Exclusion has become a social justice issue and shows how England’s education system is failing the most vulnerable.
This was my message at the SEND policy review organised by Brahm Norwich from Exeter University this week (4.2.19). I was invited to give evidence on preventing exclusions following my contribution to the Education Select Committee last year.
Figures on exclusions are bleak and getting worse year upon year (my slides are here should you be interested). The system is haemorrhaging children from a small but growing number of mainstream schools. If those marginalised were predominantly from middle class families and high attaining pupils there would be a public outcry. But they’re not. These children are on free school meals, in care, from black Carribbean heritage and for the purposes of this seminar, special educational needs where they are seven times more likely to be excluded. It appears a system has been created which cannot cope with the most vulnerable and has instead invented a multitude of systems, ever more complex, to keep children out of the classroom. Fixed term exclusion, permanent exclusion, managed move, dual role, isolation, internal alternative provision, home education, guesting, off-rolling. It’s hard to keep up. Ironically, with schools crying out for more funds, millions of pounds is being spent on keeping children out of them.
DfE and OFSTED are starting to take notice and the new framework mentions inclusion atleast. There are however fervent believers who argue that this mass expulsion of the most vulnerable families out of England’s mainstream education system is the only way to create functioning schools. Sacrificing the few for the many. Exclusion, we’re told is an inevitable pipeline so the rest of ‘us’ can get our exam results. This is despite no evidence or research studies that I know of, no random controlled trials, nothing which shows exclusion as an effective policy: The narrative which is peddled so freely. Any nuanced discussion on inclusive strategies, restorative practice, solution focused or trauma aware schools is scoffed at as if it’s liberalism gone mad, showing a naivety towards how to treat ‘tough kids in rough areas’.
Yet, there are other solutions and Scotland is an example, Italy one of the most inclusive European countries is an interesting comparative study and of course good old Finland. England’s unquestioning acceptance that exclusions must happen and funding more alternative provision is the way forward is based on what? Those children who are dropping out the bottom need somewhere (we’re not that cruel) to go, just not in our school where children and staff must be safe. This is an inward looking strategy and while they may appear safer in school, will they be safer walking home? In the community? If the majority of families with problems of various types are not supported in local schools, we create a group of disenfranchised people and that then becomes a societal issue not just an individual school one. These are future parents we’re excluding so readily.
The reason so many teachers are leaving the profession has now been put down to children’s poor behaviour. Workload, pay, suffocating accountability measures and lack of external support services are yesterday’s news. Some heads tell me they just cannot afford to support vulnerable children and therefore exclusion is the only option. This is a sad indictment of our nation if we now demonise children because there is no money.
What are we to do? Dr Louise Gazeley who followed my talk, presented us with some questions England needs to ask itself about educational priorities and direction. What are our values? Is inclusion and the equality act part of a comprehensive system? How do we want to support vulnerable families and children with SEND?
I come across as being very certain of the answers (I’m really not) but I do know this; we have inclusive schools with ethical leadership who are take all children but neighbouring schools don’t and are happy to direct parents to the ‘inclusive school down the road’. The situation expressed so passionately by Nicola Furey and James Roach from an inclusive MAT in Watford in a very disadvantaged area. I salute them but do the DFE? Do OFSTED? Are they rewarded? What are the incentives other than knowing it’s the right thing to do? Nicola and James talked of the cuts they were having to make which seemed so senseless considering the money they were saving the LA in alternative provision. And while other schools crow about their exemplary behaviour and astounding progress 8 scores, it is often known locally that they don’t take ‘those children’, don’t want them, will not support them and are borderline hostile towards their families.
Is this what we want for our education system? Do results for the many really matter more than the dire consequences and harm being done to the few? What about the other 29? I want those children to witness how we treat the one, to understand that how society supports the weakest is a marker of success and compassion. It’s time to put a stop to this practice of zero tolerance, long term isolation and the easy exclusion culture. Future generations will see this decade in England schools as being a socially unjust education system unless we can wake up and give all children an equal shot at education.
(image Adam Boddison)