My most quiet, conscientious classmate suddenly snapped. Rising from her desk, she promptly overturned it and shoved a fellow pupil to the ground. And then she left.
Marched into the headteacher’s office, she was suspended for five school days. Despite her tears when she was collected by her parents, she seemed almost satisfied by this conclusion of events.
Her victim having reapplied any lost makeup, those not directly affected had stopped talking about the incident by lunchtime. Once her work for the five days was set, the teachers likely put it out of their minds, too.
The incident had been dealt with, to the satisfaction of all. Crime done, punishment served.
It’s no longer shocking. We students do not fear fixed-term exclusions. They’re not the ultimate taboo on a school record they once perhaps were. Pupil suspensions are something every student and teacher, alike, will be familiar with and incidents are rising. It’s now normal.
But is it right?
The student view on exclusions
Many an adult will discuss the impact they suspect a behaviour will have upon us. They make assumptions about how safe or unsafe another child will make us feel, they argue for or against exclusions for us. But students are rarely asked. So, what do we think?
I can’t answer for everyone, but I can offer at least a single young person’s view, informed by discussions with my peer group.
In the above case, we students – some friends of the perpetrator – can see that the decision to suspend her was correct. She may have posed a threat to others had she remained and she was obviously in some personal distress, which required immediate attention for her own wellbeing, away from school.
In my view, other situations should also result in fixed-period exclusion being the only option. Possession of so-called "soft drugs" – cannabis in your rucksack – would generally result in the contraband’s removal, followed by police cautioning and some time out. But unless repeat offences were to follow, punishing this student with permanent exclusion would be seen as "too much". Assault would be another example of an offence which, punished with exclusion, nobody would challenge. Some incidents, however, aren’t so black and white for us. If a peer consistently disrupts a teacher as they take a class, wasting large amounts of valuable time, some might push for their exclusion. But some would rather that student was dealt with, not thrown out.
Similarly, exclusions for failure to complete work set or constant lateness appear counter-intuitive. Exclusion does not seem, to me, to be a solution for managing some of the more complex or chronically challenging behaviour, but a way of removing the disruption to bring temporary relief. Without longer-term planning, it will likely return. Sometimes we don’t learn the first, or third time around and we and require more guidance.
More than a punishment
But I think where exclusions are warranted, they are not always carried out correctly. We completely understand suspension as a primary response to certain scenarios is necessary to finding a solution – yet too often, we see this primary measure ending up as the solution itself. When the matter is investigated further by staff, it can seem shallow and simplistic to us, necessary boxes checked before the school management team can responsibly allow him or her to sit next to anybody again.
Knowing pupils from many different schools, I would argue that the extent to which schools and staff members undertake that responsibility differs unacceptably. The whole story must be understood in all cases, paying attention to events precluding the incident. Supporting characters must be considered – with minimal disruption – in order to better understand why the offence occurred and how to prevent repeat offences, or ones similar.
In addition, students agree that knowing the response to bad behaviour will be consistent – regardless of which staff member’s desk it crosses, or the offender’s identity and history – would increase their respect for the system and reduce speculation and doubt surrounding incidents. That does not always happen.
Lastly, a clear procedure of restorative justice can help when the time comes for those involved to move on from the incident and resume normal school life. Too often, hard-line behaviour management and restorative justice are seen as mutually exclusive. I believe they can be useful partners.
Negative pupil-teacher relationships are less likely to develop if a restorative approach is combined with exclusion. Instead, there would be mutual respect. Including peers in understanding the event and giving both parties equal voice can be difficult for pupils and staff to consistently practice, but it works to reduce any continuing tensions.
Restorative justice, like many things at school, is something learned and requires practice. The concept was only recognised and introduced midway through my education, so I witnessed first-hand student reactions when we encountered this approach for the first time. It initially proved hard for us, especially in younger years, to appreciate the existence of a valid opposing side of an argument. Yet despite initial difficulties, it proves worthwhile and contributes to creating more mature, understanding pupils.
We understand the pressures placed on staff and, despite not always being the most pleasant lot, can, in reflection, sympathise. But I think if we are to use exclusion as a tool, then it must be wielded with skill: despite at some stages consuming more time, I believe that thorough investigation into the causes of offences and learning from them will reduce time later spent on further sanctioning and addressing subsequent concerns from the school community.
Students understand the necessity of exclusion in the process of resolving some serious behavioural issues, but stress that it is not, in itself, a solution.
Martha Sharp is a Year 11 student at a secondary school on the South of England