Covid trauma: Flexible and agile approach needed to avoid exclusions

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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A “heightened risk” of school exclusions has been created by the Covid-19 lockdown and must be countered with flexible approaches based on collaboration and communication, a research report has concluded.

A “heightened risk” of school exclusions has been created by the Covid-19 lockdown and must be countered with flexible approaches based on collaboration and communication, a research report has concluded.

It comes as a second study warns that the system of exclusion in the UK is broken and deprives children of access to adequate education while often putting them in mental and physical harm’s way.

The first piece of research is a discussion report from the University of Oxford’s Excluded Lives Research Team which says that services around the child must be “agile and flexible” if we are to meet the needs of the most at-risk students as they return to school.

The researchers warn that “anxiety, bereavement, poverty, disconnection from schooling and the digital divide” have heightened the threats to young people’s wellbeing and as such we will see new and unexpected categories of risk.

It says schools and others need to be proactive rather than reactive in their approach, with early intervention seen as key. Academic goals also need to be balanced with student wellbeing priorities.

The report is drawn from discussions with practitioners and professionals from health, education, criminal justice, local authorities and third sector voluntary organisations.

It states: “All children will have experienced some adverse effects from the Covid-19 pandemic, but for some these will be traumatic and long lasting and this may impact negatively on whether and how they return to school, and the likelihood of formal, informal and self-exclusion.”

Exclusions have “risen sharply” in England in the last few years and certain groups continue to be over-represented in the figures, including those with SEND, students from particular ethnic backgrounds, and those living in poverty.

The second research paper – published as part of the Pedagogies of Punishment project – points out that the UK has a school exclusion rate that is 10 times greater than that of any other country in Europe.

It calls for a “wide, systemic reform” to ensure that children are not “disproportionately harmed” when removed from classrooms. It argues for school exclusions to move from being a routine occurrence to a measure of absolute “last resort”.
The paper – by Dr John Tillson, senior lecturer in the philosophy of education at Liverpool Hope University, and Laura Oxley, a PhD research student at the University of York – has been published in the journal Theory and Research in Education.

Dr Tillson and Ms Oxley instead want to see the blanket use of exclusions replaced with a “restorative, collaborative” approach to tackling problem behaviour.

The latest Department for Education (DfE) figures – for 2017/18 – show that 7,900 students were permanently excluded from state schools in England, up slightly on the previous year. Permanent exclusions have been rising since 2012/13.

Meanwhile, the number of fixed term exclusions is up from 381,900 in 2016/17 to 410,800 in 2017/18, 80 per cent of which occurred in secondary schools.

Pupils eligible for free school meals remain four times more likely to be excluded, pupils with SEND remain around five times more likely to be excluded, while Black Caribbean students remain twice as likely to be excluded than White students.

Ms Oxley said: “There needs to be a shift in culture in terms of how schools and headteachers think about exclusion. It needs to be something used in exceptional circumstances, rather than something that’s just part of behavioural policy. A big problem is that a lot of schools feel they don’t have another option.

“When you look at what exclusions are commonly used for, the most common reason, for a number of years, is due to persistently disruptive behaviour – which doesn’t suggest that the child’s behaviour is actually causing an immediate danger to others.”

The harms caused by exclusion are myriad, according to the paper ranging from social isolation to more sinister threats. Children externally excluded often run the risk of being groomed into gangs or being recruited into county lines drug-running, Dr Tillson warned.

He said: “Exclusion isn’t the only way we can tell a school community that a child's actions were wrong. If there’s a restorative conversation had with that child, then the rest of the students see the response and see the child’s behaviour is not being ignored.”

The authors echo the warnings about the return to school post-lockdown. Ms Oxley said: “We’ve been through a national trauma. Lives have been thrown upside down. Children may have experienced bereavements. There will be children who will act-out their anxieties through their behaviour when they return to school. And it could result in exclusions among children who might not have been at risk of being excluded before.

“We have to ask what we actually gain from exclusions? If a child is anxious about going to school and you send them home in response to that, it’s not solving the problem.”

Back in the Oxford study, a number of recurring themes emerged from the discussions, including the importance of:

  • A focus on re-integration and re-engagement.
  • Access to learning.
  • Communication.
  • Multi-agency working and contextual safeguarding.
  • Preparing the school community.
  • Flexibility and new ways of working.

Co-author of the report, Professor Harry Daniels, said: “Those adversely affected by Covid-19 are extremely diverse. This suggests there is a need to think beyond conventional and recognised categories of vulnerability. This calls for a needs-based holistic approach involving good collaboration and communication within and between services and flexible and responsive curricula. Now is the time for schools to reconsider the role of education, take back control over their educational offer and balance the pursuit for academic excellence with student wellbeing.”

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