Don’t let excluded pupils slip through the net

17th August 2018 at 00:00
Fixed-term exclusions present challenges around safeguarding and can accelerate disengagement. But there are effective alternatives, argues Simon Pearse

Where do students go when they get excluded from school? In an ideal world, they would remain in the safety of their own homes, under the watchful eyes of their parents. But in reality, this is often not the case.

The number of fixed-term exclusions issued in mainstream secondary schools is rising year-on-year. According to the Department for Education, a total of 381,865 fixed-term exclusions were issued across mainstream secondary schools during the 2016-17 academic year. Troublingly, students known to be eligible for and claiming free school meals are four times more likely to be excluded, accounting for more than a third of all fixed-term exclusions (36.7 per cent).

And unfortunately, despite parents being legally required to ensure their child is not found in a public place throughout the period of the exclusion, in my experience a high proportion of these students are left to wander the streets.

I have come across numerous instances where excluded students have been befriended by individuals who have exposed them to further anti-social behaviour and, in some cases, criminal activity.

In other examples, the excluded student enjoys the period away from school and, once readmitted, begins to behave in ways they know will result in further exclusions. This leads to an unhealthy cycle that is exceptionally difficult to break.

The drive to safeguard all students is one of the cornerstones of the English education system. However, the increasing use of fixed-term exclusions combined with sometimes questionable parental supervision is exposing some of our most vulnerable students to further risk and harm.

Where are our safeguarding policies to cover this? I can tell you that in the majority of cases they don’t exist. It is clear that a new approach is needed. But what might that look like?

With increasing scrutiny of exclusion figures, as well as growing awareness around safeguarding concerns, a number of schools have already begun to seek alternatives to the fixed-term exclusion.

One secondary school I’ve worked with, located in the Midlands, has replaced external fixed-term exclusions with what it calls “challenge, grow and change” days. Rather than being sent home, students who would previously have been excluded are “refereed” for a set number of days within school. They attend on an adjusted timetable, starting and finishing school later, with corresponding break and lunchtimes to keep them separate from their peers.

During the day, they are kept in isolation and complete the work that was due to be set in their timetabled lessons. This avoids their falling behind, which would present a further barrier to engagement. In addition, a mix of support staff and qualified teachers work directly with the students, encouraging them to reflect upon the reason for their exclusion, exploring ways to make amends for their behaviour and, alongside parents, developing an “engagement plan” that sets out targets and specific support strategies.

Another option, adopted by one set of schools I’ve worked with in the West of England, involves collaborating to keep costs low. The schools have hired a community centre and pooled resources to employ three members of staff, who manage a programme in which excluded students attend the community centre for a set number of days. During these days, students complete classwork and take part in activities designed to help them reflect upon the circumstances that led to their exclusion.

Both of these alternatives are good examples of how schools can safeguard students while still reprimanding them, but I would argue that there is a third, even more progressive alternative: cutting back on the number of exclusions completely.

I have been fortunate enough to work with one inner-city secondary school that has reframed its approach to behaviour, so that the use of fixed-term exclusions are reserved for only the most serious incidents.

Previously, the school was in a rut, with teachers anticipating that any poor behaviour would result in a fixed-term exclusion. These expectations meant that senior leaders often felt pressured to take action, and the school’s fixed-term exclusion rate ended up four times higher than the national average. This led to heavy criticism during an Ofsted inspection, and inspectors went on to question the school’s arrangements for safeguarding excluded students.

Instead, using Year 7 as a pilot year, the school now tracks every student in relation to their attendance (number of lates and unauthorised absences), number of poor behaviour points and number of detentions. It has developed a system in which a numerical score is attached to each behaviour category or sanction, and there is a set “tariff” that, if exceeded, triggers an intervention or support strategy.

For example, once a student reaches 10 behaviour points, a meeting is arranged with the tutor and head of year to look at the specific incidents and to see what support can be offered. Once the student reaches 20 points, a meeting is organised with parents or carers to review behaviour and the student is assigned a support mentor, who works with them over a one-month period. A student who reaches 30 points is removed from mainstream lessons for a week and attends bespoke sessions either on a one-to-one basis or in a small group.

This tariff system is aided by work with educational psychologists and other support agencies. Each week, key individuals within the school review a report of the students meeting a particular threshold. This working party also examines the reports coming in from specific interventions and support mentors, and decides where further action is needed.

Where students are found to have engaged successfully with a specific intervention, they are congratulated, and their parents are contacted to celebrate the positive progress.

The school introduced this system in September and, as of 20 June, there had been just four fixed-term exclusions, compared with 36 issued during the same period last year. Based on the data, senior leadership has agreed to roll out the project in Years 8 and 9 during the coming year.

This approach ensures that sanctions are proportionate and meaningful as part of a broader system of support. But, more importantly, it keeps students in school, where they can be safeguarded most effectively.

Simon Pearse is a behaviour and inclusion consultant

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