In July, Kiran Gill, founder of The Difference, gave evidence to the Education Select Committee’s session on the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable children. She warned that the trauma that vulnerable children had faced during school closures would lead to a rapid spike in exclusions. The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has expressed similar warnings about exclusions and the struggles that children may face when adjusting back in school.
Last year, it was reported that the number of permanent exclusions from schools in England has reached its highest point in nearly a decade, to 42 children a day being expelled. If this trend is likely to continue, fuelled further by six months of school closures, the need for more high-quality alternative provision (AP) has never been greater.
The Timpson Review highlighted the urgent need to invest in capital funding to expand AP. But the current process only allows new AP free schools to be proposed in areas where the local authority has submitted a specification to the Department and committed to commissioning the places. This is why NSN has been calling for a new centrally run AP wave.
AP free schools are some of the most innovative providers in the sector, frequently collaborating with mainstream schools to meet a need in the local area, and offer a lifeline to the most vulnerable pupils.
Schools like The Boxing Academy, which empowers pupils through routines and the discipline of boxing; Harmonize AP Academy, that mixes music and drama with woodwork and cooking to provide new opportunities to students; or Derby Pride Academy, that blends BTECs and GCSEs to amplify students’ strengths and build self-esteem, in partnership with Derby County Football Club. All of these, and several others, are using the benefits of the free schools programme to improve the life chances of children so often forgotten.
In too many communities, good alternative provision simply is not available. A wave of AP free schools that can collaborate with mainstream provisions, local authorities, and communities can do much to stem the long-term issues likely to appear post-pandemic and ensure that all vulnerable and disadvantaged children have access to a high quality education, excellent teachers and experience a culture of high expectation.