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Using AI to support teaching and learning in Alternative Provision settings

Fleur Sexton, Deputy Lieutenant West Midlands and CEO of dynamic training provider, PET-Xi, with a reputation for success with the hardest to reach, discusses harnessing the power of AI to support teaching and re-engaging learners in alternative provision (AP) settings 

According to Government statistics, in the last school year the permanent exclusion rate (as a proportion of the overall school population) for pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) was approximately four times greater, at 16.02, than those not eligible at 4.26. Suspension rates for pupils with an education, health and care plan (EHC) was 17.63, those with special educational needs (SEN) support but no EHC plan was 18.59 and those without SEN  was 4.59.

Fleur Sexton – CEO of PET-Xi

Permanent exclusions followed the trend, with those with EHC plans at 0.13, those with SEN and no EHC plan at 0.25, followed by those with no SEN at 0.05. The rates may look relatively small, but they equate to 6,495 permanently excluded children, and 578,280 suspensions. For all these suspended, temporarily or permanently excluded pupils, alternative provision (AP) becomes the ‘last stop’ to provide them with an education and improved life chances. Can AI open up opportunities and provide a pathway towards educational and social equity for these disadvantaged young people?

There are over 160,000 autistic pupils in schools across England. 70% are in mainstream school, with the remaining in specialist education, home educated or alarmingly – out of education altogether. ‘Persistent disruptive behaviour’ – the most commonly cited reason for temporary or permanent exclusion from mainstream education – often results from unmet or undiagnosed SEN or social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs. 

These pupils find themselves unable to cope in a mainstream environment, which impacts their mental health and personal wellbeing, and their abilities to engage in a positive way with the curriculum and the challenges of school routine. A multitude of factors all adding to their feelings of frustration and failure.According to the SEND and AP improvement plan, (March 2023) ‘…82% of children and young people in state-place funded alternative provision have identified special educational needs (SEN) 2, and it (AP) is increasingly being used to supplement local SEND systems…’ 

Children excluded from school face a bleak future, with just 4% achieving a pass in English and maths GCSEs, and 50% becoming NEET post-16. Exclusion is often referred to as ‘the pipeline to prison’, and the statistics support that: 42% of prisoners were expelled or permanently excluded from school, 59% truanted, and around 47% of those entering prison had no school qualifications. 

Currently AP is in crisis. Some excluded pupils on waiting lists for a placement have online lessons or tutors, others are simply not being educated. Oversubscribed AP settings lead to increased class sizes and reduced teacher:pupil ratios, so they no longer receive the levels of additional support they need. Other unregulated settings provide questionable educational advantage to those who attend. AI can help redress the balance, and provide part of the solution. 

Those attending AP, often have well ingrained negative associations with learning. The first barrier is to find ways to re-engage them. To do this the content must be meaningful to them, it must connect to the real world and reflect their own experiences. 

A persuasive essay about school uniforms, may fire the debate for a successful learner, but it is probably not going to be a hot topic for a child struggling with a chaotic or dysfunctional home life. If that child is dealing with high levels of adversity – being a carer for a relative, keeping the household going, dealing with pressure to join local gangs, being coerced into couriering drugs and weapons around the neighbourhood – school uniform does not hold sway. It has little to do with their life.  

Asking the group about the subjects they feel strongly about, or responding to local news stories from their neighbourhoods, and using these to create tasks, will provide a more enticing hook to pique their interest. After all, in many situations, the subject of a task is  just the ‘hanger’ for the skills they need to learn – in this case, the elements of creating a persuasive piece, communicating perspectives and points of view. 

Using AI, teachers have the capacity to provide this individualised content and personalised instruction and feedback. Supporting learners by addressing their needs and ‘scaffolding’ their learning through adaptive teaching. 

AI can be a ‘third’ teacher in the room, alongside the class teacher and assistant. For example, if a learner is having difficulty grasping a concept – especially an abstract one, the AI tutor can produce several relevant analogies to help explain it. AI can also be used to develop interactive learning modules, so the learner has more control and more of a sense of ownership over their learning.

This is by no means a replacement for teachers or teaching assistants. AI is purely an additional support, that, coupled with approaches that promote engagement with learning, can support these disadvantaged and often vulnerable children and young people, enabling them to access ‘a world-class education that allows them to reach their potential and live a fulfilled life, regardless of their background.’ (DfE) 

Fleur Sexton, CEO PET-Xi www.pet-xi.co.uk.

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