In the above article, John Blake (Head of Education at Policy Exchange) ironically makes the same mistake as he is attributing to the Parliamentary Education Committee - that of interpreting the recent increase in exclusions with his own judgements of “why”, “who”, and “what should be”. It is nonsensical to argue within the same article that “no-one - not the select committee, not the Department for Education, or Ofsted - knows what the “correct” level of exclusions should be” and follow that with his own opinion that it is “perhaps more likely that it is that there are too few, not too many”. By implication, there is in fact a “correct” level that only he is aware of… or he may be just seeking controversy to increase his readership. Regardless, are we really in a position to assess the use of exclusions based on this data? Or the individual motivations behind use of exclusion?
In the heated debate over school exclusion, there is often a great deal of anecdotal evidence and personal experience that comes to bear on our opinions. This might frustrate those who are trying to somehow “clear up” the argument by removing subjective bias, but it reflects the lack of objective information that we have, or are able to successfully gather as to how permanent exclusions are being used. For many of us, this is also an extremely emotive topic and this is not something that I think anyone should be ashamed of. It is intrinsically linked to poverty, mental health, special educational needs and many other complex issues within our society - permanent exclusion is disproportionate and not a reflection of the individual decision-making process of each child. Trust me, I currently work in a Young Offenders’ Institute where 40% of young people have been through, or are still in, the care system and, whilst I am not claiming this is a causal link, 88% of incarcerated youth have been found to be excluded from school at some point (MOJ, 2013). If you are seeking an accurate and reflective cross-section of society, you will not find it in the education provision of a YOI.
My lack of faith that we can currently interpret how permanent exclusions are being used is definitely influenced by personal experience. As a practitioner, I spent 5 years running a unit for students at risk of exclusion, within a large mainstream academy, and by the end of the first month I had realised that my new role was really that of a mental health worker. What I worked with, side-by-side, day after day, was a roll-call of undiagnosed ADHD, anxiety, self-harm, PTSD, depression, ASC and developmental trauma. These things change the brain and change behaviour - not my opinion, but surely a clinical consensus. So I have a bias around exclusion of vulnerable students, but hopefully I can use this to inform my strategic thinking at a whole-school leadership level without dismissing the lessons learned through the different perspectives of others.
Having touched on my personal experience, here’s some of my anecdotal evidence, none of which would have made it into any data collection or study. I have been in meetings where parents are clearly told to move school or off-roll their child, else they will be permanently excluded. In a similar vein, I have seen parents told the school is doing a “managed move” for their child to the borough Pupil Referral Unit and if they reject this, their child will be permanently excluded. I have watched all 3 siblings from the same family within the same school be permanently excluded on not one, but two occasions. I have been aware of 5 students who were off-rolled against their will at the end of year 10 for persistent absenteeism and told the only way they could rejoin the school was to enroll in year 10 again the next year. The disabled, single parent of one of these students took the school to court and won; none of the others mounted a legal challenge and their children drifted out of the system. Anecdotes matter… for a start, they can help identify the questions that need to be asked and how best to ask them.
From a leadership perspective, I have also struggled with finding the right way to improve standards of behaviour across schools in different contexts (and I believe that context matters!) I have watched other leaders struggle with difficult decisions that try and balance the needs of an individual child with the impact of those needs on others, both students and staff. I have seen many “reluctant” exclusions and shared in the frustration that social services and/or CAMHS have been unable to help further to support a child. So whilst my opinion may carry little weight at any influential level, I think we can all avoid simply commentating and try and help contribute suggestions as to how we can improve. Here are three preliminary thoughts: