Last year, I read an article that suggested Gloucestershire schools could be fined £5,000 for excluding pupils. At first it made me sad, and then rather frustrated, because exclusion is a symptom of malaise and it has smothered our education system for far too long.
If the only solution a local authority has to combat inappropriate and permanent exclusions is to fine schools that are already skint, then we’re in real trouble.
What local authorities need to remember is that when you focus on problems, you only generate more problems, but when you focus on possibilities, you find more opportunities. So when a struggling school is responsible for the rising number of excluded pupils it is often down to the school's own unmet needs, and, in an institutional way, this isn’t too dissimilar to the kids who face exclusion.
So what kind of message would councils be sending out if they fined these schools, the schools that are already struggling? Because, more often than not, these are the ones that are still attempting to deal with the fall-out of the decade-long austerity that has broken Britain and also resulted in the closure of almost every community service for disabled pupils and their parents.
This culture of funding cuts has radically affected the poorest in society and it cannot be ignored. It cannot be thought of as a causal effect of poverty and the expectation of our most vulnerable. It has left the poorest and most vulnerable children, those who form the significant majority of special educational needs and disability pupils, to be deprived of the help and support they need from cash-strapped schools.
In some large comprehensive schools, there is not even a single Sendco.
Schools are terrorised by league tables
The result – it’s not pretty – is that underfunded schools are terrorised by league tables, threatened with academisation, and are forced to believe that the only currency of any value in the education system is exam results. These schools are the ones now forced to exclude disabled children and young people rather than focus on their specific needs.
In these circumstances, I have no doubt that a number of comprehensives have resorted to manipulating parents to home-school their children for fears that they won’t make the government’s ideal grade.
A few academy chains have now cottoned on to a different solution; open a social, emotional and mental health school and drop all the misfits into these soon-to-be "sinkholes", where poor results are more likely to be forgiven by Ofsted while allowing their main flagship academies to continue to impress.
These flagship schools soon become gated communities for high-achieving, disability-free pupils. While the teachers who came into education embracing the premise and values that schools should be inclusive somehow become complicit in moving problem children out, and effectively kicking a child-shaped can down the road.
There are, of course, real-life consequences from this for the pupils themselves, their parents, our communities and society as a whole.
These pupils are overrepresented in every negative statistic: poverty, homelessness, mental ill health, alcoholism, drug abuse, crime and the criminal justice system. If we are not careful, we are building a school-to-prison pipeline.
What happened to inclusion?
But perhaps the saddest element of this short-sighted exclusion fix is that it delivers a message across the whole school that will not easily be forgotten by pupils, staff, SLT or the community: our disabled children are problems, not to be supported, but to be removed. If success is only measured in exam results and not in a school’s role to encourage real values of inclusivity, then the pressure is only heightened and a real opportunity for these students is lost.
What is also lost in this orgy of exclusion is the ability for a whole school to mirror and model a philosophy of inclusion. How will it ever be possible to feel the sheer joy of working together as a community to not only support vulnerable pupils with low aspirations but also to help turn their education around?
As the African proverb says, it takes a village to raise a child, and that has never been more important than it is today in England’s education system.
Of course, our schools need more money, but they also need to be allowed to attempt a change in culture, they need to be allowed to move away from an obsession with exam results and league tables, and towards one in which all children can be valued and educated, together.
Thomas Keaney is the TCES Group’s chief executive and schools proprietor