Exclusion: Back from the brink?

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Finishing her three-part series focused on exclusion and the negative impact that this can have for so many young people, Karen Sullivan looks at why and how we might keep more students in the mainstream system

Exclusion is a final resort – the ultimate punishment and also, ultimately, a strong indication that a school has given up on the excluded pupil. While the grounds for this can be valid, it is increasingly clear that exclusion is over-used, with more and more children in the alternative provision sector, and many receiving little or no significant secondary and/or further education at all.

Does exclusion really work? Does it dissuade other students from problem behaviours? The jury is out on that one. What we do know is that there are alternatives that will benefit both schools and individual pupils in the short and long term.

It is important to consider the experiences of pupils excluded from school, as these ultimately determine the efficacy of exclusion as a punishment. In Alternatives to Exclusion from School (Munn et al), the authors refer to a number of studies and note that students report “feelings of rejection, unfairness and of being labelled a trouble-maker|”. They also report “stress, strain and feelings of helplessness on the part of families, who are often trying to cope with a number of disadvantages including poverty, ill-health and inadequate housing”.

They cite the de Pear and Garner (1996) study, which indicates that all excluded children studied experienced a strong, negative reaction, including rejection, anger, worry, upset, fear and shock.

The ultimate message that comes out of this and the vast majority of other studies is that most pupils feel a sense of injustice, because they felt that their side of the story hadn’t been heard. They felt “particularly aggrieved when they thought they had been ... singled out for serious punishment that was not meted out to others”.

This is important. Although schools cannot operate without rigid expectations of behaviour, it is essential that the penalty fits the crime, and that all sides of the story are examined. As we discussed in my previous article, a large percentage of students excluded are SEN and/or suffering from emotional issues, and it is certainly possible that they are less able to articulate their concerns and experience, nor express themselves without becoming distressed or angry.

The Barnardo’s 2010 research discussed in my previous articles (see further information) notes that “exclusion gives young people the message that problems can be solved by giving up or walking away” and found that the key features of effective practice included intervening before problems become entrenched, working with parents and families, small group work, vocational options, a youth work approach, and persistence and belief.

It is the last point that resonates most deeply with me. No child who feels that they have been given up on will ever find the motivation to turn his or her life and/or behaviour around – once labelled and discarded, they are far more likely to continue difficult behaviours because no-one has the belief that they can change, nor the determination to help make that happen.

It is beyond the scope of this series to discuss in detail some of the positive interventions that the Barnardo’s study outlines, but there are promising outcomes for various projects highlighted, and it is well worth reading the report to see if any will work for you.

What they do note, however, is that measures such as isolation rooms do not work, for the simple reason that “it usually neither addressed the issues leading to discipline problems, nor provided any guidance that would help the young person learn to control themselves or resolve conflict in the long term”.

This tallies with the suggestion that belief and persistence are critical to long-term success. It makes sense to create small groups of problem children and work with them to raise self-esteem and confidence, by offering responsibilities, a valid and supportive space for expressing their views and difficulties (pinpointing the emotions behind the behaviours, and finding solutions), problem-solving exercises, discussions about choices, consequences and behaviour modification, with a focus on self-awareness and appropriate behaviour.

Many children simply have not had suitable mentors at home and are quite simply unaware of how to behave, nor do they understand the concept of boundaries when theirs have been absent or too elastic. It is all too possible that their emotional wellbeing has been ignored and their growing frustration has created the problems that define their behaviour.

There has been huge success with restorative justice programmes in schools, an approach that, according to the Restorative Justice Council (RJC), enables “those who have been harmed to convey the impact of harm to those responsible, and for those responsible to acknowledge this impact and take steps to put it right”. There is a range of methods and strategies that can be employed and this is well worth considering. A series of reports have found that these can improve attendance and reduce exclusions, while also proving effective in managing behaviour and issues such as bullying.

The RJC is, of course, best known for its work in the criminal justice system, and their plans to work in schools is a positive step. They aim to foster good relationships and resolve conflicts in a way that “enhances insight and understanding in pupils” in order to shape future behaviour.

While there are costs associated with this type of measure, recent research suggests that the cost to the local authority of providing for a permanently excluded young person is about double that of keeping them in the school environment, and this can be used as grounds to petition for increased provision.

The cost of putting a child in alternative provision is, for example, around £15,000 per year at present. The costs of exclusion to society are multifold. There is a good argument here for schools with consistently problematic students to apply for funding to support a well-considered programme of reform.

Students who enter the “exclusion” zone are likely to be those with complex social, education and emotional needs, and they are undoubtedly challenging. However, without compassionate intervention, they are unlikely to change.

If there is no-one to believe in them, to take action to help to repair damage and address their individual needs, problem students will continue to make classrooms and, ultimately, society a darker and more dangerous place. While no school has a “moral” responsibility to rehabilitate offenders or even offer them a place in their classrooms, we are, in the end, educators and these are children in need. Let’s find that need and address it.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com

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