The Importance of Youth Voice in Alternative Provision Research

Jul 27, 2023 | Blog

Dr Craig Johnston, The University of the West of England, Bristol.

Dr Simon Bradford, Brunel University, London.

Research with young people excluded from school has (almost by default) drawn on the impact of professional interventions in supporting these young people with their poor attendance and/or re/engagement, especially in Alternative Provisions (APs) (Department for Education, (DfE) 2023). Such specialist support is necessary and often innovative but is too often bound to institutional aims and outcomes that are active in embedded structures reproducing inherited institutional systems, strategies and/or practices. Our research interest in the field of AP is in eliciting the voice of young people and developing a focus on friendships and social networks as spaces for collectively initiated social support. Little research has focused exclusively on the voice of young disabled men from working class backgrounds, who are vastly overrepresented in AP settings and in school exclusion statistics (DfE, 2023). Our research has attempted to explore the significance of their friendships networks that, although having a largely negative presence in policy and other literatures, have considerable potential for enhancing these young men’s well-being and agency (See Johnston & Bradford, 2019; 2022; 2023). Policy development in this area over the last twenty years has also helped to establish amongst most professions the value of including the voices of young people, contributing to the development of effective practice and policies.

We suggest that most professionals now acknowledge the limited representation of young people’s voices. This has, in recent years, pushed forward efforts to elicit voices on their education for the purposes of planning and policy development. More recently, it has become fashionable in the school exclusion literature to link the idea of ‘voice’ with terms such as ‘reintegration’ and ‘participation’, to describe different forms of collaboration between young people and professionals (Owen et al., 2021). The ‘voice’ of young people is a central element of AP policy and practice rhetoric, but as it gains in usage it becomes more open to question and criticism. This is particularly so over the issue of whether the focus of this work should be on supporting young people to articulate their own voices or directed at getting expert professionals to listen and respond to relevant issues and reasons for school exclusion and behaviour. Inevitably, at the heart of this debate are questions relating to issues of power and how power intersects with, and emerges through, indicators of social difference disability, class, ethnicity and gender, for example.

Reasons for poor school attendance, engagement and school exclusion are varied and the behaviours and cultural practices of young disabled men are often understood by professionals, researchers and policymakers as risk factors precipitating pervasive negative effects into adulthood such as poor social-economic outcomes (Madia et al., 2022) or criminal victimisation (Wolf and Kupchik, 2017). Recent policy documents (DfE, 2023) and most of the current literature still reinforce a reliance on professional networks. This can silence the voice of young people at a critical stage in their educational career. Regulation of young disabled men’s voices, social spaces, learning economies, a shifting of power to professionals and their ability to control relationships erect hidden barriers for those who wish to develop their own sense of identity and sense of agency as part of transition processes. Questions thus arise for both researchers and policymakers about how young disabled men’s own understandings of need and possible responses can be further included in the work of APs. We believe that hearing young men’s voices can serve as an empowering and emancipatory experience. Our research has consistently highlighted the significance that empowering young men can have in terms of preventing exacerbation of difficulties. We also suggest that eliciting voice helps young men to gain reflexive insight into their own lived realities and how these function within the contexts of their learning and relationships. This demonstrates the full utility of research into this area in informing the AP policy and practice.


Department for Education: SEND and alternative provision improvement plan. Online 060523:

Johnston, C. & Bradford, S. 2019 Alternative spaces of failure, Disabled ‘bad boys’ in alternative further education provision Disability & Society, 34 (9-10), 1548-1572

Johnston, C. & Bradford, S. 2022. Absence of value. In A. Tarrant, L. Ladlow, & L. Way (Eds.), . Routledge

Johnston, C. & Bradford, S. (2022) Other Lives: Relationships of Young Disabled Men on the Margins of Alternative Provision Disability & Society (In press).

Madia, J.E., Obsuth, I., Thompson, I., Daniels, H. and Murray, A.L. 2022, Long-term labour market and economic consequences of school exclusions in England: Evidence from two counterfactual approaches. Br J Educ Psychol, 92: 801-816

Owen, C., Woods, K. & Stewart, A. (2021) A systematic literature review exploring the facilitators and barriers of reintegration to secondary mainstream schools through ‘alternative provision’, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 26:3, 322-338

Wolf, K. C., and A. Kupchik. 2017. “School Suspensions and Adverse Experiences in Adulthood.” Justice Quarterly 34 (3): 407–430