Why the Education Select Committee got exclusions completely wrong

When the Education Select Committee released its misguided report on school exclusions, I was already writing my response. The Guardian asked me if I would write a short piece for them, so I cut a slice from the body of it, which appears here.

This is the rest of my that piece. I think that some of the points the report makes deserve further rebuttal. This is a serious topic and goes to the heart of how we educate children. If we get this wrong- and frequently we do, and the Committee sadly has- then we make schools harder to run, classrooms less safe, teachers’ jobs much harder, and the lives of countless children made a misery. 






Children across the world will be familiar with the Just Because Fallacy, commonly expressed as, ‘Because I said so!’ It’s not a great argument, but parents can get often away with it. House of Commons Select Committees should not, and the recent publication of Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions is a case in point. 

The false premise of the report

The entire premise of this report is that villainous schools are excluding too easily, exiling innocent children too hot to handle. But should we reprimand a school for excluding if it has followed its own procedures, given children multiple chances to amend their behavior, and still found themselves at the end of a very long rope? Most schools I have ever seen would do anything rather than exclude, but exclude they must sometimes, for the safety and well-being of staff and students. 

How should we actually reduce exclusions?

When I wrote Creating a Culture, we found that one of the most important aspects of many successful schools was that they had clear, well understood boundaries and rules, and that students by far preferred that; they felt safer; lessons were less disrupted, and bullying was minimized. What was perhaps counter intuitive was that these schools also had almost aggressively inclusive aspirations; they tried everything they could to include everyone they could, on the grounds that everyone in the school building was a member of the school community. Ironically this meant that many children at risk of exclusion were successfully brought back into the fold. High expectations and a focus on personal accountability can have an amazing effect on children who lack structure and boundaries in their lives. 

The worst opinions about exclusion frequently come from people with little experience of hard classes or schools

In this debate I frequently encounter simple ignorance amongst many who devoutly advocate inclusion at all costs, and a lack of understanding of the damage caused to those forced to cohabit with the violent and the persistently disruptive. If you have ever had to teach, or study in an atmosphere of chronic aggression and toxic levels of threat, you would think twice about making it harder for schools to exclude, particularly when it is already such a small percentage of children. 

Do the numbers point to a scandal? TL; DR: No

And what about those numbers anyway? The most recent DfE exclusion report tells us "The rate of permanent exclusions across all state-funded primary, secondary and special schools has…increased from 0.08 per cent to 0.10 per cent of pupil enrolments, which is equivalent to around 10 pupils per 10,000." [1]Of course our aim should always be zero exclusions eventually. But an increase of 0.02% seems an odd figure to panic about. We have 8 million children in the UK, attending 24,372 schools. 48,000 students attend alternative provision in the UK- 0.6% of students. If 6,685 students were excluded in one year, that represents one for every four schools. And the levels of exclusion are still lower than 2007. 

With something as vital as education, it’s important to make decisions that are as evidence informed as possible, and there simply isn’t a substantial evidence base to suggest that these things have been causal factors. In fact, it is possible to argue that our system has an incredibly low rate of permanent exclusion. I’ve worked with many excellent PRU leaders who are quite clear- most of the students they look after and educate absolutely need to be there- mainstream is not the best environment to meet their complex needs. 

No evidence exclusions ‘discriminate’ against SEND students

Claiming that school disproportionately exclude children with special needs is a red herring. If we define the worst behaved children as having special needs then of course we will see them represented robustly in exclusions. And lumping violent or aggressive students in with children with learning difficulties is an act of conceptual legerdemain itself. I’ve seen students kicked, teachers punched, sexual assaults on staff and children by other students who, quite simply, need to be somewhere else. What, I wonder, is an acceptable amount of sexual harassment a teacher should be expected to put up with? How much bullying of frightened children is permitted? Because that is the reality for many adults and children in many schools, or persistent destruction of their lessons by students who can’t, or choose not to make the right choice. It would be madness to suggest the best thing to do is keep students in the classrooms to terrify others. 

Teacher training for behaviour is currently erratic, and often poor

Teachers barely have any behaviour training as it is, often expected to pick it up on the job- if they’re lucky. Leaders have no guaranteed training route to acquire skills to run behaviour at a school level. So what we do need is better and guaranteed training for teachers and leaders in how to de-escalate conflict, to lay down boundaries, to direct behaviour clearly and consistently.  

High expectations help to build schools where students are less likely to be excluded, not more

And there is another flaw in the report’s argument. Schools run on high expectations, with clear boundaries and well-defined cultures of good behaviour, are far, far better places for all students. Students who would be at risk of exclusion for a succession of less serious problems, overwhelmingly do better in such schools because their behaviour is caught early and amended, through strong social norms, remedial work and targeted nurture. In order to create these cultures, schools need to be able to invoke, as a last resort, exclusions. If they cannot, then they are forced to retain students who have so far removed unmanageable by other methods. What does the committee think forcing schools to retain such pupils will make the schools do that they weren’t doing before? It presumes that a great many schools are putting out kids with the rubbish. Where is the data to sort this?

And it’s no good complaining that the data is hard to find. If there is a case to be made that this is common, then make it. Don’t point to rising exclusion rates, presume a cause, then suggest a remedy you probably preferred all along to counter it. 

Just say no to Independent Review Panels

Independent review panels to direct schools to reinstate pupils, would be a disaster, because if schools are forced to reinstate students they have felt fit to exclude, their entire behavior systems fall apart: think of the effect on staff moral to see a violent student return. What boundary would they respect? What would the victim of bullying feel or think, to see their safety and well-being so carelessly sacrificed on the altar of a middle-class ideology that insists all children are angels and telling a child their behavior has led to their removal, is a crime too great to countenance?

We abdicate our responsibility as adults when we fail to protect children from disruption and violence. We abdicate our responsibility as employees and professionals when we permit staff to be exposed to intolerable levels of stress and threat. We abdicate our responsibilities as professionals when we permit such trespasses against it. 

Stop describing PRUs and AP like rubbish bins

I certainly agree with the claim in the report that ‘for many children alternative provision can be transformational and has made a real difference to students’ lives.’ Amen to that. PRUs aren’t sin bins, and to suggest otherwise is an enormous insult to the great many PRUs that work daily miracles with the most difficult of customers We need more of these excellent institutions, and more funding to do so. We need to iron out the variation between areas. 

All children are created equal; but some are more equal than others

This idea of a Bill of Rights seems attractive, but rights for whom against whom? Children at risk of exclusion? What about children at risk from those at risk from exclusion? What about staff at risk from those children? What about those children for whom exclusion is a ‘positive choice’, to quote the document? What about children whose needs cannot be met by a mainstream setting? 

Don’t shame schools into bad decision making

‘Schools should publish their permanent and fixed term exclusion rates’. Fine. But what does that tell us? By itself those data are 2-dimensional. A school might exclude more because it carries out its own behavior policy thoroughly and effectively; a school might exclude less because it fails to do so. Or it might be going through a period of renovation, changing standards and challenging students to meet them. Bluntly, a higher than normal rate might be a sign of health, not sickness. Or it might not. It depends 

The curriculum is not the problem

The claim that the curriculum has made it more likely for students to be excluded is simply bizarre, and naked ideology. Schools still provide an enormously varied exposure to a huge, wide range of subjects. The idea that children are somehow bullied or oppressed by expecting them to do well at Maths and English is absurd. It also embodies frighteningly low expectations for some children, as evidenced by this submission from a contributor: ‘Creative and technical subjects which a lower ability child would find more accessible, have lost their validity and are disappearing from many schools. ‘ 

I have  no idea what a ‘low ability child’ is. One that’s ‘good with their hands’ I suppose? I only know ‘someone who isn’t good at something yet.’ If they are low ability, shouldn’t we be focusing on making them high ability, not settling for second best and deciding they’re fit only for building brick walls? Let’s never become so callous to expect such mean achievement from our children. 

Don’t forget to teach children and look after them

‘The Government should issue guidance to all schools reminding them of their responsibilities to children under treaty obligations and ensure that their behaviour policies are in line with these responsibilities’ 

Really? The government should remind schools about something they should know already? This leads to…

‘The Government and Ofsted should introduce an inclusion measure or criteria that sits within schools to incentivise schools to be more inclusive.’ 

This is where, of course, all reports end up: Ofsted should make schools do this, or else. The vagueness of its terms can’t hide the ambition behind it. Nice Ofsted rating you have there. Be a shame if anything….happened to it.

We extensively consulted with lots of people we agree with

A further problem is exhibited in the choice of the committees investigation. They spoke to a lot of parents of excluded children, but how many parents of bullied children? How many teachers shattered by stress? I see many advocates of…well, of the kind of conclusion the committee comes to, but not many groups who wouldn’t. 

This results in faulty causality. To hear from a few people who are critical of for example, so-called zero tolerance policies, and then decide they must be behind rising exclusions, is weak reasoning. I (sadly) know a lot of people who swear by homeopathy, but I wouldn’t base public health policy on them. 

Zero Tolerance policies rarely exist in practice

There is a broader discussion to be had about zero tolerance policies. This isn’t the place to go into it but I will say that first of all, even the stricter schools usually aren’t entirely zero tolerance, and allow actually have many exceptions to apparently inflexible rules. Secondly, aren’t there some behaviours we really should have zero tolerance over How much sexual assault are you prepared to allow against children and staff? How many assaults? I’m extremely at ease with the concept that schools should have zero tolerance over some things. Third, no one was ever excluded for not having a pen. The most common reason for exclusion is persistent disruption. That little phrase hides an ocean of discord and offence. This is no small matter. 

I Object

The suggestion that students excluded for more than five nonconsecutive days need some kind of defense attorney (‘independent advocate’) is bizarre. Who will advocate for the students living in fear? The teacher unable to cope any more with shattered lessons and tattered nerves? The choice to send a student to alternative provision should be, remember, a decision made for the well-being of all. Schools should not feel they have to act as prosecutors in these circumstances. They should be encouraged- or trusted perhaps?- to make tough decisions with all staff and students involved in the equation. 

Needs or wants?

There is reference to the fact that many children referred to have unmet needs, which is a shibboleth for many in the sector to explain away any form of misbehavior. It is common to describe any form of misbehavior as representative of an ‘unmet need’, which is an odd and unscientific way to describe that people frequently behave the way they do for a reason, but neglects to appreciate that the reasons for some behaviours are intentional, or malicious. The logic here is circular; if a student misbehaves badly, they must have an unmet need. If they have an unmet need, then it isn’t their fault they misbehave. If it’s not their fault it must be the school’s fault for not meeting that need. Therefore, misbehavior is the schools’ fault. Let that, as they say, sink in. If a pupil tells a teacher to f**k off, and punches a child at break time and calls them a sissy for wearing makeup, that’s the fault of the school. At some point the absurdity of this position has to be confronted. At what point do we stop describing behaviour as a manifestation of an unmet need and ascribe personal responsibility to the student? At what age? Do murderers exhibit unmet needs? What allowances should we make for the arsonist? 

But apart from that I loved the play

To leaven this scorn, I should add I find there are multiple areas of agreement with the report: alternative provision is indeed too unpredictable both in availability and quality. Some areas have scant resources to its usage. There does indeed need to be more collaboration between AP and mainstream settings. Some of the very best practice I have seen has been in PRUs, where the needs of the neediest students can be addressed in a high staff: student ratio in circumstances where structure is tight, predictable, consistent, and expectations are high. Compassion and boundaries are more important, not less in such circumstances 

Conclusion

Schools should be run for as much benefit as possible, for as many as possible. Nobody likes exclusions. But they are necessary and vital. As much as possible should be done to prevent getting to that point, but when they are needed, they are needed. This is too important to get wrong. If the recommendations of the committee were implemented in any way, the lives of too many children would become worse, not better. Everyone in education needs to get serious about this, or we sacrifice children and teachers on the altars of our orthodoxies. The Education Select Committee has written a beautiful satire of what shouldn’t be done, but it would make more sense if you held it upside down and read it backwards.  

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