'Behaviour policies with cast-iron sanctions are seductive – that doesn't mean they are effective'

Recent government statistics suggest schools still wrongly believe exclusions are an effective behaviour management tool, says this special school headteacher

Tes Reporter

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The Department for Education recently released the statistics for permanent and fixed-period exclusions in England for 2014 to 2015 and, as always, they make for fascinating reading (you can read a TES breakdown of the document here). Being, I like to think, a strong advocate for children with special educational needs and for special schools, I am always drawn to the "exclusions by pupil characteristics" section, and this year’s doesn’t disappoint. As predictable as a swift England exit from a major football tournament, it states:

  • Pupils with identified special educational needs (SEN) accounted for just over half of all permanent exclusions and fixed-period exclusions;
  • Pupils with SEN support had the highest permanent exclusion rate and were over seven times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion than pupils with no SEN;
  • Pupils with an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan or with a statement of SEN had the highest fixed-period exclusion rate and were almost seven times more likely to receive a fixed-period exclusion than pupils with no SEN.

It would be easy to go no further into the report and simply stick my size 11s into these gross over-representations, but that would be to overlook a statistic that is far worse.

Wrong approach

Page 1 details graphically the rates of both permanent and fixed-period exclusions by sector – primary, secondary, special and overall. I am shocked, upset and disappointed to learn that the rate of fixed-term exclusion in special schools is nearly twice that of secondary schools (rates in primary schools are way lower on both counts).

This seriously disappoints me because, as a sector, I thought we knew better. I thought that we had long since figured out that exclusion doesn’t improve behaviour, it doesn’t deter and it doesn’t provide the supposed shock to both parent and child that it pretends to.

Permanent exclusion simply moves the child, and their behaviour, somewhere else. Fixed-term exclusion is simply respite or, in the only situation where I can see it has a real purpose, it allows a school to make alternative arrangements or investigate properly before deciding on a course of action.   

So why are special schools way out in front? Analysis by type of special school would be interesting, to see if schools working with children with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs contribute heavily – if that were so, it would be an interesting case study in itself. I suspect the truth may be simpler – habit. 

Force of habit

I remember once, as a deputy headteacher, feeling under significant pressure, in the absence of the headteacher, to exclude a child for hitting a colleague in the stomach. So, I went against my sense of what the right thing to do was and excluded her for two days. I knew full well that she would have had absolutely no understanding of the link between the incident and the time spent out of school. Yet, I did it anyway, because it was felt that exclusion was a way of showing support to colleagues.

Her father, a psychiatric nurse, asked to see me. He brought his brother for moral support. For two hours they gently but firmly asked me to explain to them my thinking about how I expected his daughter to realise what was happening to her. I couldn’t give a convincing answer.

I suspect that this is a broader problem. How many kids factor in detentions to their working week? Do the same pupils appear on the detention lists time after time? Are the same pupils subject to fixed-term exclusion?

Flawed logic

Policies with cast-iron sanctions are seductive. Top button undone = detention. Late to lesson = detention. Forgotten homework = detention. They look supportive to teachers and appear uncompromising. But if the same pupils are receiving the same sanctions time and again then it is legitimate to ask if those sanctions are effective. If not, then why persist with them? The behaviour is clearly not improving. 

It is the illusion of action. We imposed a sanction and can therefore say with conviction that we dealt with the pupil and the situation. “Something must be done!” they cry. So we’d better do something, anything, that sounds tough and hard-nosed. That’ll teach ‘em.

Except I don’t believe it does. 

Come on, special schools – we need to lead the way here by showing that, with the understanding that negative behaviour is the communication of an unmet need, and with the use of restorative practices, that behaviour can and does improve over time. 

Jarlath O’Brien is headteacher at Carwarden House Community School in Surrey. His book Don’t Send Him in Tomorrow is published by Independent Thinking Press in September 

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