An FE-led trust has benefited her alternative and special provision schools, says Jo Southby. They have contributed great things to the college too, but, most of all, it has influenced positive changes for young people at all stages of their education

In 2017 our successful federation of alternative and special provision schools joined a multi-academy trust, a unique transfer as the trust was led by a further education college.

Much can be learned from our experience over the past two years, and it’s clear that bringing together expertise from diverse institutions can create real success.

London South East Academies Trust is led by a large FE college, with campuses in our own and two surrounding boroughs. This brought immediate benefits, opening up partnership opportunities inside and outside our home turf and a different overview of how different local authorities (LAs) work. This alone improved our negotiation powers.

Joining up back office support has been a learning experience

We decided to become part of a trust for several reasons, but primarily to be part of an organisation that gave us a louder voice and more influence with the LA and other stakeholders. 

Alternative provision (AP) in particular has a tendency to be viewed as an extended LA service rather than as a school sector in its own right. Becoming part of a successful educational trust has, however, helped to change this – enabling us to reposition ourselves and ultimately shift the mindset of the people we work with.

It hasn’t been without its challenges. Joining up back office support has been a learning experience for college and schools alike. With AP and special schools, you cannot predict numbers or set targets in the same way a college does with its recruitment. Basically, you don’t know who is coming through the door! But having back-end support from the trust has been of real benefit, enabling our staff to concentrate on the main task of looking after students.

Staff recruitment and development across the trust have also been enhanced as, as part of a larger organisation, we are able to develop more attractive packages in terms of accredited external training and progression opportunities.

We advise students without schools’ accountability-led in-house bias

At first glance, AP deals with very different cohorts to a general FE college: children who are at risk of or have been excluded from school, with little interest in learning or partaking of a school community, and who are likely to be facing many challenges.  And our special provision (SP) schools cater for pupils with increasingly complex social, emotional and mental health needs that require significantly higher levels of intervention and support.

Ultimately though, these are the young people who we are preparing to enter college or workplace. College can be a great progression route when young people leave us – and with a possible renewed focus on young people achieving level 2 qualifications, that is increasingly where they are likely to go.

Not only are we now in a prime position to identify suitable FE routes for our students, but our expertise is of great value to our partner colleges who are going to be receiving these young people. We advise students on their next steps, in line with what is appropriate for them and their individual needs and without schools’ accountability-led in-house bias, and my staff are experts well beyond their school gates on safeguarding, knife crime, mental ill health and many other issues facing the trust’s students.

At the same time, we are benefiting from a louder voice, economies of scale and increased opportunities for students and staff – so it has most definitely been a win-win for us all.​