Lord Adonis has caused quite a stir this weekend with his statement that “We must tackle the cancer of school expulsions – 1000s are excluded for a period of time each school day. Schools should be forbidden from expelling pupils, unless they have broken the law – many young lives are going completely off the rails because of this.”
If Lord Adonis had ever taught through this hideously long term, he would have thought twice about the timing of this announcement. While he has a valid point, it entirely ignores the exhaustion that the profession feels at this time of year. It’s frustrating enough when you’re tired, stressed out, giving it your all at the chalk face and dealing with a 6ft 2″ angry/distressed man-boy squaring up to you in the classroom, without some Lord telling you what to do.
But we also have to take a deep breath and look at what’s going on around us. And yes, I have been there, believe me. I once had my shoulder severely bruised by one teenage boy who pushed me against the door in his attempt to leg it out of my classroom. He was autistic, in care, distressed and I was in his way. He was excluded for three days then we sat down, had a restorative conversation and carried on as we were. I didn’t really want to see him again to be honest, but I also understood that we were the best chance he had of at least a semi-decent life. So, he made it through school and into college and we did our best by him.
I get that it’s hard. And when teachers are tired and stressed, their capacity to empathise with others is depleted. There’s really only so much you can give. But even so, many understand that the figures tell a very worrying story. Most will understand that Adonis, whatever his flaws, does have a point. 35 children are permanently excluded from school every single day. Overwhelmingly, they are boys with SEND. Overwhelmingly, they are from chaotic and disadvantaged homes. Disproportionately, they are black. And without doubt, if they are excluded, they are more likely to end up in prison. Excluded children are not only more likely to end up turning to crime, they are more likely to be poor, to be sick, to die early. They are more likely to become parents of disadvantaged and disturbed children and the cycle continues.
I heard, the other day of a school that had stopped using the words “challenging behaviour” and instead spoke of “distressed behaviour” and it made me wonder. Is the rise in exclusions linked to rises in mental health problems? Is it linked to rises in child poverty? Are these two things tied together? Are permanent exclusions a symptom of a wider malaise in our society?
And what of the off rolling, the illegal exclusions? A report by the IPPR suggests that the real figure of exclusions could be five times higher than the official figures and that because these are ‘unofficial’ exclusions, they are often untracked – children simply disappear.
I have great sympathy with the teachers who feel outraged by Adonis’ suggestion that we take exclusions lightly. Most don’t. For most they are a last resort. But there are a rising number of schools who use exclusions as an effective means by which to ‘turn a school around.’ This trend is worrying and it’s quite right that attention should be drawn to it. Ofsted should take into consideration the means by which a school has managed to ‘improve’ – I had one teacher contact me by DM to say that on his first day in post, a new head gathered the staff together and promised to “change the demographic of the school.” They were left in little doubt about what that meant.
Are there some circumstances in which children should automatically be excluded? I think so, yes. Pulling a knife, rare as it is, would be one of those examples. But the fact is, most excluded children have not pulled or carried a knife. Their behaviour has been different. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that some simply cannot cope in mainstream education. There is no doubt that mainstream education with its increasing pressure on exam results, is not serving the needs of many of our children very well at all. So what needs to be done?
- Money needs to be put in place to increase alternative provision so that there are high quality places available for the children who cannot cope in mainstream education.
- Money needs to be put in place to ensure there is adequate support in mainstream schooling. That includes more TAs, SEND specialists and counsellors. The cost of this is a fraction of the ongoing, life long costs of poor health and crime.
- Government need to tackle the underlying social conditions that are leading to this situation – poverty causes stress. Stress impacts on behaviour. Remove the cause of the stress.
- Schools need to ensure that the children they exclude have somewhere else to go. They need to be partners in transitional arrangements.
- Teacher workload needs to be addressed so that we don’t have a system where stressed and overloaded adults are in charge of stressed and overloaded children. It’s a powder keg.
- Kindness and compassion need to always take priority over the accountability measures of a school. No head who is committed to inclusive practice should be punished for it. I’ve known three head teachers this year sacked by Academy CEOs for exactly this ‘crime’.
So, Lord Adonis, while I think you have a point, perhaps you could use your voice and influence, not only to turn the gaze on schools, but also onto the policies that are placing teachers and pupils in impossible situations. Perhaps you could take time to look at the bigger picture? And in the meantime, perhaps we teachers can take a deep breath and see these children anew. Not as destructive forces hell bent on ruining us. But on children in the process of being destroyed who need, more than anything else, our help.