By Ben Bryant, Director, Isos Partnership. Posted 13th May 2022

‘Especially for the most vulnerable pupils’ is a common refrain in national policy debates about the education system in England. The recent education white paper invokes this in its title, promising ‘opportunity for all’. At the same time, there is widespread recognition that it is vulnerable pupils who are most likely to miss out on education and least likely to achieve good outcomes.

This LocalED pilot (Pilot 1) will focus on the vulnerability of children and young people in the education system in England, the reasons that they are vulnerable, and how a system-wide approach to tackling the causes and effects of vulnerability can deliver on admirable commitments to support for vulnerable pupils.

The pilot draws its inspiration from two main sources. First, the need for a wider focus on vulnerable pupils has been apparent in our research and work with local authorities (LAs), school and trust leaders, wider services and agencies, and families.

In our work with local areas, and in our discussions with the local areas participating in this pilot, we have heard the following set of related issues described.

  1. Some vulnerable pupils can often be “invisible” to the wider education system, yet ensuring that these young people’s experiences and outcomes (or lack thereof) can be vital in galvanising action to support those same pupils. For pupils on the margins or outside mainstream education, it can be a case of “out of sight, out of mind”, with very little known about the type of provision and support being accessed or the progress and outcomes that these young people achieve. As we wrote in a research report on children missing out on education in 2021, ‘Children missing education do not form a homogenous group and are not always easy to identify … This complexity helps explain why the numbers of children missing out on their entitlement to education might be routinely underestimated.’
  2. Individual institutions and services can take direct responsibility for pupils on their roll or caseload, but not always recognise their wider responsibilities and the knock-on effects of their actions on vulnerable pupils and other institutions. In our work, we have highlighted the importance of schools and services recognising a sense of collective responsibility for vulnerable pupils and the need for a system-wide, rather than institution-specific, approach to supporting them. The importance of collective responsibility has been a constant theme in our work on alternative provision, SEND, and locality working.
  3. There can be a mismatch between, on the one hand, the needs and experiences of vulnerable pupils, and, on the other, the tools and strategies used to address those needs. Schools and services often tell us they feel poorly equipped to get under the skin of and address some of the most complex causes of vulnerability, trauma and adverse childhood experiences. At the same time, approaches based on reduced timetables, isolation, suspension, exclusion and moving pupils into another school or AP may not address (and may in some cases actually exacerbate) a young person’s needs.
  4. In such situations, there may be little or no impact on improving the experiences and outcomes of vulnerable pupils – approaches based on moving a pupil out of the classroom or from mainstream education may simply add to their marginalisation and invisibility of the needs and outcomes of this cohort, rather than addressing their needs.

Second, added to this have been the insights gained from the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact of lockdowns. As we described in our research report on how local areas had responded to the first national lockdown in 2020, the experience of national lockdowns facilitated and necessitated a more sophisticated understanding of vulnerability.

‘Many leaders across education and children’s services observed that the experience of the pandemic period had fostered a more sophisticated and shared understanding of vulnerability. The process of risk assessing support for children, identifying children who were “out of sight” of services, and working with families who had been placed into conditions of hardship by the pandemic, had sharpened understanding of the indicators of and risks associated with “vulnerability”, as well as the necessity of joint working.’

It also underscored the value of collaborative, locality-based partnership working.

Local areas described the importance of (a) having a strong values base and ethos of collective responsibility for “all our children” in the local area (not just responsibility for the children known to a particular service or enrolled in one school or setting), and (b) both an expectation and experience of system leaders – schools and settings, LA education and children’s services, and other agencies – coming together to tackle system-wide issues.’

What are we seeking to test through this pilot?

Put simply, this pilot is seeking to test how we can turn the four sets of issues listed above on their heads –

  1. How can we make the cohort of young people who are vulnerable to missing out on education, their experiences and outcomes more visible?
  2. How can we foster a sense of collective, joined-up responsibility for vulnerable pupils?
  3. What are the strategies and approaches that services, schools and communities can adopt to support vulnerable pupils and their families?
  4. Do these factors – increasing visibility, fostering collective responsibility, and strengthening strategies – deliver impact and better outcomes for vulnerable pupils?

The pilots will be taking place in the context of new developments following the publication of the education white paper and the green paper on SEND (special educational needs and disability) and AP (alternative provision), as well as broader developments around family hubs, children’s social care and local health services.

The view of those involved in this pilot is that:

  • National policy is seeking to encourage joined-up, partnership-based locality arrangements to support vulnerable pupils
  • The proposals in the green paper are just that – proposals subject to consultation – and in the meantime there is both the necessity to seek to tackle these issues we have highlighted and the opportunity to use these insights to inform the direction of national policy
  • That the pilot programme can test ways of helping local areas navigate this complex landscape of policy change.

What are we going to be doing next?

Through the pilot, we are going to be working with leaders from across the local education systems in the following four areas:

  • Coventry
  • Rochdale
  • Wakefield
  • Wiltshire

We have held initial conversations with each local area individually to hear about what they hope to achieve from being part of the pilot programme, what they bring to the programme from their own work to date and what they are hoping to learn from working with others.

We also brought leaders from all four local areas together for an initial kick-off workshop on 28 April – as well as continuing to hold regular check-ins with each local area, we are planning to continue to bring the local areas every six months or so to share learning and focus on common challenges. Already from these early conversations, we have a strong sense of both the shared areas of focus of the four local areas, as well as areas complementary strengths, where the work of one local area can help guide the others and vice versa.

We will continue to share regular updates and learning from this pilot. Please contact for more information.

The first workshops were held with Pilot Leads for Pilot 1 on 28th April 2022.