Post by: Sarah Johnson, President, PRUsAP
When things don’t work: How do we find out the views of children excluded from school?
I begin with the view that children are the experts of their own experiences, and that research can be an emancipatory process. There is a long tradition in the philosophy of inclusive education to support those with less heard, or marginalised voices, to be heard. Shakespeare (2010) asserts that “research accountable to, and preferably done by, disabled people offers the best insights”. Whilst not all children who are excluded from school may be considered disabled, they are more likely to have social and emotional mental health needs, have poorer outcomes (Timpson 2019) and are potentially discounted from more typical citizenship opportunities within mainstream school.
Acknowledging that it is difficult to really know whether children feel happy and safe at school without asking them directly, I conducted research which explored these very questions. The aim of the research was to find out find out what children thought generally that schools could do to support their mental health and emotional well-being.
The type of research used and how it didn’t work
The research used surveys that included a mix of open and closed questions. The questions were coupled with illustrations to depict answers to make it more accessible and visually friendly to children and young people. The illustrations used were bespoke and created to reflect a range of diverse cultures and communities.
The questions that were posed allowed for further elicitation around whether a child had been suspended from school (previously referred to as fixed term exclusions), permanently excluded or receiving Alternative Provision (AP) for medical needs or otherwise. The purpose of asking these specific questions was to find out more about whether there was a discrepancy in children’s feelings of safety and happiness depending on their attendance at certain provisions or a history of suspensions or exclusions. These are important questions to ask because it might help us understand if promoting feelings of safety and happiness in school may be a potential strategy to reduce the number of children marginalised from education for whatever reason.
The first thing I want to say is, we need more information. Whilst this survey surveyed over 856 children only seven self-reported that they attended Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) or AP with a further twelve indicating that they had health needs which meant they did not attend school. Eleven children indicated that they were permanently excluded from school, thirty-one had more than one fixed term exclusion and twenty-eight children had one fixed term exclusion. There are questions here around statistical reliability but before we even get to that stage, what must we do to develop an approach where children whose voices are traditionally marginalised, feel able to explore issues around contentment, safety and happiness?
In this instance, the surveys didn’t work. I know that isn’t normally something that someone says about their research, but it is important to recognise that research can be messy, tangled, and ultimately, frustrating. For whatever reason despite this survey being made available to a range of PRUs and APs they were not completed by a huge number of children that were contacted via their schooling provision. It is important to reflect on this and consider different approaches that may work and better include children that are already marginalised.
Approaches that may work
What has worked for me in the past is working with children and young people directly using focus groups, participatory research and in-depth interviews. For the most part I learned that children are keen to tell you their views and explain what things are difficult and what things might need to be different to include them.
Further, I am drawn to a quote by William Foote Whyte who observed “as I sat and listened I learnt the answers to the questions that I would not have had the sense to ask”. The questions in the survey are those that I set, and I asked, without really knowing what was important to children attending PRUs and AP in the first place.
The difficulty with this approach is that the resource implications are huge. I was previously able to commit to being in a small AP for one day a week for six months to try and find out more about children’s experiences. In order to find out what children who attend PRUs and AP really think there needs to be an allocation of resources (time, money and people) to ensure that other researchers can really find out the experiences of children and young people rather than the use of an impersonal survey which for many, appeared to be off-putting or certainly something that did not inspire an interest. Sitting and listening often provides richer and more interesting data then asking people to complete pre-determined questions but there must be an investment to make this possible.
- Shakespeare, T. (2010) The Social Model of Disability. The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge.
- Timpson, E. (2019) Timpson Review of School Exclusion.