Lack of AP settings leading to unsuitable placements for children, Ofsted warns

Fiona Simpson
Monday, February 5, 2024

Children who are unable to attend mainstream school are placed in unsuitable alternative provision (AP) due to a lack of capacity for young people with specific needs, Ofsted has warned.

AP is designed to support children who cannot attend mainstream school. Picture: Adobe Stock
AP is designed to support children who cannot attend mainstream school. Picture: Adobe Stock

A report into how education, health and care partners work together to commission and oversee AP, by the inspectorate and the Care Quality Commission (CQC), highlights that “local authority leaders explain that the limited choice of AP resulted in placements of convenience, rather than identifying a provision that was carefully tailored to a child’s needs”.

AP is commissioned by schools or local authorities when pupils have been excluded or cannot attend mainstream school, for example due to complex medical, social or emotional needs.

Currently, not all AP needs to be registered or inspected, meaning there is lack of oversight of children and young people in unregistered AP, according to Ofsted.

The report finds greater concern around children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) being placed in unsuitable settings, stating: “One parent reported that their child was put into the wrong provision. They were placed in one for pupils with social, emotional and mental health needs as no provision for autism was available.”

It also notes an increasing number of children placed in settings far from home “when suitable provision was not available in the local area”.

“This led to inconveniently long journey times,” as well as parents reporting long waiting lists for transport to be arranged, it adds.

Other factors found to be contributing to the placement of children in unsuitable AP settings include a practice by some local authorities of “block-buying” AP placements in advance to secure local placements and better plan budgets.

“Some local authorities had contractual agreements in place with providers. This meant that decisions were largely pre-determined. For example, a provider might have to admit a certain number of permanently excluded children,” the report states.

It also lists high turnover of staff in the local area as a driver behind the use of unsuitable placements due to cases being passed on to new staff with no prior knowledge of the child.

Ofsted also highlights an increase in parents advocating for “placements with limited educational elements” since the pandemic.

Examples of such settings listed in the report include “equine and therapeutic care”. Authors add that the issue is being exacerbated by “a growing market of unregistered providers. These often advertised directly to parents and carers”.

The report also states that the lack of national standards and clarity around who is responsible for AP commissioning and oversight are leading to inconsistent outcomes for children and young people.

It offers a series of recommendations to local and national government as well as education providers include to improve outcomes for children in AP settings.

These include:

  • better guidance on the purposes of AP and potential indicators of success.

  • improved oversight of certain groups of children and young people in AP, including through the introduction of a proportionate registration and inspection regime for all AP.

  • greater consistency and rigour in decision making around individual AP placements and subsequent monitoring and evaluation arrangements.

The report also includes areas of good practice and notes that some local authorities have already begun to implement recommendations put forward in the government’s SEND and AP Improvement Plan which aims to give the AP system “a clear purpose”.

According to latest DfE statistics, the number of pupils in state-funded AP schools in 2022/23 increased by 13 per cent to 13,200 compared with the previous year.

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