David Thomas: Ministers must extend the free schools revolution to the alternative provision sector

19 Feb

David Thomas is the headteacher of a secondary school in Norwich, and was awarded an OBE in 2020 for founding Oak National Academy – an online school to support children during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Free schools have been a huge part of the improvement in English education over the past decade. They have shaken up schooling and injected innovation through our education system.

The top free schools have not only benefitted their own children, but children across the country whose teachers have been inspired by what these free schools have achieved.

Whilst free schools have been a huge part of increasing the number of great school places in our country, they have not been able to do this for some of the children who need them most.

Many of the most vulnerable children in the country need a place at a special or alternative provision (AP) school. These schools cater for the children who aren’t able to be educated in a mainstream school – for example, those with significant special educational needs or with behavioural issues.

It can be easy to think of these as peripheral to the system, but they’re not. If we don’t prepare these children for adulthood then the cost to the state is huge. By one estimate, each school year’s worth of excluded children go on to cost the nation £2.1 billion. Not preparing these vulnerable children to be positive members of society lets them down, and costs the taxpayer.

The consequences are felt beyond the individual child too. There is a chronic lack of places in special and AP schools across the country. When a child is not given the place they need, they have to stay in a mainstream school. This is unfair to the child, who needs the right kind of education. It is also unfair on the other children attending that school, as their school now has less capacity to improve at delivering mainstream education.

Where there is a shortage of appropriate school places, the free schools programme should step in. However, it suffers from a major restriction. You can only set up a special or AP free school if the local authority commissions it in advance – and agrees to foot a large part of the bill. This needs to change.

Many free schools have been set up with local authority support, especially in areas where there is a shortage of school places. But would we have had as many innovative schools if they had needed a local authority commission to be able to apply? Of course not. There are many reasons, from the political to the financial, why a local authority might choose not to commission a new free school. It is wrong that these should hamper the education of our most vulnerable children.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic there was a clear shortage of places in special and AP schools. Any headteacher will be able to tell you stories about children who are assessed as needing a specialist place, but who wait years to get one. There is little to no recourse for those parents.

If a parent of a child in mainstream education isn’t satisfied with the education available for their child, they can form a group and set up a free school. They do not have to wait for the local authority to find the funds and the will to commission one. Families of children with special educational needs deserve this opportunity too. Successful special schools and groups of special schools should also be able to expand in areas where they can show there is need.

The same is true in alternative provision. When a child is excluded from school they are at an extremely vulnerable point in their life. They need a great school to get them back on track. Yet many of these children end up on a waiting list for education that takes months to arrive, and is low-quality when it does. We need innovative free schools to develop and spread the best ways of helping these children turn their lives around.

As a country, we have a duty to provide great education to all our children. Free schools are helping us to do that in mainstream. It’s time to remove the barriers to doing that through the rest of the school system too. The next free school round should be open to special and AP free schools, regardless of local authority commission

David Thomas: Five policies to help school pupils catch up after the Covid crisis

28 Jan

David Thomas is the headteacher of a secondary school in Norwich, and was awarded an OBE in 2020 for founding Oak National Academy – an online school to support children during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is vital that our schools re-open as soon as possible. In many ways, however, re-opening is the easy bit. What we do to catch children up once they are back in school is much harder.

The majority of schools have done an excellent job at trying to keep children’s futures on track. But no matter how hard they may have worked, months of learning online is no substitute for months in the classroom. It is going to take more than goodwill to cancel out the impact of the pandemic on our children’s futures.

We should be using this period of school closure to think ahead and prepare to catch our children up when schools re-open. Here are some of the things the Government should be considering.

Triple the scale of the National Tutoring Programme

We know that one-to-one or small-group tutoring helps pupils catch up on their learning. The Government’s expanded ambition to provide tutoring to 450,000 school pupils is a good one – but we could go even further.

There are 1.5 million UK undergraduate students in UK universities. If every undergraduate tutored one school pupil then we’d have tripled the number of children being tutored in our schools. Government should launch tenders to coordinate this effort now. Students could also be paid through a combination of cash and loan forgiveness, which would reduce the present cost to the Treasury.

Provide a Mental Health Support Team for every school

Many of our schoolchildren will have spent months living in confined housing without being able to socialise with their peers. They will have suffered bereavements and seen their parents fear for their jobs. They will have missed out on many of the formative experiences of adolescence. This can’t help but have an impact, and it’s one we need to minimise.

In 2019 the Government launched a plan to have Mental Health Support Teams covering every school in the country by 2023. Each of these teams supports around twenty schools by training their staff and supporting them with cases. This can’t wait until 2023. We should aim for September 2021 instead.

Keep children learning next year, even when they can’t be in school

Our children have already fallen behind. They can’t afford to lose any time next school year. In a normal year children lose many days from minor illness, for example by staying off school for 48 hours after a stomach bug. Each one of these days counts.

A silver lining of this crisis is that schools have put in place the infrastructure to mean that being at home doesn’t have to mean missing learning. Schools have been providing remote learning to self-isolating children since September.

Government should support schools to make this a permanent feature of our education system. If a child is well enough to sit in front of a computer then they should be able to learn.

Fund schools to provide early support to vulnerable families

Many families are already in a vulnerable position because of the pandemic, and many more will come to light as the crisis ends. There will be redundancies that have been so far staved off by furlough; health conditions exacerbated by lockdowns; and domestic violence that only becomes apparent in a return to normality. Social services will struggle with the volume of referrals, and they need to be able to concentrate on the most acute cases.

Schools will often be the first to spot these issues, and already have families’ trust. They should be funded to provide support to families who need help, so that those families don’t later reach a crisis.

Get every unemployed school and college leaver a Kickstart placement

We know that there is a critical window of time when a young person finishes school or college. If they find employment in this period then they are likely to remain in the workforce for life. If they don’t, then their chances of lifelong unemployment begin to grow.

This summer a new cohort of young people will hit the labour market. Their education will have been disrupted, and they will need support to find stable employment. Kickstart is an excellent scheme where government pays the costs for employers to offer young people a six-month work placement. We should aim to match every young person to a Kickstart placement if they are not employed within three months of leaving education.

Our children’s lives don’t have to be determined by this pandemic. We can catch up lost ground. Yes, doing so will cost money and time. But it will cost a lot less than having a generation grow up without the knowledge and skills to keep our economy and society strong.