Gavin Williamson must be radical to fix the school exclusion crisis

Exclusions don't address the reasons for kids challenging behaviour.

New figures on school exclusions in England make for highly concerning reading.

The overall number of exclusions has continued to grow, while the rate of permanent exclusions among children in the 10% most deprived areas has increased and is now almost double that of the 10% least deprived areas.

It’s clear that if the government is to achieve the aim outlined by the new prime minister in his inaugural speech to “level up across Britain”, addressing school exclusions must be priority for the newly appointed Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson.

Williamson is not lacking guidance on how to rectify the situation. In May, the government published a long-awaited review of school exclusions by former Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson.

The review sets out 30 recommendations for reform, many of which would make for welcome and long overdue improvements such as more accountability for excluding schools, better sharing of good practice and improved facilities for pupil referral units.

Sadly, however, these recommendations do not add up to the radical rethink that we so desperately need, and the new Education Secretary will need to be bolder if he is to achieve real reform. 

If he is to make real progress, Mr Williamson will need to recognise the truly crucial omission from the Timpson Review: it made no attempt to move us away from a disciplinary process.

It offered no suggestions as to how we can respond to children with challenging behaviour in a positive way that addresses their needs and respects their rights.

That must seem like an odd thing to say. After all, you might reasonably suggest that, as exclusions are for misbehaving students. They must be a punishment. 

But this doesn’t match with what we know about excluded children. As a solicitor and policy officer at the children’s charity Just for Kids Law, I work with excluded children and young people every day, and they are overwhelmingly among the most vulnerable people in society.

Timpson found that 78% of excluded young people either have special educational needs, are classified as children in need by their local council or were receiving free school meals when excluded.

Shockingly, my colleagues and I frequently find ourselves having to represent five year olds through permanent exclusion proceedings.

From our experience working with excluded children, we find that children are regularly excluded for behaviours that follow directly from additional needs beyond their control. 

During a challenge to an exclusion, the school will often acknowledge this reality but say that the pupil’s behaviour has become unmanageable regardless of whether it is the child’s “fault” or not. So, the exclusion must proceed anyway.

When a family goes before a school’s governors to challenge a permanent exclusion, the governors have a choice to reinstate the child, or uphold the exclusion. Those are their only options.

Governors regularly hear from the school that there are resourcing issues with supporting the pupil’s needs, and the governors will therefore uphold the exclusion. 

This is unsatisfactory, not just to the family but to many teachers. No teacher wants to give up on children and they do not want to see them cut off from the support they need.

So, when it comes to the point that they feel they need the child to be removed from the classroom, they are frustrated both that they should have to give up on a child because they don’t have the resources, and that exclusion is the only route through which to remove that pupil.

Exclusion makes no provision or plan for a child’s next steps. If they had been receiving extra support in school, it will end abruptly. Exclusion is a mechanism through which a school effectively washes their hands of a child, rather than put in place steps to give them a positive fresh start.

This presents a problematic contradiction – schools accept a child’s behaviour is often an issue of welfare – in that they have needs they have not been able to address – but pursue a disciplinary option anyway because exclusion is the only option available to them.

While Timpson picked up on the theme of this concern, he failed to make recommendations to substantively address it. 

The story of Jay (not his real name), a child we have worked with, is a good example of why this is a sadly missed opportunity. Jay was permanently excluded from school for getting into a fight with another student. Jay had a number of special educational needs which made every day social interactions challenging. 

Our lawyer got in touch with the school before the governors finalised the exclusion. The Head Teacher had looked into transferring Jay to another school, which would better meet his needs, through a process known as a “managed move”, which would avoid the need for an exclusion. However, the schools she approached were full so she felt her hands were tied.

When the exclusion came to the governing body to decide whether it would be upheld or overturned, there was a long conversation about what support Jay needed from his next school to be able to learn and be productive.

However, it was outside of the governors’ power to make any provision for Jay and his permanent exclusion was upheld. All support for him was ended and no plan was made for his future.

What good did this do anyone? A true welfare response would be one where the governors and other professionals could look at why the relationship between the school and Jay has broken down, arrange a new placement for him, if it was what he wanted, with continuity of support and a clear plan for how his needs would be met. 

The Timpson Review’s recommendations will not get us to that place. 

Even if the new Education Secretary is to implement all the recommendations of the Review, an exclusion will still be an exclusion.

It will still end a young person’s placement and start a new one. Nothing learned about that young person’s needs will be carried over, addressed or built upon.

There will be no guarantee of future provision, or support for the issues that lead to the exclusion in the first place. It will be what exclusions have always been: a disciplinary procedure and nothing more. 

The rising number of exclusions needs to be seen as the welfare crisis it is. We want to see the government acknowledge this fact and equip schools to make exclusion a process that investigates a child’s needs and makes provision for their future, rather than a dead end that stifle’s their potential.

This is a crucial step towards “levelling up” our education system and ensuring that it works for all children, including the most vulnerable. We hope Mr Williamson is up for the challenge.

Alex Temple is a Public Lawyer and Policy Officer at Just for Kids Law

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One Response to “Gavin Williamson must be radical to fix the school exclusion crisis”

  1. Tom Sacold

    Why should the majority of hardworking and well-behaved children have to have their schooling disrupted by a minority of louts and troublemakers?

    It wouldn’t happen in fee-paying private schools for the elite, why should it happen in ordinary schools?

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