Ofsted Alternative Provision

Alternative provision remains a largely uninspected and unregulated sector. There is no requirement for the majority of alternative providers to register with any official body and no formal arrangements to evaluate their quality.

Alternative providers that offer only part-time education do not have to be registered. Ofsted says this remains a concern and means that pupils can spend all or the majority of their week at a placement that receives no external inspection or regulation.

The SEND and Alternative Provision Green Paper consultation ran from March to July 2022. The government response and Improvement Plan was published in March 2023. Timescales for proposed changes can be found here

A government minister explained about Ofsted monitoring of alternative provision in a Written Answer July 2023 which can be found here. The answer also contains links to Alternative Provision Statutory Guidance and Exclusions Guidance.

A call for evidence on the use of unregistered alternative provision took place in 2022. Read more here. In February 2023 the Department for Education said that independent analysis of responses had been commissioned which would be published later in the year.

Ofsted Alternative Provision Report for Primary Pupils published November 2022 found that while most pupils in alternative provision are of secondary age, the number of primary-age pupils with AP placements is rising in England.

Most primary-age pupils in AP have an EHC plan or receive special educational needs (SEN) support (93% as at January 2021). For a large majority (69%), SEMH is the primary area of need. Ofsted reports that some pupils stay in AP because of long waiting times for an EHC plan or a lack of special school places and that some primary school staff believed that the purpose of AP is to be a stopgap.

Ofsted Alternative Provision Report focusing on secondary education was published in 2016. At secondary stage, the growth area for alternative provision is in taking pupils from pupil referral units. Pupil referral units are themselves a form of alternative provision, but many pupils who are on the roll of a pupil referral unit also attend additional forms of alternative provision off site.

Alternative providers may be part of a chain or a very small one-off establishments, and can be public, voluntary or private sector. In one area the local authority may take responsibility for commissioning and placement while in other areas schools might work in isolation to find and commission their own provision. Some providers have a very specific focus, while others teach many of the subjects found in any school curriculum.

Pupils attending alternative provision sometimes spend time with a number of adults, usually employees of the placement but also members of the public, which has the potential to make them vulnerable. In off-site provision pupils may be working in industrial settings with unfamiliar processes and equipment governed by specific safety standards. In some cases schools don’t accompany pupils on their first visit. Pupils may also have to find their own way to placements and in some cases travel long distances by public transport.

Ofsted wants the Government to revise the threshold for providers to register as independent schools, and to allow Ofsted direct access to all alternative providers that take pupils of compulsory school age for six hours or more. Read my page about unregistered schools here.

Some local authorities do have a list of providers but have played no part in checking the suitability or quality of those included. A few schools reported that the local authority had had a database of provision in the past, but that this had ceased. It was usually reported that this was because the local authority no longer had the resources to carry out the appropriate checks. Occasionally, databases of provision remained available, but schools were aware that the information was not up to date so had stopped using them.

A provider only has to be registered as an independent school if it caters full-time for five or more pupils of compulsory school age; or one pupil who is looked after or has an EHCP. Information about schools being prosecuted (eg running full time while claiming part time can be found on my unregistered schools page.)

Schools may assume that the provider will have registered if it needs to. Currently there are no sanctions for schools using illegal alternative provision. Schools don’t necessarily look at the bigger picture; where schools only send only one pupil themselves or only send pupils part time, they fail to check how many pupils from other schools are also attending the provider and on what basis.

Some pupils whose alternative provision placements are theoretically ‘full time’ do not actually receive a full-time education. Ofsted has found schools placing pupils in alternative provision for most of the week but not then having them back at school for the rest of the time. This is likely to contravene government guidance about the use of part-time timetables and pupils’ entitlement to a full-time education and constitutes a potential safeguarding issue.

Ofsted publishes unregistered schools management information twice a year [May/June and October/November]. As of July 2023 Ofsted has inspected 534 settings. Inspectors issue a warning notice when they consider a setting to be operating as an illegal school. 146 warning notices have been issued. [Table 3]

33% of settings investigated by Ofsted since 2016 as suspected unregistered schools (ie full time education) were classed as alternative provision providers according to a government minister in February 2023.