, & Patel, 2005).
Behaviour and absences of Traveller and Gypsy/Roma young people
are often not followed up and truancy can be brushed off as ‘cultural’
inevitabilities (Danaher, Kenny, & Leder, 2012; Derrington & Kendall,
Exclusion is generally, but not always, associated with lower levels of
formal educational attainment. In Scotland, the exclusion rate is four
times higher for those who have an additional support need (PINS
Scotland, 2012), while in Wales pupils with special educational needs
accounted for just over half of all exclusions in 2011/2012 (McCluskey
et al., 2013). There are, however, very academically able young people
in the ranks of those in alternative provision (Thomson & Russell,
Some students are disengaged from school, rather than formally
excluded. As Ross (2009) points out, disengagement from schooling
does not mean disengagement from education. This group is more
likely to be Black Caribbean and young people of mixed race (Wright,
Standen, & Patel, 2009).
The social characteristics appearing in this data do suggest that there may
well be a complex combination of social, individual and systemic educational
processes at work in the production of ‘at risk-ness’. This data also suggests
that simple and quick responses are unlikely to be the ‘answer’. (This issue is
taken up in section 2.)
Expectations of alternative programmes
What alternative education can achieve is clearly related to: the nature of the
programme, the time that young people are engaged in it, and the level of
support that they receive. Full time, long-term alternative schools – such as
free schools and some alternative academies - clearly intend that the young
people who are enrolled are able to undertake an educational programmes
leading to the same range of choices and life opportunities as in any other
school. But expectations are less clear-cut for shorter term and part time
OfSTED (2011) noted that schools gave multiple reasons for referring or
offering alternative learning options to enrolled students:
as part of a continuum of support for ‘challenging or vulnerable’
students, the main aim of which was to secure examination success
and suitable destination at end year 11
to counter disaffection and to capture interest
to extend types of experiences and learning on offer
to minimize the impact of some on the majority
as the end of the line – no alternative left.
The evaluators of the trial of school commissioning of alternative provision
(Institute of Education (University of London) and the National Foundation for
Educational Research ( NFER), 2013) also asked schools why they used
alternative education. Some two thirds suggested that it was different from
school – more personalized and had specialist staff – and thus did offer
something else to students. About a quarter said that participation had a
positive impact on students who were able to make a fresh start and improved
motivation, engagement and their behaviour. The remainder said that they
had explored all other avenues, that in-school provision was exhausted and
that they needed to reduce disruption within the school. Also included in this
latter category were some who said that alternative provision was the choice
made by the students/parent.
If schools vary in their expectations of alternative education, then it may be
difficult to devise common outcomes that will be satisfactory to all of them.
Equally it may be hard to develop a common quality framework that covers
this range of expectations.
ISSUES ARISING FROM LITERATURES ON ALTERNATIVE
PROVISION WHICH WERE TAKEN INTO THE RESEARCH
(1) What definition of alternative education should be used in a quality
(2) How should the mission of alternative programmes be described, and
how might this affect a quality framework?
(3) Does the language used to describe students and alternative
programmes matter? What terminology should be used in a quality
(4) Should the same expectations of, and criteria for, quality apply equally
to all types of alternative education, or should they be differentiated? If
so, on what basis?
HOW DOES ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION WORK?
There is a significant body of international research which addresses the
question of alternative education. There is remarkable congruence in the
research which reports what young people who are in alternative education
say about their experiences of traditional schools. There is a similar
congruence in the research on what are understood as the ‘best practices’ of
alternative education. The consistency of the data spreads over time and
place suggesting that these research findings should be taken seriously.
These findings are described in the first two parts of this section. The third
part of this section focuses on issues often raised in the literatures about
practice which are germane to the question of quality.
The experience of traditional schooling
Young people who are on the edges of formal schooling frequently tell
the curriculum on offer is not interesting or relevant
they are bored
teachers are disinterested in them
discipline is unfair
they have been bullied or ridiculed and the school has done nothing to
support them or has been unable to support them
there is no point in school as there are no jobs anyway.
(e.g. Carlile, 2013; Corrigan, 1977; Eckert, 1989; Hall, 2001; Kaplan, 2013;
Smyth & Hattam, 2004; Weis, 1990; Williamson, 2004; Willis, 1977)
Young people from BME heritage also talk about the racism that they have
experienced in school (e.g.Dance, 2002; Wright, Weekes, & McGlaughlin,
Researchers document the ways in which these student experiences are
usually not the result of individual, conscious bigotry and callousness. Rather,
research shows that these experiences result from policy agendas and
systems - of teacher education, of mandated curriculum and pedagogy, of
taken for granted school administrative and disciplinary-pastoral practices
(e.g. Archer, Hollingworth, & Mendick, 2010; Ball, Maguire, & Braun, 2011;
Gillborn & Youdell, 2000). Researchers suggest a variety of reforms that
schools might make in order to become more inclusive of all young people.
Some of these solutions require policy change, while others are possible
within individual schools. Some are drawn from the practical examples set by
alternative schools and programmes (e.g. Kraftl, 2013; Mills & McGregor,
2013; Smyth & McInerney, 2007; Woods & Woods, 2009; Wrigley, 2003).
Best practices in alternative education
A national survey conducted by the US Department of Education (Carver,
Lewis, & Tice, 2010) produced a list of findings about the alternative
education on offer to American young people ( see Figure 5).
– Finding One - Students want respect and acceptance for who they are and what
their abilities are.
– Finding Two - High school students have not outgrown the need to be cared for.
– Finding Three - Students have a life outside of high school. This must be taken
– Finding Four - Students will have a life after high school. They need guidance in
figuring out what they want to do, what they can do, and how they are going to do
– Finding Five - Students learn at different rates and in different ways. They need
staff who are patient with their learning and will persevere with the student until
learning has occurred.
– Finding Six - If high expectations are given to students, they will meet them, given
necessary and appropriate support.
– Finding Seven - High expectations translate into high goals
– Finding Eight - Success in the school creates school spirit and a pride of place.
Figure 5. US Department of Education survey of alternative education
These eight findings can be matched to research on best practices which
always include most of the following:
(1) young people experience and value relationships with staff who: listen;
are patient, prepared to have fun and are less formal; are fair, kind, and
firm about rules; are prepared to negotiate; have clear, high and
achievable expectations; see them as ‘teachable’ rather than as
deficient in some way.
(2) the curriculum is: relevant and connected to young people’s
experiences, needs, aspirations and interests; has clear goals tailored
to each individual; combines experiential learning with opportunities to
catch up and accelerate learning; builds knowledge, skills and habits of
mind; offers challenging tasks with real world applications; and uses
feedback and authentic forms of assessment to build belief in the
capacity to learn. There is flexibility, choice and routine; adult learning
principles are used rather than didactic instructional methods.
Students’ learning is carefully monitored and progress is celebrated.
(3) agency and independence are built through an offer to be and become
someone different. All young people are able to have a say in their own
learning, and about the overall programme and its operations.
(4) while the focus is always on learning, health and welfare services
support those young people who might benefit from them. There is a
family atmosphere in which young people are encouraged to discuss
problems and issues, to resolve conflicts and build resources to deal
with potential and actual life challenges.
(5) the alternative education on offer is smaller and more human than most
traditional schools. There are smaller class sizes and lower teacher-
student ratios. The facilities are generally good; ICTs are used to
facilitate learning, not substitute for teaching, mentoring and coaching.
Families/parents/carers are encouraged to become involved where
(6) staff are committed and highly skilled. They are well trained and
engage in ongoing professional development. They have a positive
orientation to behaviour and to participatory processes, are concerned
that young people feel safe and secure and are well versed in wholistic
learning and teaching.
These kinds of ‘best practices’ can be expressed as procedural principles
such as those developed by KPMG for the Victorian Department for Education
(see Figure 6).
Good practice principles:
Comprehensive, wrap around approach
Timely and accessible
Engage families and support networks
Approaches to education provision:
flexible learning options
Figure 6: KPMG good practice principles
Much of the work on best practice has been generated from case studies and
surveys of providers, young people and associated stake-holders in schools
and school districts/LAs. While there is little that might meet the test of an
RCT, the consistency across time and place does suggest the trustworthiness
of the findings. However, the key issue is that there is very little research
evidence which ties these practices to outcomes for students. This is because
there is relatively little research on outcomes per se; this is discussed further
in the next and last sections.
Issues in alternative education provision
It is not only important to consider what alternative education does well. It is
also important, particularly when thinking about effectiveness and quality, to
examine some of the concerns and critiques that appear in the literatures.
Thematic narrative analysis (e.g. 2nd chance, 2012; Aron, 2003; Batten & Russell, 1995;
Bielby, Judkins, O'Donnell, & McCrone, 2012; Bush & Jones, 2002; Connor, 2006; Daniels et
al., 2003; De Jong & Griffiths, 2006; Evans, 2010; Gable, Bullock, & Evans, 2006; Gazeley,
Marrable, Brown, & Boddy, 2013; Gutherson et al., 2011; Hallam & Rogers, 2008;
Hargreaves, 2011; Kendall et al., 2007; Kinder et al., 2000; K. Martin & White, 2012; Mills &
McGregor, 2010; Myconos, 2011; Nelson & O'Donnell, 2013; Quinn & Poirier, 2007; Quinn,
Poirier, Faller, Gable, & Tonelson, 2006; S. Ross & Gray, 2005; J. Taylor, 2009; Thomson &
Russell, 2007; Vulliamy & Webb, 2000; White, Martin, & Jeffes, 2012; Yohalem & Pittman,
Many of these concerns and critiques relate to issues already raised in the
first section. Those canvassed here are: (1) enrolment, (2) the academic
programme, (3) communication with schools, (4) reintegration into school, (5)
monitoring and evaluation, and (6) selection and training of staff.
There are three issues related to enrolment – (a) who is on the roll, (b) referral
processes and (c) barriers to access.
(a) Who is on the roll.
There is concern that particular groups of young people are not well
served by alternative education. The dominant enrolment in the UK is
white working class boys.
Working class girls in particular drift away from school (Osler & Vincent,
2003). BME youth and Traveller/Gypsy/Roma apparently achieve less
school success than other peers (as represented in achievement and
attendance data) and are also disproportionately present in exclusion
figures. One study (Parsons et al., 2004) found that Black Caribbean
students were 2.6 times more likely to be excluded than any other pupils.
Recent exclusion data in England (Department for Education, 2013b)
suggests that Black Caribbean young people are three times more likely to
be excluded, both permanently and for a fixed term, than the school
population as a whole. However, all of these young people appear much
less regularly in data on alternative programmes (Department for
Education and Skills (DfES), 2006; Derrington & Kendall, 2004; Osler,
2006; Wright et al., 2005). This raises questions about the reasons for this
anomaly, in particular whether the ‘problem’ lies primarily in the school
referral processes and/or in the young peoples’ perceptions of the ‘offer’
and/or in the actual operation of alternative education providers and
(b) Referral processes
Young people and their families often feel powerless in, and alienated
from, the administrative and organizational processes that are used to
manage referrals, transfers and monitoring progress. This is often in stark
contrast to the agency they feel within alternative education programmes.
(Foley & Pang, 2006; Franklin, 2002). There is however very little detailed
study of actual school referral processes.
(c) Barriers to access
Access and affordability to public transport, the willingness of young
people to leave familiar locations and the relative scarcity of alternative
provision in rural communities are all issues which affect who can actually
take up alternative education (Clark et al., 2010; Forlin & Tierney, 2006;
Foster, 2006; Johnston, Cooch, & Pollard, 2004).
(2) Academic programmes
There is some tension in the literatures on best practices about the degree to
which conforming to mandated curriculum standards is important. Clearly, for
bodies such as OfSTED, achieving the full number of GCSEs is of critical
importance. However, these are also important to young people in a situation
where employers and further education providers look for this qualification.
Some researchers worry about this focus on this kind of qualification. They
(e.g. Bullis, Moran, Benz, Todus, & Johnson, 2002; Burton, 2007; Clegg,
Stackhouse, FInch, Murphy, & Nicholls, 2009; Kerka, 2007; Lloyd, Stead, &
Kendrick, 2001; Munn, Lloyd, & Cullen, 2000) stress the importance of
ensuring that young people have
literacy and numeracy competencies such that they can make viable
choices about what kind of educational pathway they wish to follow
emotional wellbeing in order to manage their wider life context
social ‘life skills’ that underpin not only educational progress but also
Others (e.g.McDill, Natriello, & Pallas, 1986; Sunderman, Kim, & Orfield,
2005) also worry about valuing most what is measured. They have long
warned that ‘standards agendas’ can be very off-putting to young people ‘at
risk’ if it is only the formal curriculum is seen as important. They remind us
that if pedagogies and school practices are not changed then the result is
likely to be the same or greater, inequity.
One group of researchers (e.g. Ecclestone & Hayes, 2008; Mills, McGregor, &
Muspratt, 2012) have been concerned about ‘dumbing down’ in alternative
education. They are concerned about assumptions that all young people in
alternative education are in need of remedial support, vocational options
and/or a largely practical approach to learning. There is some evidence in the
UK that young people in alternative education are often offered a menu of
Level 1 courses, rather than level 2 or beyond (Institute of Education
(University of London) and the National Foundation for Educational Research
( NFER), 2013). Thomson and Russell (2007) met numbers of young people
with portfolios of achievement certificates from a plethora of credentialing
agencies: these did not translate either into GCSE or into access to further
education. They also found, as did OfSTED (2011), that young people in full
time alternative provision were offered narrow, rather than comprehensive,
GCSE options. The vocational education on offer was also highly gender-
specific with girls either being offered hair and beauty or childcare, or the
opportunity to be a tiny minority in male-dominated bricklaying, construction,
engineering and outdoor courses (Kilpatrick, McCarten, & McKeown, 2007;
Russell & Thomson, 2011).
We can conclude from these literatures that the question of achieving the
educational entitlement of students in alternative education is vexed. It is not
as simple as requiring particular standards to be met. Re-engaging those who
are seriously disenchanted with learning and with formal education systems
and meeting their health and welfare needs, as well – and at the same time –
as supporting them to achieve the kinds of educational qualification that
matter, is a far from straightforward task.
(3) Communication with schools
Alternative education providers might need/want to communicate with
If they are receiving students via referral procedures
If they are offering part-time learning options for students who attend
school for the remainder of the time
If they offer short-term placements from which students are intended to
return to their schools
If they are a medium to long-term placement from which students can go
directly to sixth form colleges or further education programmes.
The communication referred to here is two-way, with alternative providers
both receiving and giving information.
There is not a great deal in the research literatures about school-alternative
provider communication, although many official reports make
recommendations (e.g. Centre for Social Justice, 2011; Davies, 2012; House
of Commons Education Committee, 2011). Jurisdictional guidelines on the
provision of alternative education offer quite specific protocols for
. What research there is suggests that there are both mixed
views and mixed practices in communication between schools and alternative
providers (e.g. Institute of Education (University of London) and the National
Foundation for Educational Research ( NFER), 2013; Thomson & Russell,
2007). McCluskey recently led an evaluation of EOTAS in Wales (McCluskey
et al., 2013) and developed some recommended principles for enhanced
communication and reintegration (Figure 7).
Clear protocols agreed between mainstream school and EOTAS
setting, that specify responsibilities both of EOTAS setting and of
Comprehensive assessment information provided by mainstream
school and by EOTAS on return.
Pre-specified length of time in EOTAS (in one authority there was a
built-in flexibility to support one further attempt at reintegration if the
first attempt was unsuccessful).
Contact maintained with mainstream school, often one day a week,
so pupil does not lose touch with their peer group and teachers.
Specific help for students with literacy/numeracy and or/
maintenance of subjects from mainstream.
Recognition within mainstream schools that reintegration would
involve changes in their approaches as well as changes on the part
of the pupil.
Flexibility by schools in making arrangements for pupils on their
See for example ICAN in South Australia http://www.ican.sa.edu.au.
Figure 7: Communication and reintegration (McCluskey et al., 2013)
Alternative education providers may well have concerns about receiving
extensive dossiers on young people which provide pre-determined judgments
about problems and proposed solutions. Some providers prefer to treat each
young person as a ‘fresh start’ rather than someone who arrives as an already
well-documented ‘case’. On the other hand, other providers do want to know
as much as possible about the young people for whom they will be
Alternative education providers may be very happy to provide schools with
detailed reports about students’ progress and achievement, or they may see
that their obligation for reporting is primarily to the student and their
parent/carer, or they may see that giving the kinds of information that schools
request is an encroachment on their autonomy. And of course, schools that
operate with an ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude may not be easy to
communicate with. OfSTED (2011) not only found this to be the case, but also
that when schools did receive information about students’ achievements, this
wasn’t necessarily taken into account in school reporting processes or in
school decisions about the student’s future. We can speculate that while
service contracts may resolve some communication issues between providers
and schools, there may also be continuing tensions.
(4) Reintegration into school
One of the alternative education pathways in use is short to medium term full-
time alternatives. These aim to provide: a break in long-term patterns of
disengagement, disruption and/or failure; a new experience of success and an
opportunity to be and become someone else; health and welfare support to
address needs; and either remedial or accelerated support for learning. In this
kind of provision the return to school or the transition to another option is
The research literatures are mixed on the success of young people returning
to the schools that referred them to alternative education. In a few instances
reintegration failed because providers and students have not been able to
access relevant services (OfSTED, 2011), in others because schools have
been unable to implement new appropriate supports into their programmes
(Jolivette, McDaniel, Sprague, Swain-Bradbury, & Parks Ennis, 2012; Lumby,
2013). Some studies note that schools have been largely unable to match the
quality of relationships so valued by pupils in alternative education settings
(Hilton, 2006; Lown, 2005, 2007). The response of peers to students re-
entering school is also very important. Peer issues range from lack of support
for the young person being ‘someone different’ to harassment and bullying
(Lloyd & Padfield, 1996).
An older UK study on reintegration (GHK Consulting, Holden McAllister
Patrtnership, & IPSOS Public Affairs, 2004) noted three kinds of barriers to
(1) school reluctance, limited awareness of students’ needs, insufficient
resources, negative aspects of the school environment and the lack of
alternative options within the national curriculum
(2) poor contact and communication and some role confusion between
individuals, agencies and schools, as well as a lack of continuity of
(3) external barriers, including lack of support from parent/carers,
ineffective assessment procedures, poorly planned/timed reintegration
and limited access to and/or continuity of provision of external services.
These findings contrast with early ‘managed moves’ schemes which were
characterised by a full service provision, preparation of a detailed
development plan for each student, and allocation of designated teachers
responsible for the student and the overall implementation of the plan and for
liaison between agencies and individuals (Thavarajah, 2010; Vincent, Harris,
Thomson, & Toalster, 2007). This kind of ‘wrap around’ organisation now
often appears in recommendations about ‘good practice’. Some researchers
(e.g. Milbourne, 2005) warn that this kind of individualized multiagency
approach can neglect structural and organizational issues which contribute to
the difficulties experienced by young people and their families.
The notion of reintegration is difficult to separate from the important debate
about whether returning to mainstream education is the major purpose of
alternative provision (see previous section), with some evidence that some
young people benefit from long-term alternative education, and that others
can successfully move from alternative education to further education and
training and/or work (see following section).
(5) Monitoring and evaluation
Evaluation and monitoring are organised around the goals and expectations
of providers. National and international researchers (e.g. Aron, 2006;
Gutherson et al., 2011; Thomson & Russell, 2009; White et al., 2012) suggest
that alternative providers are not always good at stating what are their
programme goals, their expectations for students, and how these will be
monitored and measured.
OfSTED (2011) were particularly concerned about the variable nature of
evaluation practices and the lack of information available to schools about the
‘track record’ of alternative education providers. Thomson and Russell (2007)
observed that most providers in their study did undertake evaluation,
generally that required by funders. They noted that busy workers often found
it difficult to find the time to collect and analyse anything but the most basic
data, but many were interested in evaluation. They were particularly keen on
possibilities of evaluation that might track young people after they left their
programmes: they had no resources to do this kind of longitudinal work.
Thomson and Russell argued that the lack of any common evaluative
framework or foci for alternative education meant that aggregating and
comparing data across provisions was impossible, and was also a hindrance
to ensuring that statutory entitlements were being met.
But a solution to the monitoring and evaluation problem is not simple.
Because alternative programmes have a wide range of educational, social,
cultural, therapeutic and vocational offers and expectations, it is not a
straightforward matter to design an evaluative framework that allows for
difference as well as for common issues. It is worth noting however that in
many US school districts, and in some Australian locations that programmes
that do not contribute to a common database cannot be funded and/or
commissioned. In England OfSTED (2011) state that all alternative provision
should be inspected.
There is of course a question about whether evaluation should always be
designed from the point of the provider, or the school. There is very little
research which examines what young people want from their involvement in
alternative education, and what their aspirations might mean for evaluation.
Some providers do encourage young people to set goals, but this is not the
same as asking them about their expectations of what providers will do.
(6) Selecting and training staff
Some US school districts require staff who work in alternative provision to
possess the highest levels of teacher qualifications as well as additional
training in relevant areas such as counseling, special education and
therapeutic approaches (Foley & Pang, 2006). However, many US states
also face chronic shortages of staff and have developed a range of
responses, many of which are variations of on-the-job training (McLeskey,
Tyler, & Flippin, 2004). This is much more like the situation in England and
Northern Ireland where alternative education providers may employ teachers,
youth workers, social workers and/or health workers and then offer some kind
of on-site CPD support.
There is very little research which focuses directly on staff in alternative
education provision, other than the copious examinations of their practice.
One exception is the study by McGregor and Mills (2012) who were told by
staff working in alternative provision that moving into the sector had reignited
their sense of vocation and commitment. Both OfSTED (2011) and Thomson
and Russell (2007) noted that professional development was an issue for
many staff. Thomson and Russell also reported that small providers in
particular found it very difficult to run and/or pay for staff professional
development and that there were few opportunities for staff across
programmes and providers to get together to share experience and expertise.
Kilpatrick et al (2007) also noted issues of stigma and uncertainty of
employment despite the commitment of staff to their work.
There appears to be no systematic UK study of the employment processes or
conditions of staff across alternative education services. Given the critical
importance of staff to the success of programmes, this is clearly an area for
(7) Funding stability
While there has been some examination in England of the very different cost
structures of alternative education (see OfSTED 2011), there is less
discussion of the ways in which costs impact on what is on offer and who has
Some research (e.g. Aron 2003, 2006, Te Riele, 2012) emphasises the
importance of funding sources; they see this as an indicator of the stability of
programmes. Uncertainty about funding can lead to undesirable
the pressure to find ongoing sources of funds can impact on the time
that staff in alternative programmes have to actually undertake their
providers cannot advertise their programmes if they are not sure of
if staff are not sure that their employment will continue they may start to
look for other work
schools cannot schedule alternative education options if they cannot
rely on providers.
Finding for charities is a particular issue in the UK at present
. The current
evaluation of the trial of commissioning in eleven local authorities (Institute of
Education (University of London) and the National Foundation for Educational
Research ( NFER), 2013) reports that there are currently instances of
alternative education provision having to close at short notice, leaving schools
and students without planned-for services. They, together with OfSTED
(2011) register unease at the potential for schools to choose alternative
education on the basis of cost (c.f. Thomson and Russell, 2007).
ISSUES ARISING FROM THE LITERATURES ON ALTERNATIVE
EDUCATION MAKING A DIFFERENCE TAKEN INTO THE
(1) Should a quality framework use a common list of best practices?
(2) If so, which are most important to include?
(3) Should concerns about alternative education practice also inform a
(4) Are any of these issues of concern more important than others?
See the blog maintained by New Philanthropy Capital for ongoing discussion of funding
issues, including a report of the merger of two major alternative education providers,
Fairbridge and The Princes Trust.
QUALITY IN ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION
The questions that educators, young people and their families and policy
makers all ask about alternative education inevitably go to quality. Is what is
on offer any good? How do we know it will ‘work’? What will it achieve?
As already noted, there is not yet a great deal that research tells us in answer
to these questions. This section canvasses what it is we might learn from
research, and then goes on to consider how the quality question might
become part of the work of the alternative education sector itself.
Researching the outcomes of alternative education
Many researchers have lamented the lack of available data on the outcomes
of alternative education. There is a great deal of case study research across
alternative education programmes - this largely focuses on best practices.
There is also research which evaluates individual programmes, and a little of
this is longitudinal (e.g. Carswell, Hanlon, O'Grady, Watts, & Pothong, 2009;
Hallam, Rogers, Rhamie, & Shaw, 2007; Russell, Simmons, & Thompson,
2011). However, there are very few large-scale systematic studies on the
outcomes for cohorts of young people who participate in alternative education.
One of the reasons for this is the sheer difficulty of tracking young people who
have attended alternative education programmes. While it is possible to
ascertain what their intentions are at the point when they leave a programme
it is often difficult to maintain contact with them.
There is potential for the use of large longitudinal data sets in tracking young
people in alternative education. One Australian study (Polidano, Tabasso, &
Tseng, 2012) used the Longitudinal Studies of Australian Youth (LSAY) data
set to examine three cohorts of early school leavers and their post-school
trajectories. These findings are also potentially pertinent to a younger age
group; they noted that “programs that encourage an early return to study and
programs that develop post-school career plans may be more effective than
programs that concentrate on improving numeracy and literacy scores” (p.2).
What data there is about outcomes largely suggests that alternative education
is good at changing patterns of attendance, engagement and behaviour,
perhaps because wellbeing is a precursor to improvements in academic
attainment (Clark et al., 2010; de Velasco et al., 2008; Nichols & Steffy, 1999;
Nichols & Utesch, 2010; Te Riele, 2012). Aron (2006) cites one study which
suggests that non-school academically oriented youth programmes were able
to improve some overall educational outcomes, but were better able to affect
academic-related outcomes e.g. skills, attendance, goals, and credits.
Students from programmes that had the strongest academic focus were better
at achieving stronger academic outcomes in the longer term. Aron concluded
from her meta-analysis that longer periods of participation in alternative
education and more frequent participation have longer lasting effects. In a
rare comparative study, Mainwaring (2010) suggests that PRUs are not as
able to provide young people with a robust sense of ‘possible selves’ as
Outcomes are of course clearly related to the quality of provision and the
support for young people as they make a transition from alternative education
either back to a school, or into other education or training (Lumby, 2013). The
evaluation of the Back on Track pilots in England (White et al., 2012)
suggests a range of outcomes from efforts to provide better coordination
between schools, alternative education and destination providers:
…increased contentment and the emergence of more positive outlooks;
increased self-confidence and self-esteem; the development of a greater
sense of responsibility and maturity and other behavioural improvements.
Changes have also been observed in many of the young people … manifest
in their interactions with others, including their improved capacity to
communicate effectively and appropriately with a wide range of people,
including parents/carers, peers, alternative provision staff, school staff and
adults in general. Young people have experienced a range of positive post-
pilot progressions, including re-integration to mainstream school, progression
to further education and training and employment. However, retention at
subsequent destinations in some cases remains an area for development and
across the pilots, not all young people secured positive destinations. (p. iv)
Young people’s attitudes and external support are also important in
determining outcomes. Daniels and his team (Daniels et al., 2003) examined
the trajectories of 193 young people permanently excluded between the ages
of 13-16. After two years, 50% of them were engaged in education, training or
employment. These young people: believed in their own abilities; had ongoing
support from a key worker; had supportive family members/friends who
helped them to ‘network’; and felt that their permanent exclusion was
unjustified. Daniels et al note that “where young people consistently refused to
engage with or proved themselves unable to avail themselves of the services
offered, then post-exclusion outcomes were disappointing” (p.vi).
In Northern Ireland, Kilpatrick, McCarten and McKeown (2007) conducted a
longitudinal study of young people, in both compulsory and post-compulsory
years of schooling, enrolled in alternative secondary education provision.
Their initial sample was 318. The researchers worked with paid ‘peer’
researchers over a two and a half year period, and conducted three ‘swoops’
to find out what the cohort of young people were doing. After six months, they
were able to contact about half of the original group, but this dropped by the
third follow-up to about a third. However, the findings did suggest some
success for the group that they were able to contact. After six months, well
over three quarters were engaged in employment, training or further
education but this fell by 12% some six months later. Eighteen months later
about a third of the remaining group were unemployed. Like the Daniel’s
(2003) study, the results in Northern Ireland also suggest that family support,
or replacement support, is important, as is the young person’s sense of
agency. This study also showed that the minority of girls in alternative
education were significantly more likely become ‘inactive’ than boys; some
become parents and unavailable for work, education or further training.
Outcomes also differ by group of young people. It is not reasonable to insist
that all young people achieve the same outcomes. A DCFS commissioned
study in 2009 (Pirrie, Macleod, Cullen, & McCluskey, 2009) investigated the
histories and destinations of 24 young people permanently excluded from
alternative provision. These young people had long histories of difficulties in
education, had ‘statemented’ special needs and were involved with a range of
health and welfare agencies. While this was only a small study in which
overall destination statistics are too small to be significant, the careful life
history analysis conducted by the researchers points not only to considerable
gaps in provision, time delays and fault lines between providers, it also
indicates the importance of achieving “ a balance … between improving
performance in external examinations and enhancing young people’s social
and emotional well-being” (p. 62). It is perhaps for this reason that Pink
suggests that it is important to look for the ways in which alternative education
‘contributes to building a positive or negative biography’ (Pink, 2012, p. 21).
Outcomes may also change over time. There is some evidence that some
alternative programmes do assist young people in the short term but that
changes are not maintained when they return to the unchanged context in
which they previously experienced conflict and/or lack of success (Bowey &
McLaughlin, 2006; Carswell, Hanlon, Watts, & O'Grady, 2012; Cox, 1999). In
the case of vocational programmes, it may be external contextual factors
which hinder achievement of programme goals (Russell, Simmons, &
Thompson, 2010). There are also often powerful ‘pull’ factors on young
people which schools and alternative education providers find difficult to
counteract (Scott & Spencer, 2013). However, these longitudinal studies also
show patchy and ineffective reintegration strategies (Kilpatrick et al., 2007).
It is also important to look for unintended outcomes. There is some evidence
that alternative education programmes - contra their mission, student
expectations and staff beliefs - can actually increase exclusion and
segregation (Joniak, 2005; Meo & Parker, 2004). Both Joniak and the Meo
and Parker studies show that the use of withdrawal, silencing and non-
engagement are counter-productive methods of punishment which further
alienated young people, rather than assisted their re-engagement.
The overall lack of research data on outcomes makes it difficult for education
systems, schools and alternative education providers to think about the quality
of provision. It is certainly further inducement to embed robust evaluation and
quality measures into existing provision.
Monitoring and measuring quality
In education, there are generally three approaches to quality –
(1) a standards approach: this works with a set of benchmarks developed by
the purchaser/commissioner, to be applied universally
(2) a fit for purpose framework: this uses criteria for quality, defined by the
provider and user groups in relation to the purpose of the programme
(3) a value for money approach: Audit Commissions typically measure inputs
against outputs of comparable services.
Judgments about quality are made through: accreditation processes such as
kite mark and ISO schemes; assessment conducted internally/externally to
arrive at a score of effectiveness; and an audit approach which provides
external verification of the internal quality assurance processes used (e.g.
International Institute for Educational Planning, 2011; Kis, 2005). Accreditation
processes typically use a fit for purpose approach while assessment can use
either a standards approach or fit for purpose, although it is more typically the
In order to develop both a standards or fit for purpose quality approach it is
necessary to arrive at a statement about desired outcomes. This section
considers outcomes further and then goes on to look at the two different
quality approaches as they might apply to alternative education.
What outcomes matter?
In general, when the success of alternative education is discussed in the
policy and research literatures, a mix of educational attainment, destinations,
well-being and social competencies are nominated. For example, the
Victorian Education Department Australia (KPMG, 2009) uses three broad
outcome areas: student learning; student engagement and well being; and
student pathways and transition.
In its guidance for English schools, the Department for Education (2013a)
places heavier emphasis on academic achievement and destinations than on
other areas; the weighting of the academic is also a feature of quality
frameworks in many US states. The DfE states that alternative education
must achieve the following outcomes for young people:
good academic attainment on par with mainstream schools –
particularly in English, Maths and Science (including IT) – with
appropriate accreditation and qualifications
proper identification of specific personal, social and academic needs of
pupils that are then met, in order that they can overcome any specific
barriers to attainment
improved pupil motivation, self-confidence attendance and
engagement with education
clearly defined objectives, including the next steps following the
placement such as reintegration into mainstream education, further
education, training or employment.
When alternative education programmes register with local authorities, they
generally nominate what academic programmes they offer. Other outcomes
that organisations might find equally important are often not foregrounded.
(1) A quality standards approach
In England and Wales, quality in schools is monitored and evaluated through
a standards based approach. National attainment data and other nationally
determined data such as attendance are combined with various benchmarks
of organizational process to provide a framework for internal assessment.
This is then subject to external assessment via OfSTED/ESTYN inspection. At
present some alternative education provision is inspected, while some is not.
The new devolved school commissioning process in England may bring
The English approach is similar to the process used in some US states where
there are state mandated standards that all educational organisations must
meet, including alternative education.
(2) A fit for purpose approach
Some US states use a fit-for-purpose approach to alternative education. It is
thus possible to find in the research literatures material that has been
generated to help alternative education providers determine for themselves
what their anticipated outcomes and ideal processes might be. For example,
Martin and Halperin (2006), US based resarchers, opt for a series of
questions as a guide:
Do the schools and community programs help youth and young adults
see themselves as successful learners?
Do they support the positive development of youth who have previously
experienced school failure?
Do they move out-of-school and disconnected youth into a position
where they can better compete for good jobs with decent wages that
can support a family?
Do they offer learners the tools to cope with a rapidly changing
economy and to take advantage of opportunities to continue their
education beyond high school?
Do they help their graduates avoid self-destructive and antisocial
Do graduates understand and exercise their responsibilities, not only
as good workers and parents, but also as citizens in a democratic
society? (p. 163)
Martin and Halperin’s questions require both summative answers, as well as
process descriptions. Such process descriptions might be benchmarked
against ‘best practice’ or against the judgment of the organisation about what
‘good’ might be.
Some US school districts and alternative education providers have worked a
fit for purpose approach into a set of quality indicators. For example, the Iowa
Association of Alternative Education provides its members with an extensive
checklist of process and outcome quality indicators divided into several
categories: Philosophy; Administration; Students; Parents/Guardians; Staff;
Curriculum and Instruction; Vocational/Technical/Career; Assessment;
Personal/Social/Lifeskills; Community and Social services; Facilities; and
Signals that the learning alternative/s may not be successful. See figure 8 for
a sample of one category of indicators.
1 Physical facilities adequately accommodate the needs of staff and students to accomplish
the established goals with high quality.
2 Adequate space is available to accommodate group activities without interfering with
3 Provisions are made for technology to complement the management of learning.
4 Accommodations are made for "privacy areas" for counseling and the delivery of community
5 Facilities meet state and local fire and safety regulations.
6 Facilities are accessible to all and meet accessibility requirements as prescribed by law.
7 Food services are provided near or within the facilities. Food services reflect high quality
nutrition and accommodate personal student needs and desires for nutrition.
8 Facilities accommodate student fitness development, or alternatives for fitness development
are organized within the community/ies to complement the learning
Figure 8: Iowa Alternative Education Association quality indicators
The UK educational charity CfBT has taken an interest in a fit for purpose
approach. Thinking in particular of the range of alternative education providers
within the country, and the current policy context in England, they conducted
an international literature review (Gutherson et al., 2011) of publicly available
documents. Their aim was to generate a quality framework which had the
potential to underpin accreditation, via a kite-mark approach. Both charities
and state-funded organisations could apply for the kite mark.
The CfBT approach to quality combines criteria about inputs/processes with a
range of outcome measures (See fig 9). Organisations seeking kite-mark
accreditation would be asked to provide evidence about how they met each
criteria in the same way that schools now apply for Arts Mark, Healthy
Schools status and the like.
High standards and expectations – an ethos of achievement
Small schools. Small group sizes and high staff/learner ratios
Appropriate needs assessment of child/young person
Clearly identified goals within a challenging and flexible curriculum
Highly trained staff able to deliver programme fidelity
‘Caring and knowledgeable’ staff with ongoing professional development and
support for staff
Strong and effective partnerships
Strong active participation of families and community
Effective leadership and professional autonomy
Appropriate and accessible location
Support beyond the lifetime of the intervention
Monitoring and assessment
Incentives and rewards
Integration of research and practice
YOUNG PERSON OUTCOMES
Attitudinal: attendance; confidence; motivation; reduction in offending behaviours;
Positive contribution to school or community life
Personal and social development: self esteem; emotional well-being; health
awareness; developing and sustaining relationships
Life skills: the capacity to act upon the world, exercise judgment and to make
constructive contributions; communication; coping with authority; working with
others; leadership and organizational skills; improved ability to develop and
maintain relationships; reducing in need for ongoing support
Academic development: a sense of accomplishment accompanied by recognition
and valuation by others; recognition of success; accreditation
Progression: sense of direction; positive destination
COMMUNITY AND SOCIAL OUTCOMES
Reduction in criminal activity
Reduction in social exclusion
Improvements in partnerships
Figure 9: CfBT Quality framework
The CfBT approach does imply that a set of benchmarks or indicators sit
behind each of the categories; this would be needed in order to decide
whether the process and evidence provided was sufficient and suitable.
Issues in monitoring and measuring the quality of alternative education
Regardless of what approach to quality is taken, there are still difficulties in
evaluating quality in alternative education which require additional
consideration. These include:
(1) Who decides what counts as a valuable outcome?
Most of the literature on the outcomes of alternative education offers strongly
futures-oriented goals of the kind that policy-makers, education systems and
schools prefer - educational achievement, wellbeing, access to further
education and training. However, reports from young people about their
experiences in alternative education stress everyday differences –
relationships, a sense of agency and identity, activities that are both enjoyable
– things that are in the present. Staff are also often able to talk about the
differences between the young person when they arrive, and observable
changes that have happened during their time in the programme (Callwood,
2013; Goodley & Clough, 2004; Mills et al., 2012; Ogg, 2012; Short, 2011; Te
Riele, 2006). The difference between these official and professional-
participant perspectives suggests that there may be some mileage in thinking
about immediate, medium term and longer term outcomes, as well as making
sure that what counts as an outcome is inclusive of the full range of
(2) When is an outcome achieved?
Some outcomes of alternative education may be immediate. Others may take
time to be revealed, while some ‘effects’ may be apparent in the short term
but not ‘hold’ over longer periods.
Variation in outcomes can perhaps be understood through a lens of the
agency of the young person. Young people change in part because they
simply grow up, but change is always in response to context. Education
provides resources which can be, and are, used in specific contexts at
specific times. This varies, it is not uniform across all young people. Imagine a
young person who does not go onto further education when they leave an
alternative provision, but returns to graduate at a much later stage; they
attribute this decision to their experience in alternative education but also ‘the
time being right’
. At what point would we ‘find’ this outcome? The connection
between time and context makes the point at which outcomes can be
measured relatively difficult.
(3) Who decides if an outcome is reasonable and achievable?
As noted in the previous section, schools sometimes want alternative
programmes to offer a quick fix; this is often not possible with identities,
behaviours and dispositions which have been a long time in the making
(Hlady, 2013). Funders can also be unrealistic about what they expect
programmes to achieve – health and well-being from short-term community
arts projects, remedial literacy and numeracy from a few weeks involvement
in environmental and vocational education for example. It is important for
anticipated outcomes to be tailored to the achievable goals of the specific
(4) Should all young people be expected to achieve the same
Despite the apparent homogeneity of young people currently in alternative
provision (a majority of white working class boys), this enrolment pattern may
not always be the case. And even with this population, they still have vastly
different interests, needs, knowledge and skills, aspirations and contexts. Any
homogeneous set of outcomes across this population is likely to miss the
mark for many. The issue is how to allow for difference and common
entitlement at the same time (Gutherson et al., 2011).
(5) Should all alternative programmes be expected to achieve the same
outcomes regardless of duration or offer?
The same argument applies to programmes. With so much variation of time,
place and offer, it sees unreasonable to assume that all programmes will
achieve the same thing. Nevertheless, they might all operate according to
common principles and/or some common processes.
(6) Can alternative education be held solely responsible for outcomes?
How can what happens in alternative education be separated from other
factors? How can outcomes be attributed to one educational experience when
Unpublished data from author’s work in progress
students often have multiple ongoing educational experiences and complex
All of these issues make the development of a quality framework, regardless
of type, very difficult.
ISSUES ARISING FROM LITERATURES ON THE QUALITY OF
ALTERNATIVE PROVISION TAKEN INTO THE RESEARCH
(1) What outcomes should be expected of alternative programmes? Should
these be common to all?
(2) How should they be measured and assessed?
(3) Should there be a quality framework for alternative education?
(4) What kind of quality approach should be used – standards, audit or fit for
(5) Who should be involved in developing it?
(6) Would a kite-mark approach be useful for the sector and for schools? How
would it work?
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