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Reducing School Exclusions Won’t Stop Knife Crime on its Own

Suggesting that knife crime could be reduced by cutting school exclusion numbers is vastly to underestimate the complexity of the issues involved, says Fiona Millar...

  • Reducing School Exclusions Won’t Stop Knife Crime on its Own

One of the most vexing current education debates is about school exclusion. Once a Cinderella area of public policy, it has rightly shot up the political agenda and should be one of the most pressing challenges for our new Secretary of State. But will the right solutions be found?

Naturally, a fair exclusion process is an essential part of a just education system. Society has an obligation to ensure that young people are safe and can learn in school, even if that means the departure of a fellow student.

But the spotlight has been well and truly trained on this problem by the gnawing concern that an increasing number of exclusions may not be fair, or legal, and a fear that we may be making society less safe by putting too many troubled young people on the streets at a time when knife crime is on the increase.

There is a correlation between rising exclusions and youth violence. But, temping as it is for politicians and journalists to rush to simple conclusions such as ‘cutting exclusions will sort knife crime’, a correlation doesn’t necessarily prove a causal link.

Further back

Early childhood experiences and trauma can start the risky path towards exclusion and criminal behaviour. Many headteachers say that they can spot children in primary school who will become challenging adolescents.

If we can’t address their issues early on, social, emotional and behavioural problems may get worse. So, an equally plausible explanation is for rising exclusions and knife crime is that both are symptoms of the same underlying social problems exacerbated by austerity and cuts to children’s and youth services.

Then there are the pressures schools are under from an overly competitive system where performance measures can trump ethical leadership. Heads are in a bind; under pressure to cut exclusions, while being heavily incentivised to lose certain pupils if it improves their results.

And this is a social justice issue. If you are a young person eligible for free school meals, with SEND, from certain ethnic minority backgrounds, and are male, your chances of being kicked out of school will be are much higher than for other groups and the impact on your later life will be considerable.

Only one per cent of excluded pupils get the five ‘good’ GCSEs they need to access the workforce. A study of UK prisoners found that 63 per cent had been temporarily excluded while at school and 42 per cent had been permanently excluded.

This may be because the quality of some alternative provision, in which many excluded young people complete their secondary education, is atrocious. But why is there an unregulated alternative provision sector, operating below the state radar if the hours of teaching fall below a certain threshold?

Meeting needs

Up to 6,000 pupils may end up in these schools, and Ofsted recently reported young people wasting their time and playing computer games in one of the few private institutions that they managed to visit.

The already vulnerable, who may have been excluded because their needs can’t be met or because they won’t make the exam grade, are fed a meagre diet of unsatisfactory or non-existent teaching without the sort of specialist, trauma-informed support and intervention they most need.

Excluding a pupil is never easy. I have been on enough governor panels to understand that.

The wide package of proposals from former government minister Edward Timpson in his recent review of exclusions (hopefully top of the pile on the new Ed Sec’s desk) includes the requirement that schools are held accountable for the children they exclude. This is sensible but his proposals don’t go far enough.

There will always be pupils who require exclusion, but if they are to remain a tiny minority we need to judge schools as much on inclusion as on exam results, and make sure the needs of all pupils are met from the earliest stage, however challenging or expensive that may be.

Fiona Millar is a columnist for The Guardian and a co-founder of the Local Schools Network; for more information, visit fionamillar.com or follow @schooltruth.

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