In recent years a number of different forms of Alternative Education Provision (AEP) have emerged in Northern Ireland and three of these were the focus of a major study conducted for the Department of Education (DENI, 2007) by Rosemary Kilpatrick, Claire McCartan and Penny McKeown with Tony Gallagher.
The three forms considered in the study were the Key Stage 4 Flexibility Initiative, Training Organisation/School Partnerships and Community-based Alternative Education Provision. For further details see the full report on the DENI website. (NB In addition to these three forms, there exist a number of ELB Educational Resource/Guidance Centres)
- Community-based Alternative Education Provision: Kilpatrick et al report that the young people in the three community-based AEPs were mostly male (65%), were mostly (55%) in this form of AEP due to negative attitudes towards or disengagement from mainstream education and mostly (56%) lived with one parent. These were mostly small projects, some funded by voluntary sources, others by statutory funding. Problems identified included lack of resources, staff perceptions of the low status of their work and uncertainty over funding. Pupils’ comments were however generally very positive and the research team noted that staff were highly motivated in their work with the young people.
- Training Organisation/School Partnerships: Kilpatrick et al discovered that most of these were primarily vocational in nature, the training organisations often developing from Youth Training Programmes in the 1980s. Pupils who attend are based full-time in the centre but remain on the roll of the mainstream school. Again most were male (64%) but here the main reason for attendance (68%)was a positive one: the desire to avail of the vocational training. Once again funding was identified as often being short-term and frequently insecure, leading to high staff turn-over and dissatisfaction. Many of the staff noted that the goal was reintegration, but into post-16 courses rather than Key Stage 4 mainstream education. Some staff also identified the lack of appropriate Initial Teacher Education for work in this field.
- Key Stage 4 Flexibility Initiative: this was introduced by DE in 2000 and first evaluated by ETI in 2003. It allows a disapplication of certain elements of the statutory curriculum at Key Stage 4 for schools in an attempt to make the school experience more relevant and engaging. The flexibility initiative therefore offers a more vocational and less academic approach, and involves students spending time in Further Education and on work placement as well as some time in their mainstream school. Again most of the pupils were male but this time none of the pupils were referred due to behavioural problems. The family backgrounds of participating pupils was more stable than in either of the other types of AEP considered. The qualifications offered varied considerably between the different examples considered in this study, but most offered some GCSEs (e.g. entry level) and other vocational qualifications. Kilpatrick et al noted that staff involved in this initiative challenged the use of the term “AEP” for this programme, believing instead that it should be reserved for those educated entirely out of school (EOTAS). Staff reported that the programme had very positive benefits for pupils’ levels of disaffection and their attendance. Pupils’ comments were overwhelmingly positive.
In conclusion, although there is considerable variety of provision in AEP in Northern Ireland, and notwithstanding challenges regarding low status, insecure funding and poor interagency collaboration, the DENI report certainly reveals very high levels of engagement with education by those pupils who had struggled to settle with the traditional curriculum in mainstream schools.
The report concludes by noting that there are lessons which mainstream schools can learn from AEP:
“Evidence from the research suggests that students experiencing AEP across the range of providers respond very positively to the teaching style, method and learning environment. A challenge for the education system is the transfer of such understanding, skill and expertise from alternative education into mainstream schooling. The Department of Education should consider ways of inculcating teaching successes in alternative provision within the mainstream sector. ” (DENI, 2007, p.126)