Saturday, 30 July 2011

School Exclusions down: This is supposed to be a good thing?

Warning: Rant levels contained in this feature- Gale Force 8 on the Daily Mail Beaufort Scale.


I feel like I'm taking crazy pills. Why? Because I've just read the latest data, hot off the spin cycle, that suggests expulsions and suspensions in England have fallen AGAIN in the last year, by 12% in 2009-10, with suspensions down 9% for the same period.

'Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said there was no evidence of weak discipline in the statistics.
"Fewer and fewer schools now need to resort to the ultimate sanction of permanent exclusion, a fact that should be celebrated, " he said.
"Clearly the existing powers on behaviour have been good enough for major progress to be made.'
BBC News Website, 2011

In fact, I got through the whole article, shook it upside down like a cereal packet, and still couldn't find anyone saying the obvious thing, the true state of affairs behind these figures. So I'll say it: the reason why schools now exclude far, far less than before is because a school's exclusion rate is now considered in its assessment by OfSTED inspections and by the LEA. There is an enormous pressure on schools not to exclude these days, and the simplest way of achieving this is by..well, by not excluding. Simply not doing it. Keeping kids in more and more detentions; giving kids 'time-out' in coolers and 'special' rooms up and down the country, off the books and off the Self-Evaluation Form.

That's it; that's the simple explanation behind these figures. Every teacher knows it; every senior teacher knows it. The problem hasn't been solved, it's been magicked away by legerdemain, effortlessly, mathematically proven not to exist. It is the educational equivalent of seeing no ships. It is the natural result of a monitoring system that lends itself, begs itself to be gamified, because doing so is a faster solution than actually solving the problem, which is big and messy and difficult to execute.

Using this as evidence to prove that behaviour has improved is like shutting down the 999 service and claiming that crime has dropped because no one's called. What did they expect would happen? When you make the observational criteria extrinsic to the property being observed, you lay the system WIDE open to all of a school's energy and resources being diverted to adjust and improve the external performance indicator, in this case, exclusion rates. It doesn't mean behaviour has improved; it just means that less pupils are being excluded, which means that more kids who deserve to be excluded are being kept in classrooms, disrupting lessons, making life Hell for teachers, and just as importantly, not learning anything. You want to know why we're (apparently) falling behind in literacy, numeracy, STEM subjects in every international survey? Look no further than the behaviour crisis. If even a tiny percentage of children want to wilfully disrupt a lesson, they can; it only takes, as Hobbes said, 'one thief in a community for all men to bar their windows.' A well-behaved learning environment is spectacularly easy to destroy, and they are, they are, I assure you.

This is a howling, howling, mad-dog scandal, and I am furious that statistics like these are allowed to pass into the mainstream without comment or criticism. From my Behaviour Column in the Times Educational Supplement, I think I get a pretty fair view of the national picture, and I stand by this: behaviour in schools is often appalling because of this tendency to negate exclusions rather than tackle the behaviour itself. If you have a disciplinary process in a school then there has to be a terminus to that process, an ultimate sanction, a point of no return, otherwise the whole process falls apart: if a child misbehaves, a sanction (say, a short detention) is set. If this is missed, the sanctions escalate; if the child still fails to cooperate, or fails to attend, then the school must, must, must reserve the right to suspend its duty to teach and care for that child. If they won't obey simple, reasonable instructions hen we can't guarantee the child's safety- or the children around.

But if the child knows- and some do- that sanctions  can simply be ignored, and little will happen if that ignorance is sufficiently strong-willed, then why on earth would they cooperate? The misbehaviour then becomes entrenched; other pupils notice that the penal system lacks teeth, and start to emulate the behaviour. And then teachers start to give up trying, certain that their efforts will result, in the long run, with no support or success. It is the dry rot that devastates a school from the ground up. It is the bullet in the gut to a school's behavioural boundaries, a slow and awful demise to watch.

And it is entirely preventable; we have to admit that our sanctions need somewhere to go; somewhere we don't want, but somewhere we need to know exists. Exclusions should be the last resort. But by God, without them, we're like a society with judges, policemen, laws and lawyers...but no prisons. Anyone fancy that?

'My pills are all gone.'
Schools aren't only run on boundaries of course; they need compassion and rigour. But boundaries are what define them, and us. That's why any society run on altruism and trust has lasted for less than a heart beat. To be civilised requires restriction; the Hobbesian social contract that ties us together so that we may be even more free. Trying to run a school without boundaries is anti-intelligence, anti-love, anti-civilisation. It is brainless, craven and bureaucratic. It is a victory of data over reality.

And the fact that it is trumpeted by the Head of the NAHT fills me with despair; the fact that Alison Ryan from The ATL echoes this as a victory for hard-working teachers everywhere makes me wonder when the unions stopped giving a shit about education. And then I see that the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb said that 'behaviour was still a significant problem,' and I realise that he knows more than two representatives of two of the biggest teaching unions.

And I feel like I'm taking crazy pills.

17 comments:

  1. Bravo. I especially like your section on the need for consistency and a system that has teeth. Without this it will be the lunatics who end up running the asylum! There is a place for restorative justice and being child centred, but the sad thing is that by allowing children to see that ultimately there is no sanction, then we are doing them a massive disservice and teaching them the worst lesson for life. In the cold world outside of school the are sanctions and consequences and not an endless stream of last chances and withdrawal rooms. Yes there is a behaviour crisis.

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  2. *standing ovation, round of applause*

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  3. @a_p_martin

    The irony- the bitter, bitter irony- of it is that the more consistently sanctions are applied in a known, obvious way, the LESS they have to be used. Once students and teachers are drilled into the approach of boundaries and mutual contract, then penalties can be applied less, and the classroom becomes what it should be; a learning space.

    Thanks for your comment.

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  4. @anonymous3

    *picks up carnations, weeps for the children of the world*

    Thanks; always appreciated from you.

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  5. @ Anonymous

    Thanks. Wish it wasn't true, however...

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  6. I totally understand your anger! I can't stand the amount of self-serving super-obvious spin that's in education.

    I also like your comparison with prisons, I think there's a reluctance to do that because it sounds like we're locking kids up and punishing them. But I think they're very similar institutions.

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  7. Choice and accountability are two closely coupled words, when you remove accountability from a child's life, then choice runs riot.

    RJR Daydreamer

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  8. @RJR

    Tom Bennett likes this *thumb sign*

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  9. Agree 1000 (sic) per cent.

    I've been a classroom teacher for many years and have witnessed the year-by-year deterioration in behaviour, starting with the abolition of corporal punishment. and carried on through the introduction of the exclusion appeals panels.

    Why behave when teachers have no sanctions?

    Your analysis hits the nail on the head!

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  10. @bohma

    Thanks. Not sorry to see the back of corporal punishment; but a behavioural system without sanctions is fruitless. Prisons are awful places too, but society needs them as an option.

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  11. Those that are actually excluded end up in referral units that are, in my experience at least, not fit for purpose. Not sure if this is still the case, but their remit was to 'turn the student's behaviour around' within one to three terms and then send them on their merry way to a new school where they could make a 'fresh start'. Having worked as a supply teacher in 5 such 'schools' there was not one that was able to deliver anything worthwhile to their students. Most of the permanent staff were off due to stress and those who were able to stagger in on a daily basis found themselves incapable of managing the chaos that reigned. Many of the staff were actually good teachers who had the students' best interests at heart. A combination of many factors however, not least of which being steeped in a culture that is terrified of confronting extreme anti social behaviour head on, rendered them completely impotent.
    Tom keep doing what you do and while you're at it give a nudge to your mate old andrew , time for a fresh post from him I think!
    Liz

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  12. Thanks Liz.

    I remember working in mainstream education before I thought, 'Hang on, this is completely b*ggered; and I know what it needs.' Not because I'm smart, but because the solutions are obvious: great boundaries at schools, and an expectation of high effort and behaviour, backed up with a meaningful exclusion system where those who cannot cope with mainstream get special provision- also with boundaries, etc.

    Andrew, as I believe I have mentioned, is Batman. He works at night, and has his own methods....

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  13. Can I plead a bad case of writer's block? Hopefully inspiration will strike soon.

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  14. "Thanks. Not sorry to see the back of corporal punishment"

    I'm not saying I support corporal punishment but the rot set in when it was abolished! What is the logical conclusion?

    In answer to Liz - "A combination of many factors however, not least of which being steeped in a culture that is terrified of confronting extreme anti social behaviour head on, rendered them completely impotent".

    I've also 'done time' at a PRU and she is completely correct! Head-on confrontation of bad behaviour was avoided at all costs. Perhaps if this had been done in the schools then students would not have ended up in the PRU? Staff bent over backwards to avoid confrontation. What purpose does this serve but to reinforce the behaviour that got pupils into the PRU in the first place? Rather than attempting to instill some discipline into these kids, the idea seemed to be to accommodate (accept?) their behaviour!

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  15. @ Bohma Didn't mean to imply that you did, sorry if I conveyed that in any way. One of the problems of advocating a common-sense approach to instilling boundaries in the lives of children is that often detractors of this position leap on to the straw man argument that it conflates with corporal punishment, and that all discipline is tantamount to child abuse. Which of course it is precisely not. So whenever possible, I try to keep my position clear so that the bunnyhuggers don't think I'm a hanger 'n' flogger.

    Thanks again. Some PRUs are beyond dreadful. Some, I imagine are exemplary. I'd love to see them.

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