by Luke Billingham, youth worker for Hackney Quest and Research Associate on the ESRC-funded Public Health, Youth & Violence Reduction project. This blog is written in a personal capacity.
We don’t just need fewer exclusions: we need more inclusive education and a more inclusive society
A lot has been written about school exclusions, and that’s no bad thing – it reflects the significance of exclusion as a feature of our education system, and as a life event for young people.
As a youth worker, I’ve supported and continue to support many young people who’ve been affected by exclusion. And having also worked for a charity based within a school, I’m well aware of the difficulties facing schools as institutions, headteachers as leaders, and school staff as frontline public servants.
What I will try to do in this blog is to briefly sketch an array of issues surrounding school exclusion which I think don’t receive adequate attention. They’re all aspects of the problem of exclusion, or angles from which to look at it, which I think are relatively underexplored. Threaded through what might seem quite a disparate collection of points is a central driving argument: we can’t treat school exclusion as a discrete, isolable practice, and its reduction or even eradication can only ever be part of a wider change – we need both a more inclusive education system and a more inclusive society.
FORMS AND EFFECTS OF EXCLUSION
Exclusions exacerbate adversity
This blog is going to tackle some false dichotomies, and here’s the first: the idea that either school exclusion causes adversity and marginalisation for young people, or it merely reflects pre-existing adversity and marginalisation. The reality is almost always that exclusion exacerbates adversity – every exclusion creates a heightened risk of difficulty and harm for a young person, and the exclusion process itself can be harmful. There’s rarely a lack of adversity in a young person’s life prior to them being excluded from school, but exclusions often also have an independent, negative effect on students’ wellbeing and life-course (as shown especially by Tamsin Ford’s work).
The effects of exclusion on parents and families
Rightly, much has been written about the effects of exclusion on excluded students. But I’ve seen how parents can be affected, too. Both permanent and fixed-term exclusions can exacerbate household discord, contributing to relationship breakdowns between children and their parents, or between parents. Their impact can also be financial: I’ve supported parents who’ve lost their job because of fixed-term exclusions, unsympathetic bosses responding punitively to the parent needing unexpected time off to look after their child. Schools should be aware of and factor in family circumstances when making decisions around exclusion.
Informal exclusions and perverse incentives
There’s a common claim that if formal, legal school exclusions were cut down or banned, this would just amount to perverse incentives, and schools would find other informal ways to remove students, through unethical forms of managed moves, or extended internal exclusions, or illegally encouraging parents to register their children as home educated, for instance. This implies a very low bar of ethical practice in schools, suggesting that they are so desperate to eject certain students that they’ll use any means possible, regardless of legality or harm. If this is an exaggerated claim, that undermines it as an argument against reducing exclusions. If it is truthful, it suggests much deeper problems in how our schools are run, which need to be addressed, rather than it being an effective argument against reducing exclusions. Either way, it only amounts to a statement about how exclusionary too many schools currently are, rather than being an effective argument against fewer exclusions, or against greater inclusion.
Exclusionary harms without exclusion
There are many experiences in school which can be comparably harmful to being excluded. Other forms of punitive and exclusionary practice need adequate attention: discriminatory over-punishment (e.g. racially disproportionate punitiveness); authoritarian rigidity of disciplinary practices; poor quality ‘internal exclusion’ (whatever term is used for it); additional learning needs not being met or even assessed for – to name just a few. Inclusive education doesn’t just entail fewer exclusions, it requires schools to be equitable and fair, meeting the learning and welfare needs of all students. If we wish to see more inclusive schools, we need to go far beyond looking at exclusion statistics (important as they are!)
SCHOOLS IN SOCIETY
Simplistic school-blame, simplistic society-blame: A plague on both their houses
Here’s my second false dichotomy, which parallels the first, and is mobilised too often in debates about exclusion – one the one hand, it can be suggested that school exclusions are just the fault of schools, a reflection of their willed malice; on the other, it can be implied that exclusions are just a reflection of adversity outside the school walls, over which schools have no power, and their exclusion practices are just an inevitable, almost passive reflection of how difficult life is for students in many communities. This binary is bunkum. We need to hold both our schools and our society responsible. Two things are true at once: firstly, too many school decision-makers exclude too readily, and, secondly, our national policy-makers oversee a political economy which systematically generates concentrations of destitution and harm in our society. Of course, features of our wider education system exacerbate this situation: at the moment, school-level, system-level and society-level factors combine to produce exclusionary practices. Individual schools need to take responsibility for becoming more inclusive, the education system needs to be better-run to support and incentivise inclusion, and our society needs to be less hideously unequal and harmful for children and young people.
Two opposite visions of what are schools for – civilisation and community-building
There’s a very old idea about the purpose of state schooling in Britain which seems worryingly resurgent in some quarters: to civilise the slums. I’ve heard some senior leaders and governors talk about the role of their school in my home borough as if the latter is a place of sheer anarchy and chaos, and their job is to remould their intake into more civilised habits. This goes beyond a ‘deficit view’ of the community; it’s neo-colonial. This contributes to exclusions – all civilising missions are accompanied by exclusionary practices; those who can’t be ‘civilised’ are always punished or expelled or institutionalised.
There’s a profoundly different idea about the role of schools which is just as old, but has never been dominant in this country – schools woven into and building on their local communities. Providing support beyond education, not just for children and young people, but for whole families and others in the community. Acting as a hub of resource, capacity and provision, in terms of facilities, activities and specialist staff, both for their school community and the wider neighbourhood. In this view, the role of schools is not to remould but to build on strengths, not to compound societal exclusion with educational exclusion, but to support both educational and societal inclusion. As the RSA’s “Schools Without Walls” report shows, there are schools operating in this way across the country, both primaries and secondaries.
VALUING SCHOOL STAFF
School staff pay, working conditions and workload
I’ve been in many conversations about what might help reduce exclusions and make schools more inclusive. There’s a whole raft of measures which could potentially make a difference. One which I haven’t heard spoken about much is improving teachers’ and other school staff members’ pay, working conditions and workload. An overworked and frazzled staff body does not an inclusive school make – stress and fatigue
make for impatience and short tempers, and ultimately an inability to wrestle with the complexities of young people’s lives. If teaching staff had a more reasonable workload, and thus more headspace, more thinking time, and more moments for consequential conversations with individual students, I think it could make a big difference to school inclusiveness.
Of course, funding cuts are squeezing school budgets. But there’s money in the system: take a look at Multi-Academy Trust CEO pay packets, or at the money spent on some Alternative Provision placements.
Valuing the professional craft of inclusion, wellbeing and safeguarding, and the staff who specialise in them
In the point above I deliberately used the catch-all “school staff”, because at times schools are discussed as if classroom teachers are the only people in the building. But there is an array of roles which are crucially important in any school, particularly when it comes to inclusion and – tied to that – student wellbeing and safeguarding, from Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCos), to Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs), to Mental Health Leads, to Family Support Workers, to teaching assistants and learning mentors. Too often these roles are undervalued and under-respected (as well as underpaid, undertrained and overworked); their professional craft and expertise seen as lesser than that of classroom teachers. Although all staff in schools should build trusting relationships with young people, supporting their safety, welfare and learning, it is often these non-teaching staff who get to know students and parents best, identify their needs, and thereby ensure that reasonable adjustments are made, referrals are submitted for relevant services and assessments, and inclusion is ensured. It is often staff in these roles who also, crucially, make students and parents feel that the school knows and cares deeply about them, as individuals – not just for their academic or extra-curricular performance, or for their contribution to the PTA or school events, but as inherently valuable members of the school community.
Relatedly: too often SENCOs and DSLs have teaching loads, despite their weighty responsibility for attending to the additional learning needs and the welfare of all students in their school. This can be hugely detrimental for school inclusion and safeguarding – they are full-time specialist roles.
REALITIES OF ANY SCHOOL SYSTEM
Inclusion and social order, relationships and boundaries – ingredients of good schools, not alternatives from which to choose
Another unhelpful false binary in debates about school exclusions is the idea that you have to choose between either having relatively high rates of exclusion or accepting disruptive behaviour. And there’s a similar, equally fallacious notion that a school can either have a relational approach – in which relationships between staff and students are central to running the school – or a focus on boundaries. In reality, these are not binary choices. All schools need to be functioning social orders, and everyone benefits from clear boundaries and rules, but neither of these things means that you cannot have an inclusive and relational approach. The polarised culture war around educational issues too often seems to make people feel that they need to ‘choose a side’ between false alternatives such as these.
Some students will always need to move school to find the right provision for them
Not all students will have their needs met in the first school that they attend. All schools should have a sense of civic duty as well as a sense of inclusion, driving them to meet the needs of all their students as best as they possibly can. But sometimes, it doesn’t work out. This isn’t an argument for exclusion, as it is sometimes presented. It’s an argument for compassionate and honest conversations with students and parents about what is the right provision for them – centred on the needs of the child – and for a much fairer, more efficient, and more student-centred school transfer system.