The well-trodden route to exclusion

Written by: Dustin Hutchinson | Published:
Image: iStock

Better scrutiny of school exclusions, in particular the illegal off-rolling of students, is long overdue, says Dustin Hutchinson

Exclusion is an emotive issue for pupils. School children from south London recently sent a powerful message by subverting maps on the London Underground, portraying the route running from school to prison, with stops on the journey including “being sent out of class”, “exclusion”, and “youth offending”. Stations such as “empathy”, “success” and “support” were firmly closed.

The concern is increasingly shared by teachers and policy-makers, with former children’s minister, Edward Timpson currently conducting a review of school exclusions.

This scrutiny is long overdue. Department for Education (DfE) figures show there has been a steady rise in both the number and proportion of exclusions. At the same time, children are falling out of mainstream schools more generally, with a rise in the number of children being home-educated and in those attending special schools. Exclusion should be looked at in this wider context where mainstream education isn’t working for significant numbers of pupils.

But it is not just official, formal exclusions which need to be considered. The National Children’s Bureau’s (NCB) research into children missing education (October 2017) found that despite repeated guidance warning schools to never unofficially exclude a pupil, some schools still continue to do so. This is despite informal exclusion being unlawful.

NCB’s research highlights how pupils can be put unofficially on part-time timetables, effectively depriving them of large chunks of their education. Similarly, pupils may be sent home to “cool off” without the exclusion being formally recorded. These are examples of ad-hoc measures that enable schools to avoid reaching for the red card, but which do not necessarily serve the long-term interests of the child.

The DfE inquiry also has to unpick the pressing issue of off-rolling, where “problem” children are removed by one means or another from the school roll, sometimes just in order to improve a school’s overall exam results.

The true extent of off-rolling is difficult to establish but it must be challenged if education is to be inclusive for the wide spectrum of children who benefit from a mainstream education.

Part of the reason this matters is because there is little legal protection for informally excluded children. When a child is excluded from school in the correct way they have certain legal rights, such as access to an appeals process and for alternative education to be put in place for them. Informally excluded children do not have these entitlements.

Given the prevalence of unofficial exclusions, we would like to see the DfE lead a national campaign to raise awareness among school staff that unofficial exclusions are illegal. The campaign could also help parents, carers and children themselves understand their rights, the process that should be followed, and how they can make a complaint if they feel they are treated unfairly.

Bullying is often one of the reasons schools take action to exclude a child and DfE figures confirm that children who engage in bullying behaviour are more likely to be excluded from school than their peers.

But the Anti-Bullying Alliance, which NCB hosts, has found that bullying is often more nuanced than the straightforward binary of bully and victim.

Bullying is multi-faceted, regularly involving groups, and often impacted by wider peer, school and social culture. Too often it involves vulnerable children who both bully and are bullied. Is exclusion the best route for these children?

Also, data suggest that pupils with SEN are seven times more likely to receive a fixed term exclusion than pupils without SEN, and almost nine times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion. However, difficulties with behaviour are often closely linked to the inability of a child to access education effectively and make progress. When this happens it can lead to children with SEN being unnecessarily caught up in disciplinary procedures.

Difficulties with behaviour are often caused by underlying conditions, including poor mental health, disabilities, or problems outside of school. There are particularly pressing issues where there is an unidentified or unmet need.

These children may be labelled as having behavioural difficulties when in fact the issue lies further back in the education system’s failure to meet their needs or make reasonable adjustments. For example, there is a particularly strong link between children identified as having behavioural problems and children who have unidentified speech, language and communication difficulties.

Our research has found both formal and informal exclusion could lead to children missing out on education altogether in the longer term. These children are often vulnerable, and may be at risk of abuse, neglect, sexual exploitation, and radicalisation, as well as academic underachievement and poor outcomes.

Teachers around the country do an excellent job addressing the many complex challenges in teaching children, including the difficult task of placing sanctions on pupils. The best strategy is to adopt whole-school approaches to inclusion, where teachers are supported to address problems before they develop, and all parts of the school community work together in addressing these issues.

Mental health, bullying, SEN, behaviour management, problems outside school and their relation to both formal and informal exclusions, should not be looked at in isolation. This approach can help keep children on track in mainstream education, and map out a route to a more positive final destination.

  • Dustin Hutchinson is research & policy analyst at the National Children’s Bureau.

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