Exclusion in education: Why exclude?

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
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This is sloppy journalism: “apparently after a break-up with his girlfriend . . . He was known to ...

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Exclusion can sometimes be a necessary last resort, but increasingly the evidence is pointing to many ‘offenders’ for whom this solution is just not appropriate. Karen Sullivan explains

Since writing my last article looking at the increase in permanent exclusions from secondary schools and examining some of the reasons for this phenomenon (Behaviour and exclusion, SecEd, January 2018), Ofsted has indicated that they will be writing to schools whose fixed-period exclusion rates are double or, in some cases, triple that of the national average.

In her annual report, published in December, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted chief inspector, suggested that schools are using exclusions in order to boost their academic results, and asked for inspectors to look closely for signs that pupils were being taken illegally off the school roll.

She confirmed that exclusions should only be used when pupil behaviour justified it (i.e. threatening teachers, violence or compromising the ability of other students to learn and so on).

Cathryn Kirby, Ofsted’s regional director for the North East, Yorkshire and Humber, an area whose high exclusion rates have been noted, said recently: “Schools should only ever use exclusions as a last resort. If not applied properly, being removed from school can disrupt a child’s education and affect their future life chances.”

This, of course, echoes the considerable research suggesting that exclusions can be extremely harmful in the long run, with a large percentage of those excluded suffering from mental health issues that will be exacerbated by the measure, and many more ending up unemployed or in prison.

The Florida school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was excluded from the school he targeted, apparently after a break-up with his girlfriend led to aggressive behaviour. He was known to have had long-standing mental-health problems, with some reports suggesting that he also suffered from autism. His exclusion has been mooted as one of the catalysts for his “snapping”, and this shouldn’t be ignored.

Students who are excluded experience withdrawal and a sense of powerlessness that can cause them to seek power in other areas, and, according to Professor Tamsin Ford, lead author of a University of Exeter study indicating that excluded pupils can develop a range of mental health disorders, including anxiety, behavioural problems, depression and psychological distress, even short-term exclusions can have a long-term impact and repercussions for the child and his/her family.

This does not in any way undermine the severity of some behaviours, which put teachers and other students at risk and are clearly unacceptable in a learning environment. However, it is worth considering each case on its own merits, seeking to uncover the root cause of deviance and employing other interventions (with appropriate support) where possible.

The most common causes of expulsions and exclusions include “persistent disruptive behaviour”, physical assault against an adult (some 730 students were permanently excluded in 2015/16 for this reason, up from 620 the previous year), physical assault against a pupil, verbal abuse, and sexual misconduct (including watching and sharing indecent images, sexual abuse, assault and bullying, lewd behaviour and being involved in sexual acts), racist abuse, bullying, drugs and alcohol, damage and theft.

Sometimes of course a school has no choice but to exclude, but in other cases not only is there evidence to suggest that some low-ability students are being excluded without grounds, but a report by Barnardo’s also suggests that their interviews indicate exclusion for minor misdemeanours including flouting uniform policy and talking back to teachers and others in authority. It is notable that different schools appear to have different thresholds for excluding young people.

The number of SEN students being excluded is also significant, as is the number from poorer families (on free school meals) and Black ethnic backgrounds. Boys also out-number girls by a huge margin, too.

However, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, Kevin Courtney, blames the system to some extent, calling this a “concerning trend”.

He has noted: “Members tell us that as the curriculum gets narrower and children’s experience of school is ever more focused on preparation for tests and exams, more students are becoming disengaged from school which in turn leads to problems with behaviour and mental health problems.

“Cuts to school and local authority budgets have led to pastoral and mental health support services being scaled back or axed. Some schools have had to reduce the number of teaching assistants employed. This clearly has an impact on the help schools can give to individual pupils as and when the need arises.”

So are kids simply worse today or are we less equipped to handle their behaviour? We do know that mental illness among young people is at an all-time high; we also know that zero-tolerance policies designed for much more serious offences (i.e. carrying a weapon) are perhaps being overused, creating situations where behaviours are exacerbated because students feel threatened by inappropriate penalties. We know too that teachers are under extreme pressure to supply results, which often means shorter fuses and justifiable intolerance.

Young people are also more likely to be in contact with extreme violence and sexual images/behaviour than in the past, and also, themselves, under considerable stress and pressure.

Whatever the cause, it is becoming increasingly clear that exclusion, even in the short term, is not the answer for the vast majority of “offenders”.

As the Barnardo’s report concludes: “Although there may be a place for exclusions as part of a school’s range of responses to severely disruptive behaviour, the large numbers point to a need to intervene much sooner and more effectively.”

“(Exclusion) does little to improve behaviour, aggravates alienation from school and places some young people at risk of getting involved in anti-social behaviour or crime.

“Those young people most likely to undergo extended or repeated periods of exclusion are the ones that need more adult supervision, not less. Excluding them from the stable routines of school and sending them back to a chaotic home or risky neighbourhood only worsens their behaviour.”

In my next article, we’ll look at what interventions can work, and how prevention may well be the best response.

Further information

This is sloppy journalism: “apparently after a break-up with his girlfriend . . . He was known to have . . . mental-health problems, . . some reports suggesting that he also suffered from autism.” And what use does this comparison serve? And, you don’t “suffer” from autism.

Kevin Courtney says it when he talks about “disengagement”. Teachers are being asked to deliver pointless things to their charges, and ordered to tell them stuff, rather than give them a good listening to, and they are “Under extreme pressure to deliver results”. Exam results. Not life skills. Pastoral staff are being lost. Vulnerable children are at risk, and there’s no one to help. If the author is writing the her next article at public expense I suggest she gives the money to her local school instead.

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