Now is the time to invest in AP and special schools

NSN's, Policy and Press Officer, Will Colahan explores the success of AP and special free schools and why we need more of them.

Our education system has gaps that cannot continue to go unnoticed. Throughout this election little time has been spent looking at how we can support our most vulnerable- children in special and alternative provision (AP) schools.  

The availability of provision is a postcode lottery. There are 11 local authorities with no Good or Outstanding state-funded AP and in the North-East there is no option to attend an Outstanding state-funded AP. At NSN, we surveyed open free schools and asked if they felt there was a need for additional AP places in their areas – all responded in the affirmative. 28% of unregistered schools are AP’s, this means vulnerable children are at risk of being educated in schools not accountable to the Department for Education or Ofsted. We know that excluded children are at much higher risk of being drawn into criminal activity and gangs, yet many of them are being educated in unregulated settings.

For special schools, the challenge is on a similar scale. A report from the Education Select Committee earlier this year highlighted significant issues in the provision of support for pupils with special educational needs (SEN). Families are often forced to wade through mountains of bureaucracy and face limited choices for their children. The total number of children with statements of SEN or Education, Health and Care plans (EHCP) has increased year on year since 2010. Most recently between May 2018 and May 2019, it increased by a further 11% and the quantity of provision is playing catch up to attempt to meet this demand.

Perhaps most frustrating is that we know properly regulated state-funded AP works. You only have to look at some of the amazing AP free schools like Harmonize Academy in Liverpool, where 88% of students achieved 5 or more GCSE’s; or Derby Pride, where 80% of pupils leave with 5 GCSEs. Moreover, there are innovative models across the country like the Boxing Academy in London where pupils use the sport to re-engage with their learning.

Likewise, there are special free schools delivering life-changing opportunities. Churchill Special Free School in Suffolk was one of the first special schools in the country to receive the World Class School Quality Mark. In Manchester, Pioneer House High School boasts an impressive record of helping student’s secure long-term sustainable employment through applied learning.

An outstanding AP and special sector is integral to our schools. The specialised support offered is truly transformative to lives of many children. The free school programme has allowed for a significant growth in the number of special and AP free schools and now there are 34 special and 42 AP free schools already open, with a further 54 special and 12 AP in the pre-opening phase. Up to 39 new free schools will also be approved next year.

It is an outstanding achievement that the free school programme has delivered over 16,500 new places for the most vulnerable pupils. But we know that parents, schools and LAs are calling out for more.

The time for action is now. We urge the next Government to launch a dedicated AP free school wave as a matter of urgency, so outstanding AP can be accessed by all communities across the country. We also want to see investment in a new wave of special free schools to deliver new places for pupils in the most need of high-quality education and support.

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