In my school, I have a no-exclusion policy. I believe that exclusions fail both the school and the student.
I did not always hold this view. Earlier in my career, I recommended the permanent exclusion of several students. The process and final disciplinary meeting never failed to move me. I wanted to find a better way, but my creative thinking powers and those of my contemporaries needed a bit more development.
That development came when I took up a post as a lead for behaviour services for a county in the South of England.
My role encompassed being a headteacher for a series of complex pupil referral units, a secure unit and a teaching ward for students with mental health issues. Working on a daily basis with students who had been excluded from school brought some clarity to my thinking.
Too many students who are excluded from schools have special educational needs and disability, are deprived either socially or economically, or have a poverty of nurturing and/or come from a one-parent family.
Their circumstances and lives are complex. Too many of them, after being excluded, end up in the criminal justice system and spend their lives on the fringes of society.
The chances of success are much greater if a student has the base of a mainstream school environment.
So I worked with groups of headteachers to look at ways of avoiding permanent exclusions by encouraging either “U-shaped” or “L-shaped” transfers into a local PRU ahead of any final exclusion. A “U-shaped” transfer is basically a timed programme in the PRU to instigate change in the young person, with a phased re-entry into the home school.
An “L-shaped” entry into the PRU is again time-limited, this time with an agreed move to a new school. All moves back into mainstream education are supported by a fully trained key worker.
We had significant success with this approach and many students benefited from a new start following a short stay in a PRU with intensive support.
I am now a headteacher at a maintained comprehensive that has the third most deprived catchment in the county and I took these experiences with me into the job. To date, I have not permanently excluded a single student.
How have these ideas developed? I was lucky that the school was already a member of a soft federation that was operating a system of managed moves in order to avoid permanent exclusion.
Trust and honesty
It is not a perfect system and relies on personal trust, honesty and integrity between a group of heads and their staff. However, it is a much better alternative than permanent exclusion.
Prior to consideration of a managed move, we have an internal process of inclusion and seclusion.
On this, I owe a great deal to an assistant headteacher, Vanessa Meyer, and head of Year 9, Sean Aldridge, who have both influenced my thinking greatly. Our behaviour system runs on three simple rules:
• Be safe
• Be respectful
• Be prepared.
All possible behaviours are covered by these rules. It is easy for everyone to remember and can be referred to with ease through simple poster displays. Both parents and students find it easy to understand.
If a student needs to be taken out of class for poor behaviour they first go into inclusion. They spend four periods of the day completing work in the “green room”. This is a quiet, boothed and managed room, and the students have breaks at different times from the rest of the school. The students go back into the last lesson of the day and, as long as they behave according to the rules, they can then continue on their usual timetable the following day.
If in that last period they fail to follow our three simple rules then they will have to be included for a further day.
If a student has been involved in behaviour we deem would result in exclusion, then we will use seclusion. This sanction involves coming into school at 1pm (when inclusion ceases) and finishing at 5pm. This again takes place in the green room.
It is important we combine this process with work to understand the reason behind the behaviour. Any behaviour a student exhibits is communication. Families today are increasingly feeling the pressures of a fast-paced and complex world and sometimes children are the casualties.
My staff look to support and nurture the students so they not only stay in education to gain the best exam grades possible, but also, importantly, have a sense of self-worth, self-belief and resilience that will support them throughout the rest of their lives.
Does a no-exclusion policy work? We think it does. In three years I have not excluded a student.
Consequently, each year we have only two or three students who turn out to be not in education, employment or training (Neet). We track them and keep trying to engage with them throughout their first year after leaving us.
It is my belief that by acting inclusively, we support our students to get the best possible start in life beyond school.
Julia Vincent is headteacher at Warblington School, Hampshire