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We Need to be Solution-Focused in Preventing School Exclusions

And we need to work together to achieve the best outcomes, says Jackie Ward...

  • We Need to be Solution-Focused in Preventing School Exclusions

I have always been drawn to the child that struggles in class. The one who challenges authority and disrupts lessons. The one who is sent out to the headteacher and then sent home.

Back in the day, ‘exclusion’ was an unknown term; a child who severely misbehaved (usually secondary aged) was ‘expelled’ and went on to some kind of ‘corrective’ facility; there was some limited alternative provision for primary aged pupils and I can remember visiting one with a six-year-old, David (not his real name), who was delighted that he now had ‘two Mrs Wards’ looking after him.

Eventually, David came back to our school on a phased return in Y5 but I do not know if his transition to high school was successful or not; I suspect not as he was angry, violent and lacked empathy for others – his initial move came after he banged a little girl’s head on a cupboard.

I had been asking for ages for him to access the alternative provision due to his escalating behaviours and as the only adult in class (there were no support staff then) I was struggling to keep everyone safe; it took an incident to prompt action.

Of course, what we did not know then was why this child behaved the way he did.

Underlying medical needs were not widely (if at all) recognised, but looking back I suspect he possibly had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) as he was very impulsive, struggled to make friendships and found it hard to stay on task and access learning; there were also possible attachment or trauma issues as he lived with his dad and rarely saw his mum.

And yet, what if we had been able to recognise that this young child had underlying complex needs: SEMH (social, emotional, mental health), speech, language and communication needs, learning difficulties?

If we could have referred him to speech and language, paediatric services, psychology? Early intervention could have made a massive difference to his life, apart from having “two Mrs Wards”.

Fast forward to the present; how much, truly, has changed? How many teachers have been sufficiently trained to recognise individual needs and seek help from school SENCOs?

And how many SENCOs have time to pursue additional support from external services?

How many external services have sufficient capacity to investigate possible autism, ADHD, SLCN (speech, language and communication needs)? And if it is agreed that a child requires an education, health and care needs assessment, how many local authorities have the financial capacity to adhere to lawful practice enshrined in the Children’s Act to look at ‘may need an EHC (education, health and care) needs assessment’?

Particularly as the SEND Code of Practice 2015 provides a get out clause in the form of evidencing a graduated response? And, if needs cannot be met, how many children are at risk of exclusion?

When I was at the pupil referral unit, too many children were permanently excluded with a label of ‘naughty’ when the reality was they had unmet or undiagnosed needs, usually ASC (autistic spectrum condition), ADHD or SLCN which we were then able to unpick.

For some children, a specialist provision is very necessary, but in order to obtain that they need an EHCP (education, health and care plan) via a needs assessment.

If steps are taken at an early stage to collate evidence of the ‘assess, plan, do, review’ process then this will facilitate the next stages of the assessment.

I am not pretending that this is easy but there are positive steps that schools can take to identify individual needs. Now I am working in a variety of mainstream primaries, I am able to advise schools in examining and implementing inclusive practice that works.

It is vital that teachers realise that they are also ‘teachers of special needs’ as part of quality first teaching. (This is enshrined in teacher standards and SEN Code of Practice 2015).

However, no one is expecting them to do it all by themselves; if a child needs something additional that cannot be provided by normal practice within the classroom, including differentiated teaching, then they should seek support from the SENCo.

It is recommended in the code of practice that the SENCo should be part of SLT so that SEN and behaviour are under the umbrella of an inclusive, whole-school approach that seeks to minimise exclusion.

It is important to remember that SEMH falls under SEN in the code of practice, so, arguably if a child is under threat of exclusion there will be an identifiable special need that needs unpicking.

If schools ensure their SENCOs are given sufficient time and training to do their jobs effectively, this is massive in terms of ensuring they can support class teachers appropriately in making reasonable adjustments for their children; once this is in place, exclusion can often be avoided.

An example of this is a child in one of my schools who showed impulsivity, struggled to stay on task, was aggressive to adults and his peers, had some obvious sensory issues and difficulties with social communication and interaction.

I referred him to the community paediatrician after extensive observation in school, both at structured and unstructured times, communication with parents and discussion with teachers and the child.

Reasonable adjustments included providing him with ear defenders (he was extremely noise sensitive), providing him with access to a small social skills group with the learning mentor, supporting him at unstructured times (for example, providing lunchtime activities), and ensuring he had some support in class if he was unsettled, with a ‘safe space’ he could move to if he was becoming disruptive.

He was later diagnosed with ADHD and put on medication; he then also received a diagnosis of ASC and I was able to obtain an EHCP to support his long-term needs.

He has now really settled and can access his classroom without being in danger of exclusion, which was the case before.

If heads and staff work together to unpick unmet needs and put appropriate strategies in place then exclusion can be prevented, and I am proud to say that I am managing to prevent exclusion, one school at a time.

However this relies on a combination of whole-school practice and engaging with external services to play their part.

Resilience is needed, along with tenacity, and it definitely does pay off! We cannot give up on our vulnerable children and need to never accept second best. I love proving that it can be done!

Jackie Ward is an independent behaviour and SEND consultant. She has taught in four primary schools and a primary PRU in her roles as deputy head and SENCo. Find her at sendforjax.co.uk and on Twitter at @jordyjax.

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