Exclusions Review: The implications for primary schools

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
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Schools exclusions are on the rise and while the spotlight is on secondary schools, the issue is increasingly affecting primary education. The Timpson Review of School Exclusion has investigated the reasons behind the trend and has published its recommendations. Suzanne O’Connell considers its conclusions

Overall the number of permanent exclusions is on the up. The total number across all phases of education rose between 2013/14 and 2016/17 – from 0.06 per cent of students to 0.1 per cent.

With eight million or so pupils in the system, it means that 40 pupils a day are now being excluded. A further 2,000 receive fixed period exclusions every day. And while it remains a predominantly secondary issue, we are seeing increased use at primary level with boys particularly at risk – 89 per cent of permanent exclusions and 87 per cent of fixed term exclusions issued in primary schools were issued to boys.

The rate of permanent exclusion for five-year-olds, while rare, has doubled during the period and there are 5,286 pupils aged between five and 10 receiving some or all of their education in alternative provision as of January 2018.

The review also finds that 78 per cent of permanent exclusions are issued to SEN pupils, those classified as “in need”, or those eligible for free school meals. One in 10 are issued to pupils with all three characteristics.

It must be added, however, that more than 17,000 mainstream schools (85 per cent) in England issued no permanent exclusions in 2016/17, including 94 per cent of all state-funded primary schools (and 43 per cent of secondaries). Furthermore, we are only talking about a small number of schools being responsible for the misuse of exclusion and practices such as off-rolling.

The Timpson Review was commissioned by education secretary Damian Hinds to look into how headteachers use exclusion. Altogether there are 30 recommendations in the report and in principle the government has agreed to all of them. The report identifies four drivers of practice:

  • Leadership variations in thresholds for exclusion and practice.
  • Lack of consistent systems for managing poor behaviour.
  • Lack of reward or incentive for taking responsibility for these children.
  • Lack of safeguards to prevent off-rolling.

The report is careful not to criticise the use of exclusion in some circumstances or the right of headteachers to exclude; it frequently refers to the importance of schools having a “well-ordered environment”. And so it finds itself in a dilemma – how to encourage headteachers to not exclude without appearing to suggest that they shouldn’t?

What is clear is that exclusion practice varies greatly from authority to authority and from school to school. This lack of consistency is one of the issues that Edward Timpson would like to see addressed. The statutory guidance (DfE, 2012) is being interpreted very differently across different settings and we can now expect a review of this guidance.

Leadership

The guidance is clear that exclusion should only be used as a last resort and must be “lawful, reasonable and fair”. It is not surprising that the report highlights a lack of consistency in how school leaders and governors interpret the guidance. There is a link here to the accountability system. The report states: “It cannot be right to have a system where some schools could stand to improve their performance and finances through exclusion.”

One of the issues here is the need for cooperation between institutions. This responsibility looks set once more to be given to local authorities via the local forums that all schools are expected to attend.

These forums had been a part previously of many local authorities but had found themselves undermined by schools who wanted to preserve their autonomy.

Now the report recommends that they be reinstituted and that they should share best practice, take responsibility for collecting and reviewing data on pupil needs and moves, plan and fund local alternative provision, and arrange early intervention for children at risk of exclusion. In addition there should be more training and support for school leaders and we should encourage under-represented groups to achieve leadership level.

Behaviour management

The report recommends that behaviour management should have a higher profile in teacher training and that SENCOs should be trained in Attachment and trauma. Mr Timpson also wants to see more guidance and research into developing best practice. Areas specifically mentioned are:

  • Internal inclusion units.
  • Use of nurture groups and programmes.
  • Transition.
  • Parental engagement.
  • Creating inclusive environments.
  • Use of alternative provision in early intervention.

The report refers to the in-school units where children spend time out of their normal schedule and on their own. The use of such approaches has come to the forefront recently amid concerns about the length of time that some pupils are being kept in isolation.

Incentives

In order that perverse incentives no longer drive the decisions made by some schools, the report recommends that schools should be made responsible for the educational outcomes of those pupils they exclude. Adjustments to school funding should discourage schools from selecting particular times for exclusion or avoiding admitting challenging children. There is a role here for Ofsted, the review states, which should be checking that “outstanding schools have an ethos and approach that will support all children to succeed while accepting that the most serious or persistent misbehaviour, which impacts on the education and safety of others, cannot be tolerated”.

Safeguarding

Much of the advice here is related to the sharing of information and transparency. Authorities should be on the look out for schools that avoid admitting the pupils they do not want and Ofsted should continue to look out for patterns to exclusions, off-rolling and absence from schools. The report acknowledges that off-rolling takes place and one headteacher was even prepared to admit to the review that it happened in his school.

Will it make a difference?

The review of statutory guidance is much needed, as is the authority to monitor and track the actions of some schools. Whether local authorities will, in practice, be able to take on this role is unclear. Many are now reduced in power and their services already stretched to the limit.

Funding is still an underestimated driver of many schools’ motivation to exclude. One disruptive pupil can be a huge drain on resources and on teacher and management time. Where these resources are limited it takes a determined and committed school to persevere with a seriously challenging pupil.

Transition can be a frustrating time for primary schools that have spent time and energy on ensuring that a pupil is not excluded. There is a sharp increase in the number of permanent exclusions between year 6 and 7.

In the end, the recommendations might be worthy ones but much of the partnership working, local authority supervision and peer pressure that there was has been eroded over the years. As high-stakes accountability continues, schools still have more to lose and less to gain when it comes to keeping challenging pupils on roll.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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