Ending the ‘exclusions culture’

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We must take action to end the culture of exclusion that has emerged in recent years and which is pushing vulnerable children into the hands of gangs and criminals. Pete Henshaw reports

From 2010 to 2020, children aged 12 to 14 consistently have the highest numbers of exclusions – these are the children most at risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system.

A “culture of exclusion” is emerging in our schools – secondary, but also primary – which has seen a gradual but steady rise in children being thrown out of their schools.

Permanent exclusion figures stood at 5,082 in 2010/11 but by 2018/19, before Covid, they hit 7,894. Even in the Covid-hit 2019/20, our mainstream education system managed to exclude 5,057 children.

And as ever with exclusion figures – those with SEND, certain ethnic minorities, disadvantaged children and those in care are disproportionately more likely to be kicked out of school.

A new report from the Commission on Young Lives (2022) has set out evidence that exclusion culture is spiralling out of control – with one case of a five-year-old child being suspended 17 times in eight months perhaps summing up the problem (he turned out to have undiagnosed autism).

The report is calling for this “exclusions culture” to end and a “new era of inclusive education to tackle the scourge of teenage violence and exploitation”.

The report is the third to be published by the commission (SecEd, 2022) and it presents evidence of the stark links between being out of school and the risk of exploitation, serious violence, crime and county lines, grooming and abuse, and becoming involved in the criminal justice system.

Furthermore, the report highlights the thousands of children who are persistently absent from school and the disproportionate number of Black children who are not attending or are excluded.

It also accuses the inspection system of not valuing inclusion and as such allowing perverse incentives to develop that encourage some schools to remove children from their school roll.

The report highlights that one in five (22%) children who have been permanently excluded have also been cautioned or sentenced for a serious violence offence; 59% of children who have been permanently excluded have also been cautioned or sentenced for an offence.

It highlights evidence from school leaders and youth workers about how criminal gangs are targeting young people for exclusion by encouraging them to take drugs or weapons to school, or for violent behaviour.

Commission chair, Anne Longfield – the former children’s commissioner – said: “Look behind the headlines of the tragic deaths, acts of serious violence and criminal exploitation of our young people over recent years and so often you see a pattern of children disengaging and falling out of school and into harm.”

Ms Longfield says that there are already plenty of inclusive schools and colleges around the country “showing how it can be done” and the report includes a number of case studies.

It also sets out radical proposals, including calling for a ban on primary school exclusions from 2026 and greater incentives for secondary schools to reduce exclusions.

This would create a system whereby removal of a child from secondary school becomes “a genuine last resort” and is only possible following a programme of support and when signed off by the CEO of an academy or MAT, or the director of children’s services in a local authority school.

It wants to see schools reporting annual figures for children who have been excluded or moved from the school roll and proposes that no school should receive a “good” or “outstanding” Ofsted rating without “reaching a new inclusion measurement”.

Alongside this, it proposes a new transitional fund to “pump prime” local authority area-wide inclusion strategies and support packages for schools, including therapeutic support, educational psychologists, family workers, youth workers, and mental health support. It also suggests placing teams of youth and community workers in all schools, calls for alternative provision to be renamed “specialist provision”, and for pupil referral units to be scrapped.

Elsewhere, the report raises its concerns that Black children are more likely to be excluded. They are too often seen as “offenders” and can face “adultification” at school.

The report points to the recent case of Child Q, a teenage girl who was left traumatised after being strip-searched at school by Met police officers while on her period.

“The process of adultification is one which disproportionately harms Black children, presenting them as older than they really are and thus not treating them with the care and protection that should be afforded to minors.”

It proposes making race equality a core part of teacher training and reforming the school curriculum to make it more inclusive.
Ms Longfield added: “A system that has no real accountability for a five-year-old boy being excluded 17 times in a year, or where a vulnerable teenager is out of school for months or even years, is not a system that is working for every child.

“Over recent years, we have seen the growth of an exclusions culture that perversely rewards removing some vulnerable children from school roll.

“That must not continue. We need a new culture of inclusion and accountability, that recognises and rewards nurture and which sticks with children and families from cradle to career.

The Commission on Young Lives launched in September 2021 and is a year-long independent commission aimed at creating a blueprint for a new and affordable national system of support, focused on preventing crisis and improving the life chances of vulnerable young people.


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