The most recent statistics on fixed-term and permanent exclusions in England and Wales were released last month and once again they didn’t make for happy reading. The number and rate of fixed-term and permanent exclusions had both increased.
In my role as head of a virtual school for children in care, working for various different local authorities over the years, I know that exclusion — whether for a fixed term or permanently — can have a dramatic impact on the pupil.
So my plea to heads is that before they take the decision to exclude a child from school, they ask themselves these five questions in the hope that they will realise that exclusion is very rarely in the child or young person’s best interest.
1. Did the student really choose their behaviour?
There is a growing body of evidence that adverse childhood experiences, such as attachment difficulties and trauma have a profound impact on brain functioning and development. When a child has experienced "toxic stress" through abuse, neglect or violence, some biological systems may have been altered. Terry Levy sums up these alterations nicely. So, ask yourself whether the student made an informed, conscious choice about their behaviour or whether they, like many vulnerable students, function in a reactive way determined by past trauma.
2. Will the exclusion have the desired impact on behaviour?
If a student’s behaviour has been a challenge in an ongoing way, then an exclusion will certainly give staff a break and could be beneficial for the rest of the class if the behaviour had been stopping others from learning. But if exclusions were effective in bringing about changed behaviour, then a child would only ever have one. They would learn from it and modify their behaviour. However, the common pattern is a series of fixed-term exclusions that eventually lead to permanent exclusion or a move to another school. If that move is from a mainstream to a specialist provision, this has the potential to bring about positive change. Often, though, the student is moved to a provision of a similar type, relocating ‘the problem’ without dealing with the underlying causes.
3. What will the impact be on the student?
For many excluded pupils, exclusion can feel like yet another rejection, which often re-enforces their existing low self-esteem. And for those who are particularly vulnerable, exclusion can also mean being at home without supervision, time to commit a crime or be at risk of further abuse. During that time of exclusion often nothing positive happens. There is no therapy, no counselling and no attempt to address what is causing the behaviour.
4. What will the impact be on their learning?
We know there is a gap in the attainment of advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, and this isn’t helped by the fact that pupils eligible for and claiming free school meals are four times as likely to be excluded. Work might be sent home but may not be completed or even understood. But it’s not just formal learning that students miss out on. They also miss out on much-needed time with peers and time spent building relationships.
5. Is there an alternative to exclusions?
Until all the alternatives have been fully explored, exclusion should not be the answer. Working together with other professionals to develop creative inclusive practices is surely a more productive way of addressing negative behaviour. We need to seek solutions that will have long-lasting effects, rather than simply washing our hands of the children who need us most.
Sheila Mulvenney is a virtual school headteacher and a former Sendco