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In 2003, the lack of vocational education had been an “historic weakness” of the English education system, said the then School Standards Minister, David Miliband. Indeed, teachers of disengaged or disinterested pupils have long argued the need for a suitable Alternative Curriculum that serves to educate and prepare young people for life in the real world.

A BBC News article, also in 2003, discussed the effectiveness of an Alternative Curriculum and stated, ‘A three-year experiment with the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) “Opening Minds” curriculum is claimed to have shown improved student performance across all national curriculum areas.’

The study involved a number of schools and improved behaviour was also cited as a welcome result of the Alternative Curriculum approach. In particular, The Philip Morant School in Colchester, Essex, saw better behaviour with a 90% fall in exclusions, no permanent exclusions and fewer detentions, with the average attendance up from 83% to 92%. These are amazing results that any teacher involved with pupils at risk of becoming NEETs would welcome. Keeping in mind that the aim of the Alternative Curriculum is to improve personal development at Key Stage 4 by:

  • Raising self-esteem
  • Improving confidence
  • Encouraging independent learning
  • Developing team working through practical work

Taking this into consideration, here are our tips for setting up an ideal Alternative Curriculum:

Take a practical approach – think skills-based rather than subject-based

If a pupil has become disengaged with learning, seating them at desk with a pen and textbook is not going to work. You would only be offering them the same structure they have already rejected. Think kinaesthetically and get the pupils active – for some subjects this is easier than others (e.g. design subjects, cookery and woodwork) but try to change your teaching style to cater for your pupils’ learning preferences for traditional subject areas too.

For subjects such as English, capturing a pupil’s imagination or interest through acting out a role or visiting the theatre means they are more likely to engage with the reading of the required texts for GCSE and understand the plot better. Use of audio files also helps pupils who struggle to retain information as they can replay them whenever they need to. Re-focus literacy and numeric skills by planning menus, shopping for ingredients and working out budgets.

The curriculum must be individual

LetterA flexible approach to setting up an alternative curriculum is essential. Not every pupil is the same and if a pupil is disengaged they learn in a different way to the majority of other pupils and maybe have different or unusual interests.

In a 2012 Government paper Improving Alternative Provision, Charlie Taylor, the Government’s Expert Advisor on Behaviour stated, ‘Some providers have a specialism such as music or boxing that is used as a hook to engage children back into education.’

Find the hook that will work with your pupils. You have to get to know your pupils and to find out what enthuses them and makes them want to learn. This differentiated approach could include:

  • Looking at what courses will play to the pupil’s strengths and interests
  • Taking into account your pupils’ learning styles and target them accordingly
  • Looking at the pace of delivery – does it need to be slowed down?
  • Revisiting sections of learning
  • Making the curriculum relevant – the pupil must be able to see the links between the course they are studying and the wider world

Think outside of the 9-3 and take a flexible approach

Offer extra-curricular activities, homework clubs and revision provision to support pupils with their learning. You may need to establish a smaller group for your learners so that they feel safe discussing their ideas and difficulties without fear of peer humiliation. If a pupil is struggling with home/school pressures, this may be a way of keeping them in the education while allowing them the space they need to be able to focus.

Consider utilising ‘Roll-on, roll-off’ programmes, where pupils can ‘jump off’ the course if they are struggling and return when things improve. This is an excellent way to target pupils who may be experiencing difficulties outside of school that are impacting on their education. Ensure that accreditation is linked to the time spent on the course so that the pupil can feel positive about their work – even for small achievements.

Focus on the positives

Build and maintain a supportive and nurturing environment that recognises the importance of vocational learning and does not see it as inferior to the traditional curriculum. Secure support from peers within school, teaching staff, parents and business and community mentors. Help the pupil believe that what they are learning is worthwhile and considered valuable by society. Above all, build staff and pupil relationships and spend time getting to know one another as individuals.