Avoiding permanent exclusion

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
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When the behaviour and challenges presented by a student spiral so far out of control, there is only one solution – isn’t there? Continuing his focus on common challenges facing schools, Daniel Sobel discusses how we can avoid turning to the last resort

As I sat and listened in my role as an expert witness to the case of a student who had clearly caused havoc in the school, I got the sense of everything the tome of papers and the statements held between the lines – that some of the staff had been really affected by the sometimes dangerous actions of this boy, that the parents were so full of blame for the school, and that other parents had clearly been alarmed and concerned for the safety of their own children.

And then I thought about the child who had been permanently excluded: how their extreme behaviours were an expression of their extreme discomfort and although they presented as full of bravado, that they were just a scared child desperately trying to protect themselves.

The rest of the time I sat there wondering why on earth the school hadn’t tried some very basic things to thwart this situation from spiralling downwards and out of control.
It is not like any of them are particularly complicated or cost a huge amount of time or money.

As I sat on the train home, I scribbled notes that I wanted all pastoral leaders to read which formed the basis of my new book (Leading on Pastoral Care). These notes are from the chapter on how to prevent exclusions.

The Department for Education (DfE) and the local authorities in tow are presently focused on diminishing exclusions. Exclusion is the one joker that most schools don’t want to give up because, given the type of circumstance above, a school will not want to allow a situation to perpetuate that interrupts learning or a sense of safety and calm for everyone else.

The most dedicated of pastoral staff can get defeated by circumstances beyond their control. Situations escalate to a point where it seems that the only feasible next step is permanently excluding the student. I’ve been there, I get it.

There is a common pattern to the escalation of cases that lead to permanent exclusions and it is worth knowing that you are not the only ones in this situation. By the time students have reached the risk of exclusion they will already feel as if they don’t belong. They will know what it feels like to be removed from the class, prevented from joining in social events, and sent to the senior leadership team to be “dealt with”.

I personally know of many cases where it is not until pupils reach a PRU or specialist setting that they have been allowed to go on their first educational visit. All of this sends a message to the pupil that their behaviour cannot be managed. If the “experts”, i.e. teachers and support staff, cannot manage their behaviour then what hope do they have? Their life then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: “I am worthless, therefore I will take control.”

Of course, the trick with all pastoral work is to work preventatively; to build up systems of early identification and ensure all needs are being met inside the classroom by teachers who are supported to adapt the curriculum. This takes a longer, whole-school approach and I don’t have time to elaborate in this one article (although have touched on many of these issues in my previous articles for SecEd – for a link, see later).

So let’s assume, that circumstances have got the better of us and you find yourself in charge of a case that you can see is on a downward spiral. What can you do?

Use this as a checklist of the obvious yet often-overlooked issues to consider in each case:


Consider what motivates them to behave as they do, because behaviour is an unmet need. Many pupils’ lives are marred with types of anxiety and when we live in fear we do one of three things: fight, flee or freeze.

Can you understand what the behaviours mean and provide reassurance and support to pre-empt them? For example, consider whether their behaviours are avoidant of something, such as:

  • Sensory overload: is everything too loud or bright?
  • Are they being victimised by a particular student or even member of staff?
  • Do they feel like a failure in the classroom because they have undiagnosed learning difficulties such as dyslexia, ADHD, inattentive ADHD, or mental health issues such as attachment?
  • Do the teachers know how to adapt the curriculum to meet their needs?

Ready for learning?

Focus on “preparedness for learning” by addressing barriers to learning and promoting engagement. Put all ideas about data targets out of your mind and focus on the actions of learning that will upward-spiral.

For example: a teaching assistant supported a student with some preparation prior to the lesson, giving the student the heads-up about what was going to happen in the lesson, how to answer some key questions in front of peers, and how to get praise points from the teacher. This staged event led the student to feel like they belonged in the class and they actually enjoyed it.

Managing staff

Manage key stakeholders and changing teachers’ opinions. In nearly every scenario of a permanent exclusion there will be those teachers that don’t get on with the student and see them as a cause of misery for them and other staff. There will also be teachers where the student appears to be fine in their class.

The pastoral leader needs to focus on keeping hope, belief and positivity alive. For example, try giving the student a job, such as fundraising, which is an excuse for all staff to praise the student.

Praise and encouragement are not just the bread and butter for fostering a sense of “you belong here”, but they also send a message to staff that “we are doing great with this student, we can get there”.

A temporary situation?

This may seem obvious but consider whether this is a temporary downward spiral or whether it has been a long-time brewing. There are too many cases that rapidly decline and lead to a permanent exclusion but which could have been rescued given a bit more time and a realisation that this is more of a temporary situation.

It is not uncommon for students to go through periods of stress or anxiety, which can feel very intense and dramatically change their behaviours. After a while, their attention moves on to something else and, in so doing, their behaviours shift.

This can emerge when friends fall out, or relationships get messy, or there is a temporary bullying episode that rapidly gets out of control. These issues are crisis points, but they are not indicative of long-term successes or failures.

Timetable tweaks?

Consider a reduced or rearranged timetable. These two options are never ideal but are better than a permanent exclusion. I always preferred to go slow and build up one or two lessons a week of real positivity and this is another way of reassuring both the school and the student that “they can”.

Be flexible

Often cases end up in a permanent exclusion because the student suddenly acts out of character and does something violent, illegal or endangering. According to the strict code of the behaviour policy, this therefore necessitates a permanent exclusion.

However, the policy should not be so strict that it is used as a way of getting rid of trouble. Dealing with trouble is part and parcel of nurturing children along their maturation process and therefore, when there is such an event, it doesn’t always make sense for a school to relinquish their responsibilities to educate and support that child.

One of the biggest decisions for a school to make in a crisis is how lenient to be despite the “rules”. I would urge you to rethink your school policy wording to restrict the notion of permanent exclusion to cases that will definitely recur and thus put the school community in danger.

Even an extreme case of a student selling drugs, which is a serious, illegal matter and needs to be referred to the police, must be considered in this way so you can decide whether a second chance will help them or whether they are likely to do this again.

The ramifications for the child are very significant: one stupid mistake can lead them to a referral to a specialised unit and an encounter with other students with more challenging behaviours.

The downward spiral can go from a blip to a long-term effect. In most cases, getting the police involved will be “punishment” enough to ward off other students from copying this behaviour.

The basics

Do they have clothing and food? Are they hungry when they come into school in the morning? Are they not wanting to go home? Are they scared of the weekend? Do you notice their behaviour spiralling out of control on Fridays and being very difficult on Mondays? Can you draw on any parents in the community to support the child at home in any way (this must obviously be done very carefully and may not be appropriate)?

In the classroom

Finally, look carefully at their experience of the classroom and consider how you can support their teachers to best include them. Find out what works: are there some teachers who do really well with them?

If so, can you move their timetable around so the student is seeing more of these teachers, or get other teachers to observe their colleagues to see what strategies are successful with this student?

Find out what doesn’t work: are there any lessons in particular that lead to negative behaviours? This may be a particular type of lesson or a specific teacher. If so, observe these lessons and work out what is going wrong.

  • Daniel Sobel is author of Narrowing the Attainment Gap – A Handbook for Schools (already published) and Leading on Pastoral Care (soon to be published) by Bloomsbury Press. Daniel is also the founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for SecEd on our website via http://bit.ly/2jwoKP8


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