Who wants the excluded children?

Written by: HTU | Published:

If more and more schools do take on academy status and competition gets sharper, where will this leave the minority who hinder rather than help league tables? Headteacher Update examines the current policy for dealing with excluded pupils

Most teachers have had one at one time or another. The child who just will not do as they are told. Not only that, they wander around, tap on tables and chairs, disturb other children and occasionally “flip” completely. With a child like this in your class you can never relax. No matter how much you might concentrate on Sally S or Darren T, it is always with one eye on what is going on in the corner.

It is not surprising that schools are reluctant to admit children with behavioural difficulties. Some will go to any lengths to make sure they are “full” or the head will be unavailable or there will be some other obscure reason why school X, Y, Z down the road is by far the better destination. The fact remains that these children must go somewhere and perhaps this is one of the biggest dilemmas for the free school and academy policy.

The facts

After a gloomy introduction, there is in fact an improved outlook at the moment, though it is hard to find it in the media. Since 2003/04 the number of permanent exclusions has fallen by two-fifths. In 2003/04 there were 9,990 pupils permanently excluded from school. This dropped to 5,740 in 2009/10. Interestingly, in 1997/98 there were 12,300 permanently excluded pupils – almost double the number excluded in the latest round of statistics(1).

Four-fifths of the permanent exclusions were boys and Black Caribbean pupils are still four times more likely to be permanently excluded than White British pupils. Pupils with SEN are eight times more likely to be permanently excluded and children who are eligible for free school meals are around four times more likely to be permanently excluded.

The statistic that many newspapers chose to report was that 900 children are “suspended” from school every day (one that does not come directly from the statistical release itself but has been arrived at by politicians). A less publicised fact from the data was that the exclusion rates in Scotland are much lower than anywhere else in Great Britain and neither is there mention in the Department for Education (DfE) press release that the number of exclusions is almost half of that six years ago.

Are pupils getting better?

There seems to be something of a contradiction here between what the statistics are saying and what the message is from the politicians. This is the announcement from schools minister Nick Gibb that accompanies the release of the data on the DfE website:

“With thousands of pupils being excluded for persistent disruption and violent or abusive behaviour we remain concerned that weak discipline remains a significant problem in too many of our schools and classrooms.”

However, the statistics actually tell us that behaviour, reflected through the need for exclusions, is improving. In all other circumstances it is the statistical trend that would be used as evidence of the real state of affairs in preference to anecdote. Therefore, let us explore why things “according to the statistics” have improved. Among the many factors likely, three in particular come to mind:

- Schools working very hard at behaviour.
- Behaviour and attendance partnerships.
- Creative ways of providing alternative provision.

Schools working hard

The press may not like it, but schools have been working very hard at behaviour. They do not need people to tell them that a disruptive pupil in the class is bad news for academic standards and certainly for the teacher and pupils he or she works with. Ofsted is another incentive and, in the end, fixed-term and permanent exclusion data are statistics that you cannot argue with (unless you are Mr Gibb of course).

Behaviour and attendance partnerships

They might not have been successful in all areas, but by and large behaviour and attendance partnerships did see results. Schools are understandably reluctant to admit challenging children. Therefore some kind of local arrangement whereby schools “swap” and perhaps receive additional advice and support has been one way forward.

We could argue that a level of local accountability for the number of excluded pupils that schools expel and admit is essential if a place is to be found for them somewhere. This is likely to become even more of an issue with an increasing number of independent free schools and academies.

However valuable they might have been, the requirement to be part of a behaviour and attendance partnership has been dropped. If all schools do not have to participate then it is likely that those who do not may be the ones least likely to admit their fair share of troublesome pupils. This places a further burden on those still within the partnership, making the whole arrangement unworkable.

Creative ways of providing alternative provision

The Ofsted survey, Alternative Provision (June 2011), highlights the difficulties there are with arrangements for pupils at risk of exclusion and those already excluded. Lack of liaison between the school and off-site provision, pupils disenfranchised from the curriculum and a sense of “let’s just put them somewhere else” do not throw a very good light on some schools.

This criticism aside, the opportunities that some of these children are receiving off-site are good ones. Ones that other pupils, whose behaviour is less of a problem, might benefit from too. At their best, they represent a creative way of finding activities that pupils can see as being relevant to their lives. The survey revealed: “The students spoken to generally viewed their placements positively. In particular, they valued being treated in a more adult manner.”

However good some of these off-site providers might be, Mr Gibb criticises the alternative provision currently available and suggests that acquiring free school status will drive up standards.

Current policy

Sir Alan Steer may be gratified that many of the suggestions in his Review for improving pupil behaviour are reflected in the government’s approach. For example, in April 2009 Sir Alan’s final recommendations(2) included:

- Increase awareness of the powers that schools have including the statutory power to discipline.
- Remind schools about their power to discipline pupils for behaving inappropriately off school premises.
- Use the Ofsted rating of “satisfactory” for behaviour as an indication of scope for improvement and a trigger for additional support.
- Emphasise early intervention and intervention strategies.
- Complete an assessment of the impact of nurture groups.

However, at least one of his recommendations is at odds with current policy. Sir Alan did recommend that behaviour and attendance partnerships should be strengthened. With this exception and bearing in mind that some of these actions were implemented initially by the previous administration, the government does seem to be putting aspects of his advice into practice.

The Education Bill 2011

We are very close to this becoming law at last. The Education Bill seems to have been out there for a long time and is now moving through the last stages of the House of Lords. Improving behaviour and discipline are key features and the Bill provides a clear indication of the government’s stance. It proposes an increase in the power to search, the removal of the need for 24 hours’ notice of a detention and the replacement of appeal panels with review panels for exclusions. These panels will not be able to order a school to reinstate a pupil although they can require them to reconsider their decision.

How much difference will this legislation make to what goes on in schools? Pupil behaviour is not all about hoodies with knives and chewing gum hidden on their person. Nor is it about schools making parents’ lives (and their own) more difficult by a same-day detention. In fact, schools may prefer to retain a 24-hour requirement in their policy, particularly if they believe in working in partnership with parents.

It is hard to see how emphasising the powers of schools through the behaviour guidance or extending these powers through law is going to substantially improve behaviour. What it might do, conversely, is create greater conflict or lead to exclusions.

Proposals in the SEN Green Paper

There is an indication that the government is a little worried by the prospect of schools exerting their power to exclude in greater numbers. A niggle that is hinted at in The Importance of Teaching White Paper and the SEN Green Paper(3). The suggestion is that schools might be required to continue to take responsibility for their pupils after they have excluded them. The government has announced the intention to trial this approach – a change in accountability and funding arrangements that could make a big difference to schools’ readiness to exclude.

But could this further restrict movement between schools? There would need to be some kind of arrangement that safeguarded those schools prepared to give a disruptive pupil a chance. Sometimes a change in environment, a new peer group and a different approach to discipline can work. Schools will not want to offer this additional opportunity if they believe it will tie them to the pupil for the foreseeable future.

Alternative free schools

The government is hoping that alternative provision providers will want to establish their own free schools. The feasibility of this will depend upon the financial implications. A large provider linked to a number of academies in an area may be interested in providing alternative provision to service their schools. It is interesting that the CfBT Education Trust has produced its own literature review of alternative provision(4). Perhaps this is an indication that this organisation at least is considering establishing alternative provision of its own.

The future

The release of the government’s behaviour guidance and its approach to handling the riots demonstrates quite clearly a belief in taking a “no-nonsense”, authoritarian approach to behaviour and discipline. The behaviour guidance is all about summarising the powers that teachers and their schools have and encouraging their use. The assumption is that pupils can be made to behave and the libertarian approaches to pupil discipline of the past have created escalating behaviour problems.

Ironically, the data referred to above seems to tell a different story. Whatever schools have been doing, albeit through backdoor exclusions or moving “naughty” children around through managed moves, the statistics suggest it has been working.

What now if the main strategy for addressing the needs of challenging children is using your power and authority rather than partnership and persuasion? Will that do the trick? It depends upon which school of thought you come from. For some people the issue is a clear one of understanding the difference between right and wrong and bad behaviour not being tolerated.

For others, the problems are much more complex than that. The causes of the behaviour of our challenging children are such a mixture of elements, from medical difficulties to social and housing deficiencies, from omissions in early childhood to abuse in later life, that three strokes of the cane simply will not work. When it does not, is it just a case of fast-track to prison?

We might accept prison as a temporary solution and a short, sharp shock. But what strategies do we wish to use with these young people in the long term? There are few who would cite prison as a therapeutic opportunity to correct anti-social behaviour. In fact, their time in prison is likely to create even more behavioural and emotional difficulties. A prognosis that could make the “big society” a very dangerous place to be.

1: Permanent and Fixed Period Exclusions from Schools and Exclusion Appeals in England, 2009/10 (July 2011) http://bit.ly/qIZnEz

2: Appendix A: Sir Alan Steer’s Final Recommendations on Pupil Behaviour: Implementation Plan, DCSF (2009)

3: SEN Green Paper, Support and Aspiration: A New Approach to Special Educational Needs and Disability (2011)

4: Achieving Successful Outcomes Through Alternative Education Provision: An International Literature Review, Gutherson et al. (2011)

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