Alternative Education is a rather a catch-all expression used to encompass all forms of schooling that are different from the mainstream. But this is not terribly meaningful as the ‘mainstream’ itself includes a wide variety of approaches to learning and being different is rather a matter of degree: how different does a school need to be to fall outside the mainstream?

In the United Kingdom the mainstream is made up of state schools and independent (fee paying) private schools. Within the state sector there is a mix of selective and non-selective schools. And, rather confusingly, schools for students with behavioral difficulties which used to be called Pupil Referral Units are now sometimes referred to as ‘alternative provision’. In the last few years we have seen government-funded ‘free schools’ which have been set up by groups other than the Department for Education. These can also be considered as an alternative because they have been set up to meet a demand for something that is different to the pre-existing provision. In the main these ‘free school’ differences are either characteristics of religious faith or of academic performance although there are also a very small number of new Steiner free schools.

So ‘alternative education’ in the UK is a somewhat fuzzy term but a starting point is to look for what most mainstream schools have in common. For secondary schools the list would include:

  • Large scale – many with approaching or even exceeding two thousand students and staff
  • Very hierarchical – a top-down approach with students (and most staff) having very little, if any, meaningful say
  • Highly prescriptive – a strict allocation of students into age-based cohorts following a fixed curriculum
  • A high degree of conformity and disciplinarianism – uniforms, lots of rules and punishments

This has been described by Sir Ken Robinson as ‘factory-style’ education: efficiently processing children in batches into labour units ready for employment, a means to en end.

So alternative education would be characterised by having some or all of the opposite characteristics:

  • Human scale – small enough overall for people to know each other with small enough classes for teachers to teach to the individuals
  • Non-hierarchical – all adults and children are genuinely involved in decision-making
  • Non-prescriptive – students learn what is appropriate to them at the right age for them
  • Freedom of expression – students are free to be themselves

Many schools, including those in the state-sector, would feel that they have some of these attributes, if only to a small degree. There a very few schools, like Sands, who would claim to fully embrace them all.

To read more about Alternative Education and the insight it offers on issues such as Uniform, Punishment, Emotional Intelligence, Becoming a Learner, Whether Teenage Brains Explain Teenage Behaviour, The Value of Home Education and The Value of Play, Day-dreaming and Undirected Time visit our Dialogue with Parents page.