Written Evidence submitted by Ofsted



  1. Alternative provision is commonly defined as education outside school, arranged by local authorities or schools themselves. Schools may send their pupils to off-site alternative provision for all or part of the week.


  1. Of the alternative provision sector, Ofsted inspects pupil referral units, alternative provision free schools, alternative provision academies and independent schools that provide a form of alternative provision. However, alternative provision remains a largely uninspected and unregulated sector. Beyond pupil referral units and the other full-time provision mentioned, there is no requirement for the majority of alternative providers to register with any official body and no formal arrangements to evaluate their quality. In some cases, pupils do not gain accredited qualifications during their placement, so results are often not available as a measure of quality either. Despite this lack of regulation and accountability, some pupils[1] spend a significant proportion of their week away from their school or unit attending alternative provision. Many pupils who are on the full-time roll of pupil referral units and other registered providers also attend other (usually unregistered) alternative provision for part of each week. Alternative provision can be set up by the public, voluntary and private sectors[2].


Routes into alternative provision


  1. Pupils who are on the full-time permanent roll of a pupil referral unit or an alternative provision free school or academy (and not also on the roll of another school) include those who have been permanently excluded from their school, new arrivals to the country, or pupils who have not been on a school roll for an extended period of time. These pupils will have been placed by their local authority. Other pupils on the roll of these providers consist of ‘dual-roll’ pupils who also have a place in a school – special or mainstream. These pupils may have long-term or short-term medical needs, behavioural difficulties, mental health difficulties, attendance difficulties or may be pregnant. They will have been placed by their school, a local authority placement panel, or a panel made up of schools and/or academies (a ‘partnership’).


  1. Pupils in independent schools that provide a form of alternative provision may be there because their parents have chosen this form of education. More usually they will have been placed by their local authority and will have a statement of special educational need or an education, health and care plan or may be children looked after.


  1. Pupils who attend registered or unregistered forms of alternative provision for part of each week, attending their school for the rest of the time, are placed directly by their school, or the place is found for them through a partnership arrangement[3]


The quality of teaching in alternative provision (including pupil referral units)


  1. Eighty-nine per cent of alternative provision schools (LA-run PRUs and AP academies) have good or outstanding teaching at their most recent inspection. This is similar to the proportion of all state funded schools judged good or outstanding for teaching (90%)[4].


  1. However, even where teaching is good, some pupils’ attendance is so poor that they do not benefit from it. The overall absence rate for pupil referral units in autumn/spring 2016/17 was 33.2%, compared to 4.5% for all schools[5]. The Attainment 8 and GCSE results for pupils in PRUs are far lower than those seen for all pupils nationally


  1. Because Ofsted does not directly inspect[6] unregistered alternative provision, there is no overall national picture of the quality of teaching in such provision. Where schools send their pupils off-site to alternative provision it is the school’s responsibility to ensure that the provision – including the quality of teaching – meets its pupils needs. Ofsted’s 2016 survey found, however, that school leaders too often did not look closely enough at the quality of teaching at the providers they used:


    1. ‘Too few schools evaluated properly the quality of teaching and learning that their pupils were receiving at the alternative provision. This hampered their ability to evaluate the quality of the provision effectively. Where school staff visited providers, the visits usually focused on the pupil’s welfare and how they were ‘getting on’ at the placement. Discussions usually took place with staff from the provider and with the pupil. However, only around a quarter of the providers reported that the member of staff from the school looked at the pupil’s work or observed their learning.


    1. Just under a third of the schools visited carried out any systematic evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning at the placements they were using, either individually or in conjunction with the local authority or partnership. For the other two thirds of schools, inspectors identified the lack of such evaluation as an area for improvement for the school in the monitoring letters they wrote following the survey visits.’ Ofsted 2016[7], page 66.


Educational outcomes and destinations of pupils


  1. The attainment of pupils in pupil referral units and alternative provision free schools and academies by the end of key stage 4 is very low in comparison with their mainstream peers. In 2016, the average Attainment 8 score per pupil in alternative provision was 7.8, on average below a GCSE grade G, compared to the England (all schools) average of 48.5, on average between a GCSE grade C and D. Nationally, 53.5% of pupils gained five A*-C grades at GCSE including English and mathematics. Only 1.1% of those in alternative provision attained this benchmark[8]. Outcomes for pupils taking vocational qualifications appear to be better than outcomes for GCSEs, with 37% achieving a level 2 pass.


  1. The reasons for these poor outcomes in relation to all pupils are complex. In weaker provision, the curriculum does not meet the pupils’ needs well enough and leaders’ and staff’s aspirations for what they can achieve are often too low. Pupils often do not join the provision until part-way through Year 10 or into Year 11. They usually join with a disrupted educational history – poor attendance, school time missed through exclusions - so the pupil referral unit has little time to help them to catch up. Even when pupils catch up well this is often not enough to allow them to pass GCSE examinations. This makes their next destinations particularly important. The best providers help pupils to find an appropriate course at college or other destinations. Not enough is known nationally, however, about how many of these pupils then complete their courses. Anecdotally, providers often report that they know their former pupils often ‘drop out’ quite quickly once the continual support and challenge to attend and achieve has gone.


  1. There is no national collection or analysis of statistics about the examination outcomes of pupils who remain on the roll of their school but attend alternative provision (including unregistered provision) on a part-time basis. Ofsted’s 2016 survey found that almost three quarters of the 2,200 pupils attending alternative provision[9] gained a GCSE qualification in English with the same proportion attaining a GCSE grade in mathematics. Almost half of these pupils were successful in gaining a GCSE qualification in both English and mathematics. About one fifth attained a grade A* to C in one or both of these GCSEs. About a quarter of pupils gained accreditation in qualifications other than GCSE in English, with a slightly smaller proportion in mathematics. These alternative qualifications were usually Functional Skills or Adult Literacy and Numeracy. Most schools ensured that pupils gained some accreditation in English and mathematics that was appropriate to pupils’ abilities and needs.


  1. Almost all the alternative provision arranged by the schools surveyed led to some form of accreditation. Pupils commonly pursued Level 1 and less frequently Level 2 vocational qualifications specialising in construction, motor vehicle maintenance, engineering, hair and beauty, hospitality and catering, food hygiene, travel and tourism, child care, health and social care, animal care, agriculture, land-based studies or media. The qualifications were closely linked to the specialist settings in which pupils were taught and often provided direct progression to local college courses post-16. However, a small but significant proportion of pupils were capable of progressing to Level 2 qualifications more quickly than they were able to do through their placements. The Level 1 qualifications these pupils were taking at alternative providers did not match the higher level they had been studying in subjects at school.


Safety, accommodation, and provision of resources for pupils


  1. The vast majority of pupil referral units safeguard their pupils effectively. However, when inadequacies were identified, the failings were very serious. In particular, weak strategies for managing pupils’ often challenging behaviour and poor systems for checking where pupils were and if they were safe when not attending the pupil referral unit were common issues. Too often, pupils who exhibited the most complex behaviour were placed on part-time timetables with no-one checking their whereabouts sufficiently well when they were not at school.


  1. In unregistered providers, safeguarding is much less secure. Firstly, there is a lack of clarity about checks on staff. Since Ofsted’s survey in 2011 and over the course of the following three-year survey, government guidance on safeguarding (including on safeguarding pupils who are being educated off site) changed. At the time of the previous survey, and at the start of this survey, schools were still taking into account the then Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) guidance about safeguarding young people on work-related learning[10]. This guidance, which told schools which staff at a placement should have a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB[11]) check, has since been archived and nothing as specific, relating to off-site provision, has replaced it. ‘Regulated activity,’ for which school or college staff must have a disclosure and barring service (DBS) check is defined[12] in the DfE’s safeguarding guidance[13], but there is no specific reference to unregistered alternative provision. This situation sometimes leaves schools uncertain about what is required and what would be considered to be good practice with regard to checks on alternative providers. One of Ofsted’s recommendations from the survey was that the DfE should give schools clear guidance about how they can best check the safety and suitability of staff working in unregistered alternative provision.


  1. In terms of broader safeguarding issues, the majority of the 448 alternative providers visited as part of Ofsted’s 2016 survey knew what action to take if they had any child protection concerns. Providers also knew who they should contact at the school. Most were positive about the support that they had received from schools when needed. A few providers had passed on crucial information to the school about a disclosure from a pupil or a serious concern. However, the majority of providers had not undergone any formal child protection training. Only a quarter of the providers had received any written child protection information from the schools.


  1. Pupils attending alternative provision sometimes spend time with a number of adults, usually employees of the placement but also members of the public[14], which has the potential to make them vulnerable, including through the inappropriate use of technology. As part of the 2016 survey, inspectors asked alternative providers what information they had been given about the use of social networking, for example whether employees should give mobile phone numbers to pupils or be-friend’ them on social media sites. Only 7% (33) of the providers had had any information or discussion with schools about this aspect. Laptops used at alternative placements did not always have appropriate firewalls or filters to try to prevent pupils accessing inappropriate material.


  1. In terms of accommodation, pupil referral units are not required to have any outdoor space[15] for pupils to play and take part in physical education. Pupil referral units are often housed in small buildings and frequently do not have any outdoor space at all. This limits pupils’ opportunities to play outdoor games, get exercise or fresh air during break and lunchtimes.


  1. The quality of accommodation for unregistered providers varies enormously. In 2011, Ofsted saw two providers operating with particularly poor conditions:


‘A group of students was seen attending a part-time placement in a building that was poorly maintained and dark, with broken furniture and stacks of old equipment; this was clearly not conducive to study. The furniture mostly consisted of settees and stools at a kitchen bar…Another provider visited was also operating in cramped, cold and generally unsuitable accommodation.’ Ofsted 2011, page 36[16]


  1. In 2016, Ofsted reported that the accommodation and facilities used by alternative providers were fit for purpose in almost all of those visited. This was an improvement since the previous report. However, although very high-quality accommodation and facilities were seen in around a fifth of providers, a similar proportion had aspects that inspectors judged required some improvement.
  2. Pupils were often able to use specialist resources that provided an authentic experience of the workplace. It was not uncommon for facilities providing training in skills such as hairdressing, motor maintenance, construction and child care to incorporate a functioning business. Pupils were able to learn by using industry standard equipment and by learning how to serve the public in a business setting. These providers had created a good balance between professional and educational environments.
  3. In contrast, some classrooms at alternative providers had outdated computer equipment and poorly presented displays that did not match the high quality of the facilities found at the pupils’ schools. At times, providers had been set up in neglected commercial premises. These facilities were often much better than the poor first impression gained from the outside. However, the external appearance and sometimes their locations at the backs of industrial estates could form an intimidating introduction for some pupils and parents. As at many pupil referral units, at some alternative providers there was a lack of secure and suitable outside space for recreation, something that pupils often disliked because they had to stay in one small classroom for the whole day.

In-school alternatives to external alternative provision


  1. Many secondary schools do not use off-site alternative provision at all. Many of the schools that inspectors visited as part of Ofsted’s 2016 survey had reduced their use of off-site alternative provision due to their dissatisfaction with the range and quality of providers in the local area. In other cases, leaders had introduced a broader and more creative curriculum in-school that was then better able to meet the needs of all the pupils, thereby reducing the need to send pupils off site. Some schools had for example, shifted from a largely academic subject offer, to more flexible and personalised pathways that included a broader range of practical or vocational subjects. Some schools were developing specialist work-based learning facilities on site to accommodate a school-based alternative provision offer. Other schools set up specialist inclusion centres on site, forming a base for pupils, many of whom would previously have been sent out to different alternative provision placements, to undertake a more bespoke curriculum while receiving strong pastoral care and support from the school. When this is done well it can be successful in keeping pupils in school and engaged. At their worst, such centres are not inclusive and do not lead to good outcomes. It is the quality of alternative provision that makes the difference, rather than its location.   


Regulation of independent providers


  1. The lack of requirement for alternative providers to register unless they are providing full-time education[17], and the lack of regulation for unregistered providers, continues to be a cause of grave concern for Ofsted. A pupil can attend an unregistered, therefore unregulated, provider for four days a week, and his school for the other day and this is lawful. Equally, a pupil can spend his whole education in unregistered provision – for example two days in one and three in another – and this is also lawful. 


  1. Some providers that should be registered are naïve about the requirements[18], and once it is pointed out to them that they are operating illegally they are quick to act.


Unregistered provision


  1. Ofsted’s unregistered schools team continues to investigate settings that may require registration as independent schools. This inevitably includes settings that are providing alternative education.


  1. Although not all alternative providers require registration as an independent school, there is not a consistent understanding of which settings should register; which do not need to register and why this is the case. Nor is it only the providers who lack such understanding. Inspectors continue to find providers who have taken five or more full-time pupils at the behest of local authorities, including those with education and health care plans, or children who are looked after. Consequently, inspectors are working with a number of such local authorities to improve their ability to identify those providers that should register and to ensure that they do not place children in unregistered, and therefore illegal settings.


  1. Where inspection identifies providers who do not meet the legal requirements as a result of the circumstances described above, they usually demonstrate an intent to alter their operating hours. This allows them to continue providing for pupils who are on roll at a publicly funded school, without the requirement to register as an independent school.


  1. In contrast, there are some alternative providers who are knowingly making full-time provision, despite offering only a limited curriculum that fails to prepare young people for their next steps in education or life. Where this is the case, despite being on a roll of a publicly funded school, the reality is that the pupils are failing to attend that school for an appropriate proportion of the week. For instance, inspectors have found alternative provision settings that have more than one site, operating on different days of the week, with the same pupils attending these sites. As a result, they have little or no contact with their own school and a very limited educational experience. Moreover, the companies concerned profit from this.


  1. In all such cases, Ofsted will issue a warning notice to ensure that the setting ceases to operate unlawfully without delay.


Annex A


Background data on PRUs and other alternative provision


Alternative provision (AP) is defined as a type of provision where pupils engage in timetabled, educational activities away from school and school staff.


A pupil referral unit is an establishment maintained by a local authority (LA) which is specifically organised to provide education for children who are excluded, sick, or otherwise unable to attend a mainstream or special maintained school. Pupil referral units (PRUs) are a type of school, providing state-funded alternative provision. Alternative provision free schools and academies provide education for similar groups and are registered and inspected in the same way as LA-run PRUs. 


There are also 22,000 pupils whose education is paid for by local authorities, but who do not have places at state-funded mainstream or special schools. These pupils are placed in alternative provision by their local authority.[19]


The number of pupils in local authority alternative provision has followed a similar pattern since records began in 2011.


Finally, alternative provision is used by schools to place pupils on a full-time or part-time basis, usually when the pupil is becoming disaffected or needs support to become more motivated. Much of this provision is unregistered and therefore not inspected.


The number of PRUs has fallen from 452 to 349 between 2010 and 2017. During this time, the number of pupils in PRUs initially fell but has been increasing year-on-year since 2014. The reasons for this are not entirely clear but could include off rolling by secondary schools.


Information on local authority alternative provision is limited and is excluded from this brief.


Figure 1: Source Education Datalab:


Growth in alternative provision

The growth in pupil numbers reflects the number of schools opening. Since September 2012, any need for new, registered AP was required to be met through the establishment of AP free schools. Local authority PRUs were also invited to convert to become AP academies. There were 102 AP academies, including AP free schools, by August 2017.

By August 2017 there were 349 pupil referral units and AP academies open in England. There were 247 pupil referral units, 45 academy converters, 21 sponsored academies and 36 AP free schools. This provided for over 15,100 full-time pupils in alternative provision and 10,000 pupils who come part-time or for a placement.

Of the AP academies 70 schools are part of a multi-academy trust (MAT).















Growth in pupil referral units and alternative provision, 2011-2017


Contextual data


While the proportion of schools is fairly evenly split North (49%) and South (51%), there is regional variation. London and NEYH both have 16% of all AP schools, while the East Midlands only has 5%.


In terms of numbers of pupils, there is a marginally a higher proportion of pupils in the North (51%). Schools in the North West and in London have the highest proportions of pupils attending a PRU or AP, as well as the highest average number of pupils


Suffolk and Lancaster local authority areas have the highest number of schools providing registered alternative provision, with 12 and 10 respectively. There are ten local authority areas without any registered providers. These are: Nottinghamshire, Rutland, Warwickshire, City of London, Richmond on Thames, Portsmouth, Bath and NE Somerset, Bournemouth, Isles of Scilly, and Wiltshire.



Size varies, ranging from 0 to 388 pupils, with the average size being 44 pupils. Alternative provision academies (55 pupils) tend to be larger on average than LA PRUs (43 pupils), with free schools being smaller (34 pupils).


Most schools offer full-time provision, with 204 of the 349 stating this; 27 schools did not and a further 118 did not record this. Only two schools state boarding provision.


A large majority of schools are of mixed gender, although there is one all boys school and five all girls providers. Seventy-two per cent of pupils in AP are boys. Pupils attend AP for a wide range of reasons, but predominately they are pupils with behavioural difficulties in years 10 and 11.

It is important to note that many children who are referred to LA PRUs and AP come from the most deprived backgrounds. Children in LA PRUs and AP are almost three times as likely as the average pupil to qualify for free school meals.

In the DfE’s Statistical First Release for special educational needs in England: January 2017, 76% of pupils in PRUs or AP academies have SEN. Often the boundaries between AP and SEN provision are blurred.


Performance – Ofsted grade

All but 35 registered LA PRUs and AP schools have been inspected by Ofsted[20], with 89% (281) being good or outstanding. Ten schools are currently inadequate.

A fifth of AP academies are outstanding (14), compared to 17% of LA PRUs (42).

The quality of teaching is highly correlated to the overall effectiveness grade, with 89% of LA PRUs and AP providers having good or outstanding teaching. This is similar to the proportion of all state funded schools judged good or outstanding for teaching (90%).

Of the 64 schools inspected under the common inspection framework since September 2015, all but four were effective for safeguarding.

Overall effectiveness of pupil referral units and alternative provision at their latest inspection (at 31 August 2017)








[1] In 2016, Ofsted published a survey of alternative provision (AP 2016 report hyperlink), visiting 165 schools and 448 of the alternative providers they used. A total of 3,849 pupils in Years 9 to 11 from the 165 schools visited were attending alternative provision away from the site of their school for at least part of each week – 4% of the total number on the schools’ rolls. The 2016 report builds on an earlier survey report from Ofsted in 2011, which reported that much of the provision was poor quality. (AP 2011 report hyperlink)

[2] See page 51 of Ofsted’s report for examples of alternative provision. Some local authorities hold a database of provision which they have selected and which they believe to be of suitable quality for their schools and pupil referral units to use. However, this does not exist in all areas.

[3] Pages 10-12 of Ofsted’s 2016 survey,, explains the commissioning and placing process more fully

[4] Ofsted management information to 31 August 2017:


[6] Ofsted has the right to visit these providers when inspecting a school that sends its pupils there. During section 5 inspections of special schools and pupil referral units, a sample of the alternative providers they use are visited. On section 5 inspections of mainstream schools, providers are sometimes visited, but not routinely. The school inspection handbook, however, makes it clear to inspectors that they must evaluate a school’s use of alternative provision by looking at documents and talking to leaders and pupils.

[7] See reference in footnote 1

[8] Source: SFR03-2017 AP tables. Note also that the outcomes vary widely from one local authority to another although this is not straightforward as criteria for who attends PRUs are different from one place to the next.

[9] From the 165 schools visited over the three year period of the survey

[10] Safeguarding young people on work related learning including work experience, DCSF 2010. This guidance said that schools should consider CRB checks for ‘the employer’ in the following cases 1) Pupils identified by the school as vulnerable for educational, medical, behavioural or home circumstance reasons. 2) Pupils on placements lasting more than 15 days over an extended time-frame, especially where these involve: regular lone working with an employer over long periods (i.e. anything over half a day at a time); placements located in particularly isolated environments; and placements involving a high degree of travelling. 3) Placements which include a residential element. It went on to say: But the fact that a particular placement falls into one of the above categories does not necessarily mean that the school should require a CRB check. Such a decision will depend on an assessment of the overall potential risks posed to a young person, and will take into account any systems in place to minimise these risks.

[11] Now Disclosure and Barring Service Check (DBS)

[12] And clearly applies to pupil referral units, alternative provision free schools and alternative provision academies.

[13] Keeping children safe in education, Department for Education, April 2014, March 2015, July 2015, Sept 2016; 

[14] For example where an alternative provider is based in a leisure centre, a youth centre, a gym or similar.

[15] Standards for school premises, DfE-00311-2013

[16] See footnote 1 for full reference

[17] A provider of alternative provision should be registered as an independent school if it caters full-time for five or more pupils of compulsory school age; or one such pupil who is looked after or has a statement of special educational needs.

[18] In Ofsted’s 2016 survey, 14 providers were found that should have been registered. Many had started out as part-time providers that did not need to be registered, but had grown as they became more popular and did not know the requirements for registering with the DfE once they met certain criteria around numbers and full-time education.

[19] Department for Education statistical first release, as analysed by Education Datalab.

[20] Many AP providers do not have to be registered, therefore are not inspected.