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Exclusions in schools – Why they mustn’t be outlawed

Photograph of an exit door

The decision of one London borough to prevent virtually all forms of permanent exclusion risks leaving schools with fewer options and a drain on staff capacity, argues Dr Stephen Curran…

Dr Stephen Curran
by Dr Stephen Curran
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Once again, the education system’s progressives are putting untested theory over years of experience – this time, by preventing schools from excluding pupils.

I refer here to the London Borough of Southwark’s recent response to high rates of exclusion among its schools. Rather than try to reduce the number of those excluded – through interventions, say – it’s instead attempted to try and ban the practice entirely, proposing that students will only be removed from schools if they’re actively threatening the safety of their peers.

Teachers, it seems, will be encouraged to understand the reasons behind bad behaviour using a ‘trauma-informed response,’ and not take incidents at ‘face value.’

Let’s be clear – mandating no exclusions at all is just as extreme as resorting to exclusions continually. While it’s true that many children’s lives are affected by a rage of complex issues, and that schools should be compassionate in how they engage with these, it’s also unfair to tell 29 other children that their classroom experience must be sacrificed for the sake of one child with serious problems. It’s important to recognise the rights of the majority, not just the minority.

Over 30 years of teaching I came to learn that sometimes, there was simply no choice but to have a child removed from class so that the rest could learn freely and be treated fairly. A ‘no exclusion’ policy might seem well-meaning at first, but it’s one founded on idealism, and an erroneous belief that all problems children present with are ultimately solvable with kindness and understanding.

‘Social education’

I remember once dealing with two highly disruptive children who dominated the time and attention of the school’s hugely compassionate teachers. They went on to commit a serious rape, and are currently serving prison time. The reality is that schools can’t solve all the problems children have. Sometimes, proceeding with exclusion and teaching them in a specialised unit is the only viable option.

Yet there can be a tendency among some progressive educationalists to view schools as centres of ‘social education’ – places where teachers assume additional carer roles, and are expected to sort out the social, behavioural and psychological problems affecting very difficult children. But this should be left to the experts – particularly psychologists and psychiatrists – rather than teachers.

I always believed that my role in school was to teach my subject, and that by doing this well, children would benefit from receiving an excellent education in said subject. It wasn’t about resolving social issues and making up for bad parenting.

Modern values

When faced with a determinedly disruptive child, a teacher prevented from excluding any child from lessons can be genuinely powerless to do anything. Discussion, counselling, sanctions, and other techniques don’t always work, sometimes resulting in teachers spending endless hours outside classrooms, dealing with problems stemming from just one individual. A policy of ‘no exclusion’ denies schools a crucial way out of situations where there’s a risk of them becoming overwhelmed.

The influence of wider society on children’s behaviour also doesn’t help. Observe how some highly viewed ‘influencers’ have championed the rule-breaking of Extinction Rebellion and other protest movements. Many children will have seen this and taken it to mean that they themselves can do as they please.

We need to think more broadly about the values our society espouses, but that’s a process in which our schools can only play a limited part. Banning exclusions on the basis of ill-informed idealism serves to deny the wider harms that some societal values are causing – including the bad behaviour we see in schools.

Dr Stephen Curran (@DrStephenCurran) is a former teacher and the founder of AE Tuition

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