School leaders have to make tough decisions when it comes to solving problems, such as those around excluding pupils.
For some time now, I have heard anecdotally how shocked people are at the lengths some schools go to when they want to remove pupils who they’re finding difficult or whose results will not reflect well on the school. I have even heard tales of parents being ‘persuaded’ that their child’s school is not the right place for them.
Our chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, made clear in her Ofsted Annual Report 2016-17 that she absolutely supports a school’s right to exclude pupils. However, this must be done properly and for good reasons. It is never acceptable to exclude pupils, either formally or informally, just to boost a school’s performance. These practices are another example of a theme that HMCI has focused on during her first year in post – that of schools losing sight of the purpose of education in the hunt for prizes and stickers.
A problem elsewhere
Ofsted isn’t alone in raising concerns about exclusions. The Children’s Commissioner’s report Always Someone Else’s Problem looked at the growth of illegal exclusions and said: "For a long time, illegal exclusions from school have been an elephant in the room for educators, policymakers and others."
The report noted that:
- Pupils were being excluded, sometimes frequently, without proper procedures being followed.
- Pupils were being placed on study leave as a way of removing them from school.
- Pupils were being coerced into leaving schools.
- Local authorities were failing to provide full-time alternative education for children from the sixth day of their exclusion.
When the above is true, it’s a matter of great concern. There is no doubt in my mind that permanent exclusion should be the last resort.
A more recent briefing from the current Children’s Commissioner for England, highlights the range of issues, many of them hidden that surround excluded children.
The impact on excluded children and their families is profound. As Geoff Barton noted in his recent blog, and as shown by research for the Education Datalab’s ‘Who’s left’ series, outcomes for pupils who leave the roll of a mainstream school are likely to be poor.
Our national director for social care wrote in December 2017 about the dangers for children who are not attending school – children who are excluded either permanently or informally, or for whom no suitable alternative provision has been arranged. She says: "Schools act as a protective factor in children’s lives. Children who do not attend school can become hidden, which means that we are less able to help and protect them."
There are negative knock-on effects too. Exclusions affect neighbouring schools as well as the local pupil referral units. In some cases, in my region, these are struggling to cope with an influx of excluded pupils. My colleague, Cathryn Kirby, Regional Director for the North East, Yorkshire and Humber, recently highlighted the fact that exclusion rates in eight of the local authorities in her region are among the highest in the country.
Where it’s working in the East Midlands
Some schools work hard to successfully avoid exclusions. I have found it heartening to see pupils encouraged to reach their full potential on recent visits to some multi-academy trusts in my region.
I have seen good teaching that challenges and engages pupils; teaching that gives them a sense of purpose and that helps them to progress.
At Bluecoat Wollaton Academy in Nottingham, I saw young people proudly joyous in their learning of their times tables. When teachers make sure that their pupils know the basics, it lays the foundations for their success.
I was delighted when I visited Magnus Church of England Academy recently to see that senior leaders had high aspirations and expectations for every child. I was also pleased to see the support, such as different and flexible curriculum options, given for those who weren’t yet on track. The academy has also introduced small teaching groups. It should come as no surprise that these two schools exclude very few pupils.
Even with good-quality teaching, there will be some pupils who struggle to fit in. In some cases, where there is simply poor behaviour, we expect schools to take swift action. Yet often, these are pupils who, for one reason or another, have had it tough and are struggling to cope. It is hard for a school to support these young people, while making sure that the silent majority are not disrupted from their learning.
I’m impressed that some schools in my region are using creative strategies to help their pupils. I appreciate that it’s a difficult balance for school leaders to strike when making a decision to exclude a pupil. Yet, with a collaborative approach, across the system, I am convinced schools can meet the challenge.