It’s easy – too easy – to think of a school as an island. But if you want to nurture positive change, it’s vital to have your eye on the bigger picture; the consequences unfolding on the outside. It is there that you’ll see a multitude of excluded children, and the lives to which exclusion has condemned them.
I’ve seen first-hand how destructive exclusion can be.
Quick read: Fixed-period school exclusions on the rise
Exclusive: MAT accused of acting on 'off-rolling' plan
Like a vast number of vulnerable kids in Britain today, I grew up in a disadvantaged area. At school in South London in the 1990s, our life chances were diminished by circumstances and our postcode.
Looking back, I can see that I was one of the lucky ones – I had a supportive and stable family unit behind me. But we weren’t all so lucky. In the decades since then, I’ve seen the hopes of so many peers and friends fade, as they were drawn into bad decisions, exclusions, criminality and poor outcomes. I’ve also watched the pattern repeat itself in others. I’ve witnessed countless vulnerable students reacting to the rejection of exclusion – and experienced, first-hand while working in a pupil referral unit (PRU), what an upward struggle it was to re-engage young people after that.
I decided I wanted to be and do something different.
Early in my career, I gained insight into a PRU, then later, I applied that learning in a mainstream context, seeking to reduce the need for exclusion (which is pretty much the central proposition of the new Difference Leaders programme).
For the past 14 years, I’ve been committed to driving a whole-school response to inclusion at Dunraven School in Lambeth, South London – a school where many students come from challenging circumstances and are eligible for free school meals. And for the past six years, I’ve led the student welfare and engagement team. Our school has worked tirelessly to exchange exclusion for inclusion, with the aim of improving outcomes for all our young people.
Since 2012 we’ve had only one exclusion. Before this, we would average five a year. We’ve raised the GCSE pass rate of our most vulnerable students to more than six times higher than the figure for our local PRU – and these vulnerable children could so easily have been sent to the PRU themselves.
While I’m proud that we’re making a difference, it’s certainly not over for us yet. Here’s some key things we’ve learned on our journey to inclusion.
1. Opening the gates and building community bridges
In my time at a PRU, I saw how inter-agency working could positively impact on vulnerable young people. At Dunraven, we’ve modelled our own structure on this, bringing together, special educational needs and disability (SEND), speech and language, English as an additional language (EAL), early intervention, attendance, safeguarding and alternative provision under the Inclusion umbrella. An Inclusion team made up of like-minded individuals is keen to make a change and supported by the belief, support and earned agency from senior leaders and governors.
This structure has supported more joined-up communication and better understanding both internally and with external services, ensuring pupils’ needs are identified and supported more quickly and effectively.
It has also helped us to broker better partnership-working and connections with the community.
Schools should not work in isolation. We asked our local health and wellbeing boards and services for advice on how we could align our structure with theirs. We attended local council strategy meetings that are open to the public. I was often the only school representative at such meetings, yet the wider context and opportunity to collaborate across services was invaluable.
2. Reframing our whole-school approach to behaviour – 'working with', not 'doing to'
Looking beyond the school gates, we came across the “asset-based approach”, which now underpins our ethos.
Vulnerable young people often report being made to feel like they’re “broken” and need to be “fixed”. This model encourages pupils, staff and parents to view themselves, and one another, as assets rather than deficits, focusing on what’s strong over what’s wrong. It has informed the language used by staff, as well as interventions for our pupils.
For example, one student, who was disengaged with their learning but loved athletics, was enabled to teach PE to primary school pupils once a week – their self-belief has soared along with their engagement and progress.
3. Rethinking the ‘last resort’
We know the overwhelming majority of pupils who are violent or disruptive have a history of trauma or vulnerability. In keeping with our whole-school approach to inclusion, instead of sending these students to a PRU, we set up an alternative on-site provision, called the Base.
Here, there is a strong focus on academic learning in a small, supportive environment where attention to individual needs – educationally, socially and emotionally – can be flexible and highly specific. It’s about reintegration, with no pupil in the Base full-time. We aim to build these pupils up, supporting their self-esteem and cultural, social capital with lunchtime visits from artists or businesspeople and museum trips at weekends or during school holidays.
Students who were on the verge of exclusion, since spending time in the Base, have gone on to attend higher education or complete apprenticeships.
One student, in particular, was at the risk of permanent exclusion in Year 9. Her behaviour was symptomatic of difficulties in her social life as well as poorly managing her type 1 diabetes. The Base became an opportunity to engage her academically and as an active citizen in the school community. She received an opportunity to work closely with the NHS on their framework for supporting young adults to self-care in London and attended conferences to speak about her experiences of education. She achieved a very good set of 11 GCSEs, was accepted into our highly academic sixth form and is currently studying law at a university in the South of England. She still returns to the school to mentor students who are struggling to manage their diabetes.
'Collaboration and courage'
Remember: you’re not alone in wanting to tackle exclusion.
We would never claim to be perfect, nor revolutionary, but we are proud of our work at Dunraven. One reason it works as well as it does is because of the commitment from the whole school to the project.
With collaboration and courage, schools can be the missing link in driving equality and real inclusion.
Your school is not an island. And if, like mine, it’s supported by dedicated colleagues, a committed head and a passionate team who have their pupils’ outcomes at their heart – you’ll find real and positive change is not far away.
Mohamed Abdallah is speaking at the Difference’s IncludEd Conference on Saturday 2 November, supported by Tes. The Difference exists to improve the outcomes of vulnerable children by raising the status and expertise of those who educate them. Tickets are available now