Is Scotland’s school exclusion policy the one the UK should follow?

Scotland has all but wiped out permanent exclusions from its schools, according to official figures – while the number of pupils being excluded across the rest of the UK is on the rise. So should Scotland be applauded for its shift away from punishing students for poor behaviour? Or has the removal of the threat of exclusions made teachers’ lives more difficult? Emma Seith finds that government statistics might not tell the full story
7th February 2020, 12:04am
Has Scotland Got It Right On Exclusions?
Emma Seith


Is Scotland’s school exclusion policy the one the UK should follow?

My eight-year-old son drew a map of the area we live in recently. It encompassed just a few streets, but on it were marked his house, the homes of some school friends, where the pupil support assistant at his school lives and the school itself, which is just a 15-minute walk from our front door (or 10 if I'm rushing in with a forgotten packed lunch).

As a parent, I love that drawing because it tells the story of a child rooted in their community, connected to the place in which they live.

Gillean McCluskey, an exclusions expert at the University of Edinburgh, believes that Scottish schools "own" their pupils in a way that English schools do not. She argues that south of the border, most families will have a conversation about which school their child is going to attend, whereas in Scotland - while it is possible to make a placing request into a school outside your catchment area - for the most part, children attend their local primary and secondary.

It is one of the "aye been" ("always been" ) aspects of Scottish education, says McCluskey - something so familiar to Scots that they don't even think about it. But it is a feature that she believes helps to explain why permanent exclusions have been falling in Scottish schools for more than a decade and now have been virtually wiped out, while in England they are rising.

Just three pupils were permanently excluded in Scotland in 2018-19, according to the latest statistics published in December. In England, the number of permanent exclusions hit 7,720 in 2016-17, or 0.10 per cent of pupils, up from 4,950 in 2013-14, or 0.06 per cent of pupils.

Another factor that McCluskey believes has been vital to Scotland's falling rates of exclusion is that all state schools answer to a local authority. It is the council that is ultimately responsible for ensuring "adequate and efficient provision of school education" in their area and, if a headteacher wants to permanently exclude a child, that decision will not be made unilaterally. There are no "fiefdoms" in Scottish education, she says.

In England, that local accountability has all but disappeared, says McCluskey - although there are moves afoot to try to resurrect it and strengthen the role of councils when it comes to exclusion so that they can "act as advocates for vulnerable children".

McCluskey is by no means suggesting that these factors wholly explain Scotland's success in reducing exclusions; as she points out, these have long been features of Scottish education and it was only after 2006-07 that exclusion rates started to drop. But they have helped to shore up what were probably the key changes that led to the downturn: an explicit national focus on driving down exclusions; a move away from punitive approaches to behaviour management, such as exclusion; and a focus on better understanding the complex backgrounds that some young people come from.

In Glasgow, where permanent exclusions have fallen 87 per cent since 2007 (against a 65 per cent drop nationally), the director of education, Maureen McKenna, says exclusions were a "habit" and a "reflex reaction" to challenging behaviour in schools. She says that exclusion rates have fallen not because of some "fancy-nancy initiative" but because decisions in schools - and in secondaries in particular - are now made in a more "child-centred way". McKenna adds: "A child's behaviour is due to life experience and, since they don't choose their life experience, our job is to give them strategies to cope instead of sending them away to be somebody else's problem."

If you look at the current approaches used in Scottish schools to manage behaviour, exclusion, punishment exercises and detention are still there. However, it is now more common to find schools promoting positive behaviour, nurturing approaches and restorative practice. And, by and large, everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet: teachers, heads, councils, national government and the inspectorate.

On the website of inspection and curriculum body Education Scotland, for example, it says that punishing pupils who misbehave "can be ineffective, dangerous, breed resentment and make situations worse". Instead, a restorative approach encourages pupils "to hear about and face up to the harm and distress they have caused", and to repair the damage.

McCluskey, as a member of the Excluded Lives research team, has been looking into the different approach taken in Scotland as well as the different exclusion rates in the four Home Nations.

This multidisciplinary team of academics from all four UK jurisdictions last year published a paper contrasting the different exclusion rates in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales (see boxes, above right). Over the next four years, the team is hoping to get a handle on the consequences of school exclusion, thanks to a £2.55 million grant. They plan to explore further the different "landscapes of exclusion" across the UK, as well as to calculate the cost of exclusion to society and the individual, and look at the link between exclusion and crime.

The research is being led by the department of education at the University of Oxford, with Ian Thompson, an associate professor of English education and director of PGCE, as co-principal investigator.

Thompson says that the rhetoric - that exclusion is a bad thing - can be heard at the national level in England but that this is not reflected in policy or practice.

"If you look at the guidance for headteachers on exclusion, it is radically different [from Scotland]," he says. "The guidance in England starts off by saying the government supports the headteacher's right to exclude, that is almost the first thing in the documentation. But the Scottish documentation largely talks about inclusion. That's a big cultural difference."

You might argue that the tone is set in Scotland before you even open the guidance document: it was published by the Scottish government in 2017 and is called Included, Engaged and Involved Part 2: preventing and managing school exclusions.

In their research, the academics sum up the difference: "Scottish guidance ... has diverged sharply from England's in recent years in that the Scottish advice is explicitly and deliberately concerned with supporting schools in preventing exclusion and mitigating its most harmful long-‐term effects."

Thompson, who taught for 16 years in English secondaries, feels schools south of the border used to be more inclusive but that in recent years there has been a "cultural shift", which he attributes to the pressure they are under to get good exam results.

"Exclusion before 2013 had gone down a lot in England and my memory of being in school was of trying to work with youngsters who were troubled or difficult in the classroom to find solutions within the school, but that has completely changed over time," he says. "The main thing is the pressure to perform. The pressure on schools in England to do well in terms of the exam results - that is also fuelled by surveys like Pisa [Programme for International Student Assessment], league tables and other statistics - just does not seem to exist to the same extent in Scotland.

"The result is that children in England who are marginalised have become increasingly marginalised. It used to be they were seen as 'our young people' and they would be educated to the best standard possible, whereas now they are seen as someone else's problem or as dragging the school results down. They have become dehumanised."

Thompson does not point the finger of blame at teachers and heads - he says he understands the pressure they are under - but maintains that these often disadvantaged young people are "the casualties" and "the collateral damage" of an education system that has put too much emphasis on performance, and that has also become increasingly underfunded.

Thompson adds: "Some schools are quicker to exclude because they simply don't have the resources in the way they used to. In England, a lot of schools are struggling with their budgets, particularly in terms of meeting special needs."

Certainly, the message on exclusion in England comes across as being more nuanced than it is in Scotland. On one hand, the UK government commissioned the Timpson review of school exclusion amid fears that vulnerable children were being let down by the system in terms of the rising exclusion rate; on the other, in September 2019, Westminster education secretary Gavin Williamson was quoted in the media as saying that any headteacher who decided to exclude a child - temporarily or permanently - would have his backing.

It is impossible to imagine the Scottish education secretary, John Swinney, making a similar statement: Swinney is more likely to talk about supporting children to reach their potential than supporting heads to exclude.

In 2018, Graeme Logan, now the top civil servant in the Scottish government's learning directorate, told a gathering of new teachers that if pupils were being disruptive, teachers needed to ask themselves: is your lesson worth behaving for?

Of course, comments like these do not always sit well with Scottish teachers, who are facing an ever-increasing range of additional support needs (ASN) in their classrooms - at the last count, almost a third of Scottish pupils had ASN - and dwindling support thanks to budget cuts. Some see the push to reduce exclusions as adding to their burden; last year, at the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association's annual conference, general secretary Seamus Searson said that teachers and heads felt unsupported because of "the constant statistical drive to reduce permanent and temporary exclusions".

Secondary English teacher Jamie Thom was educated in Scotland but taught in England for 10 years before moving back to Scotland to teach last summer. He says children are let down by the "harsh nature" of the English system, but his impression of the Scottish one is that inclusion has gone too far.

"It can be difficult in Scottish schools without having the threat of exclusion," he says. "This means that some kids who are in mainstream schools would be better catered for elsewhere. Some young people cannot cope in a mainstream classroom, and their behaviour is having a real impact on other learning taking place.

"This drive for inclusion has lots of positives, but it also is going too far in the other direction. Sometimes real inclusion means looking at alternative options for young people."

The latest research into behaviour in schools published by the Scottish government in 2017 found that overall there had been "little change in serious disruptive behaviour in either primary or secondary schools". And in the Excluded Lives research, this is cited as evidence by one senior local authority official who was interviewed that the anti-exclusion strategy has "not led to increases in disruptive, challenging behaviour".

But that research did find that violence and aggression towards primary support staff was at its highest level since the government started to collect this data in 2006. One of the unions that represents school support staff, Unison Scotland, argued that this was because its members were often asked to deal with the most disruptive and challenging children, but with little or no training.

Nevertheless, McCluskey points out that the main finding was that pupil behaviour remained stable. She believes that in Scotland there is consensus in the teaching profession that the emphasis on inclusion is right and in line with commonly held principles. She points out that Scottish teachers' professional standards and code, which are being refreshed by the General Teaching Council for Scotland, emphasise things such as "promoting and demonstrating inclusive practices" and "treating learners with fairness, kindness, dignity and respect".

She also highlights the way that policy is developed in Scotland. When the exclusions guidance was created, the teaching unions, parental bodies and school leaders' organisations were all at the table; this would be unheard of in England, she says.

However, Larry Flanagan, general secretary of Scotland's largest teaching union, the EIS, believes Scotland's permanent-exclusion statistics fail to tell the whole story. The definition of permanent exclusion is that a pupil is "removed from the register", which means that the pupil "does not return to their original school and will be educated at another school or in some other educational provision". It would "surprise" him if that happened only three times in Scotland in 2018-19, he says.

McCluskey agrees that "managed moves" or "hosting" could be masking the true number of removals from the roll in Scotland - just as they have been in England, where it has been reported that as many as 90 per cent of pupils at some pupil referral units have undergone managed moves.

However, McCluskey maintains that managed moves are not common in Scotland.

Flanagan, meanwhile, points out that in Scotland, permanent exclusion has always been something of a misnomer because a child who was excluded would simply end up in another mainstream council school or alternative provision.

This takes us to a key point that McCluskey makes: that one protective factor in Scottish education is that all state schools are run by councils. Essentially, from a local authority perspective, permanent exclusion is like "shuffling cards", says Flanagan - all you do is move the problem to a different location.

So if these pupils are not excluded, what happens to them? They are, according to Flanagan, likely to be internally excluded, most commonly in behaviour units within mainstream schools.

This is reflected in the Excluded Lives research: one local authority official interviewed said that behaviour bases had now been developed in "most" of the authority's high schools. In Glasgow, however, McKenna talks about closing the bulk of pupil referral units and replacing them with "enhanced nurture units" on the premises of mainstream schools.

But McCluskey points out that how these units or bases are run and staffed will differ from one authority to the next, and little is known about how effective they are.

It is something the Excluded Lives team plans to look at in more depth, alongside the matter of unofficial exclusions. Thompson says that off-rolling - a practice more commonly associated with English schools - also happens in Scotland; this is where a pupil is removed from the school roll without a formal exclusion, or where parents are encouraged to remove their child, perhaps with a mind to home educate them instead.

And there is less divergence between Scotland and England when it comes to temporary exclusions. There are fears that some Scottish pupils find themselves "bounced around the system" - just as the Timpson review talked about temporary exclusion in England creating "a bit of a revolving door" for some pupils, which fails to address underlying causes of poor behaviour.

And, as in England, the pupils who are subject to temporary exclusions are often the most vulnerable. The latest figures show that pupils with ASN or who come from the most deprived areas of Scotland are far more likely to be temporarily excluded from school.

The Scottish system, then, is far from perfect, but exclusion figures are indeed moving in what most educators in Scotland think is the right direction: downwards. And this, perhaps more than any other issue, highlights the widening ideological divide in education either side of the border.

Emma Seith is a reporter at Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith

This article originally appeared in the 7 February 2020 issue under the headline "Has Scotland got it right on exclusions?"

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