Increasing engagement, one student at a time

Alternative provision


Education systems globally are looking to new models of learning and school that better prepare our young people to thrive. We are working with Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council to bring Big Picture Learning to the UK. Big Picture Learning is an innovative school model that has achieved astounding outcomes for young people who are the most disengaged from mainstream education in the US and Australia.

the challenge

35 children

are permanently excluded from school each day in England, with many teachers attributing this to disengagement

£12-32 billion

current estimated public finance costs of 16 to 18 year-olds who are NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training)


above national average levels of persistent absence in secondary schools in Doncaster, putting them in the bottom three local authorities in the country

30.7% exclusion rate

compared to the national figure of 8.5%, with Doncaster ranked 150/152 local authorities for fixed period exclusion rates

Engagement is not the same as learning, but it is an important first step.

Some young people struggle to see the point of school and how it contributes to their lives now and into the future, resulting in poor attendance and cycles of disruptive behaviour.

Things can be even worse in areas with poor social mobility, where low expectations of young people’s potential to achieve and contribute combine with complex home lives to limit life chances in unacceptable ways.  

Excluded from, or refusing, school, young people from poor areas with complex home lives too often end up inevitably in an alternative provision – alternative to school, that is – that fails to offer the necessary inspiration to re-engage them with the learning they so badly need.

Doncaster is facing a student disengagement crisis, borne out by persistent poor attendance and high levels of exclusion. In response, the council has embarked on a journey to transform options for young people for whom attending school is a challenge. For too long, the alternative provision in the behaviour system and support for those with additional and special needs has fallen short of the aspiration that Doncaster holds for all its young people.

It has also fallen short of what young people in Doncaster want from their schools. In recent research they asked for:

  1. a broad and balanced curriculum,
  2. the stigma around mental health to be addressed,
  3. better pathways to employment so that they can be on track for good quality work.

Making Big Picture Learning available to the young people of Doncaster represents a brilliant opportunity to deal with items one and three on their wish list.

“We’re very committed to raising attainment within the borough, but more importantly we’re interested in looking at different modes and models of learning, particularly those that are going to engage young people in relevant real-world experiences and that are going to prepare them for progression to further education, the world of work and their future lives.” Damian Allen, Director of People (DCS/DASS), Doncaster MBC



In January 2017, Doncaster was awarded Social Mobility Opportunity Area status by the Department for Education (DfE), a chance and a challenge. It provides an opportunity to deliver improvement through schools, colleges, employers and wider partners – thinking about not only the impact of educational attainment on social mobility, but also the impact of meaningful engagement with employers, clearer pathways to university and to work, and increased social and cultural capital.

Doncaster refers many more young people into the behaviour system and to alternative provision than its statistical neighbours, and Big Picture Learning represents a real opportunity to transform outcomes for some of the most vulnerable and disengaged young people in Doncaster.

Big Picture Learning is an innovative learning design which follows a mantra of ‘one student at a time’. It is designed to combat disengagement and to inspire young people at risk of disengagement or already disengaged.

Each student has a bespoke learning plan that is unique to them. After the age of 14, every young person spends two days a week in a ‘interest-led internship’ which places them alongside a mentor, learning in a real world setting which has meaning to them as individuals.

Working with young people in small advisory groups, advisors (teachers) invest in building powerful, authentic relationships with each and every student. They support individuals to connect with their passion and make their learning relevant to the real world, and as a result drive student engagement.

Through sustained learning relationships, individual learning plans tailored to their needs, interests and passions and meaningful and challenging real-world placements, young people are encouraged and supported to experience success in learning, and re-establish the connection between the real world and the world of school.


  • Big Picture Learning students
  • Big Picture Learning student
  • Big Picture Learning students
  • Big Picture Learning students



of Big Picture students in the US are accepted into two- or four-year university courses


of Big Picture students in the US who went straight to work after graduation secured employment through their Big Picture Learning internship


of Big Picture students are from low-income families, eligible for free or reduced school lunch, and more than one third having an absent father, yet outcomes are still achieved


of students who attend Big Picture schools in the US will be the first in their family to earn a college degree

We believe the Big Picture Learning design offers a potentially transformative alternative to what currently exists in Doncaster’s Behaviour system, and can make a significant contribution within the council’s broader Social Mobility Strategy.

We know that the picture is complex, with a wide variety of young people with differing needs accessing the behaviour system in Doncaster. But local leaders are determined and resolute in their ambition to make Doncaster a place where everyone can succeed in education and life. For that to be true, a sustainable, fit-for-purpose system is required, that meets the needs and aspirations of all young people in the borough.

“At Innovation Unit, we’ve been long-time champions of Big Picture-style education and believe in its transformative potential. It’s early days, but we hope the work in Doncaster will lay the groundwork to establish a national provider of Big Picture Learning that supports the ambitious educators and providers to rethink school and learning” Lizzie Insall

Big Picture Learning US students soldering Big Picture Learning US students filming Big Picture Learning students

If you or your colleagues are interested in helping us to make Doncaster a learning city, or you would like to keep up to date with Big Picture Learning Doncaster and other UK site news, please visit the Big Picture Learning UK website, here.