Better Out Than In, sometimes. Why exclusion shouldn't be a dirty word

15th May 2016 at 17:45

Tom Bennett rehabilitates exclusion, the evil twin of inclusion

Richard Mason: New York City, Mr. Dundee. Home to seven million people. 
Michael J. "Crocodile" Dundee: That's incredible. Imagine seven million people all wanting to live together. Yeah, New York must be the friendliest place on earth.

Crocodile Dundee, 1986

Exclusion is a word that sends arguments scuttling into foxholes before a reasonable point can be made; it divides and bonkers. I’ve been an advocate for exclusions as part of an effective school behaviour policy for some time. Others would rather perform their own urethral scrape than take a kid out of a lesson. Why the controversy? And how can I look at myself in the mirror, the cad?

The problem is that we often mean different things when we talk of exclusion. It describes a pupil’s removal from the classroom and alternative provision is made for their education and supervision. Now under this definition, it can be short (maybe a lesson) or long (weeks and months) or permanent. It can be internal informal (parking next door) internal formal (in a designated in-school unit) or external (home study or any number of special educational settings).

For many people the word exclusion connotes only one thing for the pupil: binned. Sent home to waste their lives in the living rooms of their invention, or simply booted into another school’s playground. For kids with learning needs, vulnerable kids, children on the edge of falling off the mainstream grid, such practice can be as helpful as the boot of King Leonidas to Xerxes’s messenger in 300. 

Exclusion means in-school too

But exclusion means so much more. For many children, the mainstream classroom is a difficult place in which to exist. Lacking in social skills, or overwhelmed by the complexity of large group environments, they can lash out in aggressive or antisocial behaviours. To run a mainstream classroom takes a lot of self regulation and restraint from the teacher and the kids. As Crocodile Dundee, the Australian bush hunter implied upon viewing the teeming hordes of New York’s Fifth Avenue for the first time, it takes a lot of learned social skills to co-exist in close proximity to others. For some, Hell is other people.

And if you want to try to work more intimately with pupils who have social, behavioural or learning needs, a large classroom is often the last place you would want to start. Children with special behavioural needs, need small group instruction, coaching and mentoring, helping them to build up habits they can take back into the crowds. 

That’s one huge reason why exclusion is useful: not just as a sanction, but as a means of children accessing provision that might otherwise be unavailable, in-school. For me, the internal exclusion policy is one of the most important whole-school behaviourla strategies imaginable.  . A surgeon can’t operate in a moving bus; all you can hope for is triage.

The second reason is that there are dozens of other children in the classroom and their individual and collective rights are exactly as important as any other individual’s. Inclusion At All Costs (IAAC) was a terrible idea. It grew out of moral and sensible sentiment- that children with disabilities should be entitled to mainstream educational access wherever possible- and turned into a senseless Frankenstein policy where any child, however badly behaved, was imagined to be best off in the classroom. Inclusion for its own sake is idiotic, and destructive. I’ve seen it exist as a default in some schools, who proudly keep kids locked in classrooms with one another no matter the completely obvious fact that some of the kids are making it hell for the others. Frequently the people behind such policies are not the same people who have to deal with the fallout from them.

And because IAAC became such dogma, countless classrooms have suffered; countless kids have had their educations harrowed; countless teachers have run daily gauntlets of indignity and abuse. When I started teaching I simply couldn’t believe that such a culture could have blossomed in a sane society; in my present role I can’t believe how often I encounter it in schools. Every child matters. Every one of them. And sacrificing twenty nine children’s one shot at an education for the sake of one or two pupils with extraordinary needs can’t be justified when better ways are possible. 

Brownian Motion

So: bin them? Of course not. Take them somewhere they can be supported, nudged into less destructive habits. (Sometimes that means sanctions, of course, as a tool to deter. And if that offends you then I expect to see you campaigning for the closure of all prisons and the commutation of every sentenced jailbird, because there’s a reason why every civil society ever leans on a backbone of law, judges and gaols, and none haven’t. We would never wish a sanction, but wishing them away isn’t possible either.) But just as importantly is that repeated misbehaviour is usually a warning sign that a pupil needs special attention: experts, guides, mentors. 

The quality of that provision is crucial. I’d argue that the IAAC policy has deprofessionalised our responses to these children’s needs. Bluntly, if they’re meant to be kept in the classroom, then we don’t have to think of clever ways to deal with them outside. We might as well just lock the door during lessons and watch as the classroom learning billows chaotically like Brownian motion. The internal exclusion unit is crucial here. They can’t just be holding pens for children counting down the days until they can explode again. They can’t be staffed half-heartedly. They need funding, and full time, fully trained staff who can both teach and manage complex behaviours, as well as coach them into better ones. In some ways they need to be super teachers.

Too expensive to avoid

Sounds expensive. It can be. Two thoughts: the cost of not investing in it is…well, it’s pretty obvious. You can see it in many schools what cost it exacts. The price you pay for not paying the price is interest. And I mean Payday Loans interest. Secondly, for many schools, budgets are pinched and sickly, and this kind of provision can seem impossible. But there are some amazing schools doing this brilliantly. Look at Passmores School in Essex. When they rebuilt a few years back, they designed the internal exclusion/ inclusion unit right at the physical heart of the school (shaped, amusingly like a starfish), with the kind of spec you normally see in the Head’s office. You know the parts of the building that you photograph for the prospectus? Thats what the inclusion unit at Passmores looks like. Full time staff, certified teachers, and specialist care. That’s what great inclusion looks like; thats what proper exclusion looks like. 

Even where magic funding isn't available, every school should have some form of provision for removal, both short term and long. This is non-negotiable. The well being of staff and children matter enormously, and I'd rather see an imperfect attempt at the optimal provision possible, than a perfect disaster caused by not even trying. 

Not kicked out; not binned. Schools need to make this strand of their practice central to what they do; supervised, planned, intelligent exclusions done for the good of all. And when this is done, you’ll see your permanents down too, because more kids get caught before they fall too far off the table. And you’ll see managed moves start to thin out too, as less become necessary. And the externals are necessary, even if people with weak stomachs feel better if we pretend they’re not. But ironically you’ll get far less of the latter if you focus on the former.

Better out than in, sometimes.