A Response to The Guardian on Exclusions

Our Campaign Manager Mike has written this blog…

The Guardian have published an editorial this week on exclusions in schools. Disappointingly, it makes the same mistakes as many others in this debate in recent times.

The issues begin in the opening line, with rising exclusions being described as a “problem”. We would instead argue that it is more likely that rising exclusions represent schools taking control of their classrooms and no longer putting up with unacceptable behaviour, which is not a problem at all. Exclusion should always be a last resort, but it can’t be taken off the table.

It is not a problem when schools insist that the learning of the silent majority should not be disturbed. Nor is it one when a pupil who is unable to cope with the classroom environment, or who has done something so egregious that it puts the safety of other pupils into question, is moved to a different place. It is, for the vast majority who just want to get on and learn, a solution.

Of course, exclusion is never the full solution for the excluded child, which is part of what The Guardian is getting at. But the other part of the solution is ensuring high-quality alternative provision for all.

The sensible response to issues with quality in the sector is surely to say ‘if alternative provision quality is mixed, let’s work to make it so that all alternative provision is good’, and it is true that the paper describes this as part of the answer. However, given the tone of the article, and the overall call for exclusions to be severely reduced, it is difficult to see this as little more than an afterthought, when it should be the centrepiece of any attempt to improve life chances for disruptive pupils.

The paper then turns to a separate argument, one that we broadly support; the idea that the link between exclusions and knife crime is correlation not causation, and that a rise in exclusions is not necessarily a problem (which I have already discussed above). They uncharitably describe this argument as “sterile and inhumane”, even though figures such as HMCI Amanda Spielman have openly said that the correlation does not prove causation. Such a refrain is a basic aspect of any form of statistical analysis, and it is disappointing to see a national newspaper dismiss it so easily.

The next idea, that “an increasing rate of inclusion must be a goal of progressive policy-makers”, is a noble one. In an ideal world everyone would be able to learn together without any issues. But we are not in that world, and sometimes – often, even – one disruptive pupil can ruin a lesson for the other pupils in the class. If their disruption is not addressed, then that one disruptive pupil can ruin the other pupils’ whole education. Inclusion is a worthy aim, but it cannot come at the expense of an education for the silent, hardworking majority, or at the expense of the safety of pupils and teachers alike.

Such disruption has consequences beyond individual classrooms as well. The paper describes teacher vacancies as “uncomfortably high”, but doesn’t consider the idea that much of this could be down to behaviour; they themselves reported just four months ago that two-thirds of teachers consider quitting the profession because of bad behaviour. That will only get worse if persistently disruptive or violent pupils are kept in schools because teachers can’t exclude them.

Exclusion is a last resort, those who do it do so with a heavy heart after all other options have been exhausted. If a pupil is being excluded, it is almost certainly either because their behaviour was beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, or because they have had many chances to become less disruptive and spurned them all. Genuine off-rolling must be dealt with swiftly and severely, but the evidence so far suggests that it is not a widespread problem, and it must not be conflated with legal exclusions in any way.

There are countless stories of awful behaviour not leading to a permanent exclusion. Making it harder to exclude would mean more terrible behaviour would happen without consequence, or the consequences would not be severe enough to match the misdemeanour. We cannot allow that to happen, and that means that we must push back against these kinds of arguments. Exclusions are a necessary part of running a school, and any attempt to dilute the powers of headteachers on this matter would damage the education of thousands.