by Alessandro Capozzi, Executive Headteacher, Academy21
Capacity is an increasingly common theme in conversations about alternative provision (AP), and rightly so.
We know that systemic factors such as limited capacity in children’s mental health services and high rates of student absence, for example, are driving the need for alternative support to begin with. In the same vein, capacity issues are also affecting the AP sector itself at a growing rate. Pupils are stuck on lengthy waiting lists
across the country, and demand for alternative provision is growing at a faster rate than new AP settings are being established.
A solution is needed. AP is filled with wonderful, inspirational educators making a real difference, but given the pressure the sector is under, we need a way to meet need that is bold and innovative. We’ve been dedicated to growing such a solution at Academy21 since 2011.
Of course, it’d be a mistake to suggest that the rise of online alternative provision is solely down to a lack of in-person placements. In reality, for numerous commissioning bodies across the country, it’s has become a go-to solution for early intervention and transitional support.
More leaders are seeking online AP because it bridges more gaps than just capacity — many of which have become significant considerations for schools, trusts, and local authorities.
A greater need for flexibility
One size never fits all in education, but that’s particularly true when it comes to alternative provision. AP settings cater for students with a vast range of complex behavioural and mental health needs, medical issues and life challenges. Some of your students may need long-term support; others might only require alternative provision for a few weeks or an unpredictable amount of time, locking schools into fixed-term contracts when budgets are already stretched.
Online AP is uniquely placed to offer the flexibility, capacity, and quality that schools and trusts demand for their most vulnerable young people. It isn’t the solution for every child, but for many, it is the right support at the right time.
Schools need to be able to flex provision up and down as needs change, without additional cost. Lessons might need to fit around the school’s own timetable to support students on site, or around a pupil’s medical needs. They should be able to change programmes or add on services in response to a young person’s requirements.
Without the limitations of a physical environment, everything becomes scalable, and that’s crucial for educators in today’s landscape. Choosing an online AP partner that offers this — whilst maintaining fully live, adaptive teaching from qualified teachers — marries the flexibility and quality young people deserve.
Growing struggles in the typical environment
If Covid-19 has made anything apparent in schools, it’s that more students struggle in the mainstream environment than one might expect. While numerous pupils were eager to get back to the classroom after lockdowns, there are still young people today who are struggling with attendance in the aftermath. Of course, it’s not a new problem.
As counterintuitive as it may sound to those unfamiliar with the emotionally based school avoidance (EBSA) challenges schools are facing, allowing a child to learn away from the classroom is sometimes the best way to start reintegrating them back into it. Meeting students where they’re comfortable (i.e. in a calmer or less busy space, such as a hybrid unit), online AP can move young people out of situations in which they have struggled to cope.
In turn, this break from the very scenarios that cause anxiety, dysregulation or challenging behaviours gives room for effective intervention that, in time, grows a student’s confidence and sense of direction, providing the break needed to plan reintegration whilst maintaining curriculum provision.
Innovation in inclusive learning
As you might expect, most online education providers aim to stay at the forefront of where technology meets student need. Being digital-first, they have a greater ability to focus on online pedagogies and integrate cutting-edge tools that can elevate engagement, smooth access, and aid assessment. These innovations might range from ways for anxious students to participate fully to ways for schools to track and monitor progress and engagement at any time, or even AI-powered ‘personalised learning pathways’ like the ones we’ve implemented at Academy21 this year.
Each of these tools offers a specific improvement, and together, the benefits become significant. Playing to the strengths of the digital environment, online AP is able to accommodate needs in new and effective ways that help schools keep learners on track for strong outcomes and return confidently to the mainstream environment as soon as they are able.
Is online the future? Supporting thousands of pupils each year, we see the benefits first-hand each day. Working in partnership with schools and as part of the mix with in-person AP, we’re also supporting providers to bolster their traditional methods with the advantages of online learning. As such, we know that the need for (and benefits of) traditional alternative provision settings isn’t going to disappear.
That being said, there’s no doubt that online alternative provision is bringing some schools benefits they simply couldn’t find anywhere else, whether the capacity is there or not.
Alessandro Capozzi is Executive Headteacher of Academy21
, an ASCL Premier Partner
. Academy21 will be an exhibitor at ASCL Annual Conference 2024
Image supplied by Academy21.