Better out than in: why exclusions are often the answer

11th May 2013 at 21:20

I read with interest research from the University of Edinburgh recently that describe how children who are permanently excluded from school are four times as likely as other children to be jailed as adults. You might think that there is little to be surprised about in this finding, and much to be saddened about. But for at least some of the authors of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transition, there are other conclusions to be drawn:


‘In practice, the criminal justice system serves to punish poverty, the socially marginalised, and vulnerable individuals, as much as those who steal, assault or murder.’ Professor Lesley McAra

‘The study findings show that one of the keys to tackling Scotland’s high imprisonment rates is to tackle school exclusion…if we could find more imaginative ways of retaining the most challenging children in mainstream education, and ensuring that school is a positive experience for all Scotland’s young people, this would be a major step forward.’ Professor Susan McVie, co-director of the study, reported in the Daily Record, 22/2/13

Neither professor’s published CV seems to include any actual teaching in primary or secondary schools, but mine does, so I’ll chip in. That isn’t meant to be unkind, but it is pertinent to the interpretation of any data this research throws up.


You can certainly see, at least, a kind of intuitive logic behind these findings. It convinced local authorities in the nineties and noughties: one of the Ofsted indicators that a school was stumbling used to be the rate of permanent exclusions. Too many and it indicated that schools were desperate asylums of inadequacy; too quick to exclude meant too slow to confront the problems beneath the problem. The result? Permanent exclusions became as rare as unicorn dung. They became practically millennial events, and disparaged as indicative of poor management. Message clear: if you exclude the student, you’ve failed in your duty.


This was the darker side of inclusion: the idiot sentiment that children must be retained in school no matter what; that exclusion was abandoning the child to the certainties of a debauched adult destiny, leading inevitably to their subsequent delinquency.


And that’s where we are today. Unlike many researchers writing in serene offices, I actually get to see what happens in schools that attempt to reduce the number of exclusions without dealing with the problems this presents.


You need to set fire to the head’s trousers to get an exclusion these days, and even then there would undoubtedly be a sympathetic appeal panel that would reinstate. It’s worth mentioning that no panel of governors ever had to teach the child that they championed, because no one but the individual teacher will ever know how discouraging and dark it is to teach a pupil who relentlessly places themselves outside of the capacity of mainstream education to teach; and only that teacher knows the shame and indignity of being told to fuck off once, twice, repeatedly, and then have to face their abuser on a daily basis.


There are so many things wrong with this sentiment that I can barely begin:


  1. False correlation: children who often get excluded frequently end up guests of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, and I don’t mean Ofsted. Perhaps the common factor isn’t the exclusion, but some other factor, such as ‘Has poor conceptual understanding of altruism or selflessness’? Perhaps the child has a habit of punching people or emptying their bags when no one is looking? Perhaps they get excluded from school, and included in prison for the same reasons?
  2. Sample bias: If your focus group is excluded versus non-excluded pupils then you are bound to see a far higher percentage of eventual inmates. It isn’t exactly a control group.
  3. False controls: The research claims that the pupils were measured against pupils of similar behaviour who received different consequences. But that’s no control at all. Who is to say the reasons for the behaviours were the same, even if the behaviours themselves might be? There are a million reasons a kid might throw a chair, none of them good, but some are better than others, and some indicative of future violence more than others. A bereaved child might lash out then regret it. A violent child might do the same and then exceed themselves next time. Who’s to say?

The problem isn’t exclusions. Ironically, the problem is not excluding when it is deserved. In any system of sanctions and rewards, there has to be a terminus, some ultimate destination that is reached, however undesired. If a child repeatedly refuses to obey the rules of the school, in such a way as to benefit the common good, or so impedes their learning or the learning of others, there needs to be a process by which that child is removed. Not as a punishment necessarily − although it can be − but as an admission that their needs are not being met in the present situation, and that the rest of the school body deserves not to be treated as they are with the pupil’s inclusion.


Keeping a pupil in school who repeatedly cannot behave to a reasonable level serves no purpose other than to salve the consciences of those who never have to deal with such children. It is a social experiment entirely contra to the experience of working in a well-run school. It turns a learning space into a survival space. If a child has no fear of removal, why should they fear any lesser sanctions? Why should they turn up for a five-minute detention if they know they can defy with impunity until everyone else is purple with stress.


Permanent exclusions, carried out with justice and rigour, aim towards their own extinction. Ironically, if done properly, they keep calm and order. ‘Here there is structure,’ it says. ‘Here people are safe. Here rules bind and support you.’ The certainty of the sanction is more important than the severity, as Bill Rogers says.


And excluding a child may not solve their problems, but what will? What lever will sustain every pupil through the difficulties of their lives? It certainly solves a lot of problems within the rest of the school body who have their education ruined − and I use that word carefully − by a tiny minority who cannot amend themselves, no matter how many chances they are given. Exclusions should contain the germ of certainty. Infrequent, but definite, they are the yeast that helps a school to rise. Conjecture and optimism dressed as research can’t disguise that, but it can hurt schools, and has done for decades.


Please, please, earnest researchers everywhere: consider the damage you do before you publish your findings.