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School exclusions – A useful tool as last resort, or a pathway to gang culture?

Three experts share their thoughts on schools’ use of permanent exclusions...

  • School exclusions – A useful tool as last resort, or a pathway to gang culture?

Mark Lehain

Former principal of the Bedford Free School and director of Parents & Teachers for Excellence
For a system to be properly inclusive, those who work and study in it must first and foremost feel safe. No school can be safe without effective behaviour systems, and no behaviour system works without an ultimate endpoint beyond which no one can go without consequence.

People naturally respond to the culture around them, and by having an endpoint we improve behaviour generally, make everyone feel safer and happier, and reduce the number of children who reach the final stage. All of these things ultimately keep more children in our schools, and so make the system more inclusive as a result.

As usual, the DfE’s Independent Behaviour Advisor, Tom Bennett, says it best: “Exclusions are needed as a last resort, or the entire system before it chokes. If there is no terminus for extreme persistent misbehaviour, then anything is permitted up to that point too. Exclusions therefore aren’t a ‘necessary evil’; If they are necessary, then they are not evil.”

Some sceptics will admit that exclusions benefit those who remain in school, but rightly ask about those children who are excluded. The thing is, exclusions can and should be a wake-up call. I’ve seen it so many times. Sometimes, in spite of everything else done to support a child, it takes a really serious sanction like a suspension or expulsion to trigger a positive change.

It’s only when a child is ready to look at the consequences of their actions and commit to changing that they have a decent chance of being included, in the genuine sense of the word. That is, welcomed by peers, supported by teachers, and able to get properly stuck into their learning. Ideally, this wouldn’t require an exclusion, but sometimes it does. They’ll preferably manage their turnaround at the school they’re already at, but sometimes the situation might call for fresh start at another place, be it another great school or a pupil referral unit.

School exclusions make our system better overall. Let’s not pretend that artificially avoiding them is more inclusive in any meaningful way. And let’s not maintain that exclusions are the end of a child’s chances in education – there are too many examples of it leading to the successful re-inclusion of children, one way or another.

Dan Rosenberg

Partner and education and public law solicitor at Simpson Millar
Exclusions will often take place because individuals aren’t getting the help they need, particularly if they have issues with speech and language or social communication.

They get frustrated, which will manifest as low-level messing around that gets dealt with via a disciplinary sanction, rather than a supportive intervention, and things deteriorate from there.

I’ve seen many kids enter secondary with a record of behavioural issues in primary. There’s no support to help deal with those issues, and by Y8 or Y9 they’re out and into the alternative system, from where they become prime targets for gang recruiters involved in County Lines drug-trafficking activities.

I’m based in London. While acknowledging that I can only speak to my own recent experiences, and that obviously every child is different, many parents have told me that they’re petrified of their child entering alternative provision, because they see it as a sure route to getting in with a bad peer group.

I’ve even heard some parents say that they’d rather go to prison themselves than have their excluded child attend PRU, because they perceive the risk as being so high.

Some forms of alternative provision are used to house all the kids who have been kicked out of all the schools all mixing together, which doesn’t make for a good environment.

Some individuals might only attend mornings, leaving them with time on their hands and proximity to a group who actively recruit from those attending PRUs and similar settings. Those problems combine to form a highway to exploitation, and I’ve seen people at all stages along it.

Addressing the behavioural needs of 4- to 6-year-olds requires fewer resources, and has a greater chance of success than doing the same 13- and 14-year-olds. Yet SEND provision at those early stages has been significantly under-resource over the last decade or so.

Finally, we have the issue that most secondary schools are now separate from their LA.

Previously, if a school ‘pushed’ a difficult child into another part of the system, they would still remain the original school’s responsibility. With academies, that’s no longer the case – they’re completely independent and accountable to a different body, often one with no link to the locality in which it’s based.

At present, we have a pipeline that’s effectively funnelling young people out of school and into a very precarious situation. Unless steps are actively taken to stem the flow, that pipeline will be with us for some time to come.

Festus Akins

Former board member at Milton Keynes College and serving link governor for the Offender Learning and Skills Service
When a child is excluded from school, the consequences are severe. That said, schools must be able to use exclusions as a mechanism – one among many – for maintaining discipline.

I know that I wouldn’t want a child engaging in extreme violence or distributing extremist material at school my children attend. Schools need tools to be able to deal with such incidents.

However, research carried out in 2018 by Ofsted highlighted a number of cases where schools were removing a significant number of children between Y10 and Y11.

A year later, Ofsted identified a further 300 schools with high numbers of students being excluded, and even publicly named three of them. What happened in the minds of these Y10 students to prompt their exclusion that didn’t happen when they were in Y9 or Y8?

I think there’s a perverse incentive in place, which Ofsted and the government are evidently now trying to get to grips with.

Admittedly, it’s an incentive created by successive governments, and arguably Ofsted’s own guidelines, because when a school is primarily judged on its academic performance, it effectively becomes a race to see who can get the best grades over everything else.

Ofsted has since begun looking beyond academic performance and started to examine the factors behind the current level of exclusions more deeply, wanting explanations as to why a particular child has been excluded.

Now that they’ve started doing that, it’s become more apparent to me than ever that there is clearly something going on.

I come from a family of teachers, and have great sympathy for those in the teaching profession. However, there have to be some changes in what they do, how they function and the roles they perform because of how society is changing, as has been the case with GPs.

We can’t continue with a situation where some teachers and schools share the attitude I once heard in a debate panel, when a senior teaching professional said, ‘School is just about teaching children. I’m not here to manage behaviour; that’s not my job.’

If there are a number of teachers and heads out there who share that attitude, is it any surprise that we should see so many children excluded?

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