At a glance

Alternative provision (AP) is education for pupils who may not receive suitable education because of exclusion, illness or other reasons. The Department for Education (DfE) wanted to understand what schools do to prevent exclusions and off-site direction, schools’ relationship with AP, and practices in AP settings. Findings are based on interviews with teachers in mainstream education, special schools and AP settings, as well as in-depth case studies in AP settings with teachers, pupils and their parents. The study identified a wide variety of practice and a lack of robust research on what works to prevent referrals into AP, and to support positive transitions from AP back into mainstream education or on to post-16 education and training.

About the client

The Department for Education is responsible for children’s services and education, including early years, schools, higher and further education policy, apprenticeships and wider skills in England.

Challenges and objectives

DfE wanted to build the evidence base on current practice in alternative provision (AP), from the process of identifying pupils at risk of being referred to AP through to the reintegration of pupils back into mainstream provision or on to further education. The specific objectives were to understand how schools support children at risk of exclusion, how schools use AP, and how AP providers support children placed in their settings.


IFF worked with academics at UCL and the University of Nottingham to help DfE get a detailed picture of the current alternative provision landscape. This involved a literature review and evidence assessment, alongside primary research with schools and AP providers, with pupils in AP, and their parents/carers. Although qualitative in nature, this was a very large-scale exercise. IFF conducted telephone depth interviews with 276 schools and 200 alternative providers (generally lasting 45 minutes to an hour), alongside 25 in-depth case study visits to alternative providers (covering heads, staff, pupils and parents). The AP providers interviewed covered a wide spectrum from large Pupil Referral Units, to hospital schools, to small independent providers.


The research found a wide diversity of practice, both within schools referring to AP, and within AP itself. Schools commonly took active steps to identify pupils perceived to be at risk of exclusion or off-site direction and intervened early to prevent this if possible. The main reason why schools used AP was in response to pupils who exhibited persistent disruptive behaviour.

It was common among schools that had not used AP to say they had consistent approaches in place to manage behaviour, which had avoided the need for referrals. The strategies these schools cited to help them manage behaviour effectively included: offering alternative curricula, modelling positive behaviour, reward programmes, de-escalation techniques, mentoring and pupil code of conduct agreements.

AP providers considered that referrals worked best where full information about the circumstances of the referral was disclosed upfront; where they got comprehensive information on the pupil; where any SEND were already identified, or identified early in the transition; where there was a phased introduction to the AP setting; and where the pupil’s parents/ carers and mainstream school remained closely involved. Schools and AP providers judged that dual registration arrangements, and providing detailed information on the pupil’s behaviour, wellbeing and academic progress in AP, could assist in the process of reintegrating them back into mainstream education.

Parents and pupils in AP reported strong feelings of anxiety and stigma, prior to starting in AP, particularly in cases of permanent exclusion. Parents felt they lacked information and support throughout the process. Parents and pupils tended to appreciate the opportunity to have taster visits, induction meetings, and even a phased transition into AP and found that their experience of AP was much more positive than they had initially feared.

AP providers often reported that despite voluntarily offering extended support to pupils who leave their settings at 16, many such pupils still struggle to participate in further education, training and employment compared to their peers. This reinforces the need for more longitudinal research among pupils who leave AP, to evaluate what works in supporting positive, sustained transitions into post-16 education and training.