A lesson on pupil agency: teaching in alternative provision


17th March 2022

It’s Wednesday morning, 9 am. No students are in yet. Staff wait around, prepping the classroom and sorting through materials. At 9:45, two or three pupils trickle in and the lesson starts. Outside in the corridor, there’s shouting and banging. The radio goes off: someone outside needs support. We offer the pupils in the room some toast, fruit and juice. They decline. 

At the end of the lesson, I see the student shouting in the corridor. He is upset because he failed to slip his vape to his friend. This happens most mornings. Eventually, when challenged by a teacher to a quick-fire maths competition, he turns the vape in and settles in his lessons. The day goes on. 

A few weeks ago, I joined CfEY as a Research Associate. Before this, I worked at a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) in London. PRUs are often framed as places where young people go when they have no other options when their behaviour becomes ‘unmanageable‘. Framing PRUs as the ‘end of line’ unfairly diminishes the importance of Alternative Provision (AP) schools. It side-lines the valuable and unique work done in these settings. Having worked in both AP and mainstream settings, I say that a crucial benefit of AP is the emphasis on developing greater agency.

Framing PRUs as the 'end of line' unfairly diminishes the importance of Alternative Provision (AP) schools. Share on X

Alternative Provision: a valuable alternative

The priority in AP is to create a dependable, safe space where young people get the support and tools they need. Young people in AP often grapple with adverse life situations, spanning from special educational or health needs, unstable family lives, to insecure housing arrangements. AP gives them space to deal with these issues. Albert Bandura, a social cognitive psychologist, defined agency as the capacity to develop ambition, purpose and resilience in the face of obstacles. What I saw while working at a PRU, in contrast to mainstream education, was the value of letting students make their own decisions and the impact of this on their agency.

With the combination of smaller classes, increased pastoral support and a lot of patience, pupils work on their decision making. For example, another pupil who struggled with frustration, left a lesson because a set of Maths exercises was complicated. Once outside, they expressed this, before re-joining the lesson. In this situation, the young person recognised the need to go back into class and used the emotional tools they had learned at the PRU to manage their frustration.

Yes, education inside a PRU looks different to what you’d see in mainstream settings. Some PRUs have strict security measures in place. There are magnetic safety doors and pencils are sharpened by staff as no sharp objects – even pencil sharpeners – can be used without supervision. Police officers visit twice a week both to monitor and mentor pupils. Learning takes place in a highly controlled environment. Within this, young people have the tools to develop agency and good judgement. Specifically, staff in PRUs:

  1. Respect pupils’ backgrounds and convey warmth without judgement, and;
  2. Provide space for vulnerable young people to wrestle through frustration and insecurities, learn self-regulation and develop agency.
Staff in PRUs Provide space for vulnerable young people to wrestle through frustration and insecurities, learn self-regulation and develop agency Share on X

Growing exclusion rates and rigid systems

In the 2019-2020 school year, just over 5000 pupils were permanently excluded. Of those excluded, 1 in 3 was removed from mainstream education due to ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’. While working in mainstream, it felt like behaviour was a sticking point for some. Moreover, the recurrence of it meant pupils were missing out on learning. The most recent data shows that there are some young people for whom the behaviour systems are not working.

The pupils I met preferred AP to mainstream education, and this made me reflect on the words of Jon Sever, editor at Tes: “If we better acknowledge PRUs as a different type of schooling rather than a punishment, then we can begin to ask questions about why certain systems […] work better for some pupils than others”. In my experience, allowing pupils to gain agency over their actions and consequences, enables a stronger self-involvement in their education. I wonder, what would an agency focus look like in the context of schools?

allowing pupils to gain agency over their actions and consequences, enables a stronger self-involvement in their education Share on X

The way forward?

Previously, CfEY has addressed the behaviour dilemma in schools and researched the perceived educational inferiority of Alternative Provision. Based on my experience, some positive changes have already happened in reframing the perception of AP, but there’s a long way to go. By not defining AP as the end of the line, we can develop a better ‘aim’ in making moves or exclusions. By recognising the advantages that AP represents for some, and highlighting what AP does well, we honour the needs of those most vulnerable. I’m excited to join CfEY in tackling barriers for young people and placing their voices at the centre of our work.