March 2012


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  • Picking up the pieces
    Does handing money directly to schools help them tackle exclusions more effectively? With the DfE about to embark on a trial, Liz Lightfoot reports on two local authorities already experimenting with devolved budgets for alternate provision. More
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Does handing money directly to schools help them tackle exclusions more effectively? With the DfE about to embark on a trial, Liz Lightfoot reports on two local authorities already experimenting with devolved budgets for alternate provision.

Picking up the pieces

On 1 April the headteachers of 300 secondary schools across England will begin a trial which, the government hopes, will target the long-standing problem of how to keep excluded children in education.

Schools will receive tens of thousands of pounds of additional cash in their budgets – not new money but the amount spent historically by local authorities on centrally provided services, such as pupil referral units (PRUs) or home education for those with medical needs.

In a system similar to GP commissioning, the headteachers will hold the funds and decide how best to spend them. They will be expected to join together to share the responsibility for the most vulnerable and challenging pupils, buying in the provision they need.

The flip side is that schools also take on the financial and moral responsibility for the children they exclude. The DfE wants schools to monitor the progress of excluded pupils and will include their exam results in their school performance data.

Eight local authorities – Leeds, Lancashire, East Sussex, Wiltshire, Sefton, Redcar and Cleveland, Hampshire, and Middlesbrough – have signed up for the trial and more are expected to join as it gets underway. It is n not, however, an untested idea, as some local authorities are already running similar schemes, with interesting results.

Six years ago, Staffordshire devolved its £4 million budget for inclusion, PRUs and home teaching to eight district inclusion partnerships representing secondary heads in the area. Although the money is retained at the centre, the headteachers collectively decide how to spend it to meet the needs of their most vulnerable and challenging students.

Permanent exclusions fell initially but have since plateaued at around the national average. There have been significant savings in the £1 million budget for home and ‘other than school’ education as schools take over responsibility for children with medical needs.

Hearts and minds 

Nevertheless, Alison Greenwood, Staffordshire’s education inclusion partnership manager, believes it that there will always be a need for alternative provision outside schools for some pupils. “I am confident that all the secondary exclusions now taking place in the county are ‘real’ exclusions done for valid reasons. We had five exclusions when pupils set their school on fire. They would hardly be welcomed back by the staff and other pupils,” she says.

She believes the system has worked in Staffordshire because time was taken to win hearts and minds and thrash out the benefits to schools of sharing resources and prioritising the young people causing them the most difficulty, rather than passing them around through unofficial ‘backdoor’ exclusions.

One district, South Staffordshire, decided it would rather have the cash in its school budgets but has since abandoned the idea. John Martin, the head of Cheslyn Hay Sport and Community High School, was one of the heads involved.

On balance, he believes the total devolution of funds to schools on the trial model would weaken the strategic management of inclusion. “On rare occasions funds can be transferred from one district to another, but that opportunity will be lost if there is no local authority overview,” he says.

Cambridgeshire has taken an approach similar to that proposed by the DfE for the trial. Four years ago it put the £5 million a year it was spending on alternative provision into the budgets of five consortia of schools based on the existing behaviour and attendance partnerships.

Headteachers pay the cost of a PRU place – £16,000 a year – out of their collective budgets. The number of PRU places and support and tuition packages bought by the schools has dropped from around 600 to 120, resulting in re-organisation and redundancies as the four PRUs were closed and replaced by a single one, the County School, which operates on three sites under one headteacher.

The medical needs service was closed as unviable after a tougher test was introduced for medical needs and referrals plummeted.

In need of reform

The system was in urgent need of reform, says Tom Jefford, the head of service responsible for participation and young people’s services. “We had two outstanding PRUs and two poorer ones. Lots and lots of pupils were having home tuition for about five hours a week and many of them were not doing anything constructive for the rest of the week,” he says.

“The deal was that schools would have the whole budget and have full accountability. When we ran the budget for the first time in shadow form it showed that several of the partnerships would move into deficit very quickly unless they changed their pattern of referrals.

“Their eyes lit up when they saw the budget but their dreams of investing the money in their own schools quickly evaporated as they realised how much money was committed to PRU places and other alternative provision. It took a while and some radical changes of behaviour by schools because if they wished to have even a small amount of the money for local investment, then they were going to have to reduce referrals.”

As heads began to see the opportunity to invest in their own inclusion work the number of requests for PRU places fell rapidly. Tom says: “We have seen a reduction of three-quarters. Heads were sitting down together and talking about the pupils they had sent to PRUs and whether the extra money in their inclusion budgets meant they could have done something different and kept them.”

Holding schools responsible for the progress made by children in alternative provision has proved tricky in both authorities. Cambridgeshire favours dual registration between the school and the County School. Tom says the authority wants heads tocontinue to care about the outcomes of their more difficult students, not to push them outside the gates and ignore them, but it is an ongoing debate.

“For us it has been a real game changer. It has changed the relationship between schools and the local authority and between headteachers. The system still seems quite raw and is not perfect by any means but the biggest change is that headteachers feel accountable for difficult children whereas before they didn’t. Now there is a lot of discussion between them about difficult pupils in their districts and for some of these pupils it hasn’t taken much to keep them in their schools.” 

  • Liz Lightfoot is a freelance education writer.

A winning strategy

Dr Rowena Blencowe is head of Stafford Sports College, Staffordshire, a 420-pupil school with double the national average for special needs statements and free school meals.

“In 2007-08 there were 550 permanent and fixed-term exclusions across the district. In 2009-10 there were 300 and it has gone down since then. Our own school exclusions have gone down from 95 to 22.

“Within the district inclusion panel we get on well as a group and work intensively together to address behaviour. It could be extending a technology resource based at the PRU or commissioning a project at the special school for work on motor vehicles or small animal husbandry.

“We are using the money to find as many ways as we can think of to engage the youngsters in something constructive. We have commissioned staff training from the child and adolescent mental health service and Relate counselling for pupils.

“There are some districts where headteachers do not work together as well as we do. It is about building up trust and looking at the whole provision, not being entrenched in what you need for your particular school.”

Howard Gilbert is head of St Ivo School, Cambridgeshire, a 1,800-pupil 11-19 academy.

“I am not aware of any head who would go back to the old way. Funding is delegated to schools using social, economic and academic data, not by historical use of the service.

“Around £200,000 is delegated for our school. Under the old system if I excluded a pupil it would cost £17,000 and they might be attending for five or ten hours a week. Now I can invest the money in supporting the student. We still use PRU places. Over the three years between 50 to 70 per cent of the funding will go to the PRU and between 30 to 50 per cent to improve our inclusion provision.”

picking up the pieces