“Punishment creates a climate of fear, and fear generates anger and resentment.”
Many years ago, around 2004, there was a 15-year-old boy; curious, funny, quick-witted, articulate, and creative. Also, much taller than average, awkward, gangling, somewhat uncomfortable in his 15-year-old skin and easily restless. I will call him T.
T had not yet been diagnosed with ADHD or personality disorder, that came some years later. When T’s mother was first called into primary school for a ticking off about T’s behaviour, it was because the teacher had asked: “Who would like a story? If you want to hear a story, come and sit on the mat”. T didn’t want to hear the story, so he didn’t come and sit on the mat. T did not hear a command, he heard a question, and he assumed he had a choice. He didn’t. He was put in the corner on his own.
At high school, in food technology, the class was directed to “cut up their carrots”. Using his carrots, T created an entire cosmos with planets, a moon, and a sun. For this he was put in isolation.
For history homework, T’s essay was presented as a journalistic piece, set out in columns of text interspersed with pictures to illustrate his story about Henry VIII. A detention was issued, for not writing in straight lines across the page.
T was predicted 11 A or A*s at GCSE. He did not get one.
T was excluded from school for being at the bottom of the school field with some friends, in the early evening after school had closed. He had a cannabis grinder in his bag. No actual cannabis, though his friend had some, but the ‘zero tolerance’ to both cannabis and cannabis grinders meant that his permanent exclusion was sealed. No matter his tears, his pleas, and his clear and abject remorse. His mother, as she was to painfully reflect over many subsequent years, was recovering from a very serious operation and did not have the physical, emotional, or mental strength to appeal against the seemingly impenetrable school policy and process, despite working in education herself and despite being advised by the Local Authority that this really was a disproportionate response to the incident.
The impact on T was profound, not least because of his lack of qualifications. He had been removed from the school community where he had, for years, spent the majority of his waking hours. He was torn away from his social milieu, the friendship group which had been established from primary years, he had been cast out, ostracized and unforgiven for very typical and naïve teenage behaviour. He became depressed and felt isolated, angry and deeply ashamed. He had, at 15, gone through his own personal divorce, and the other side had the best lawyers.
Recently, in 2021, I have been contacted by two families, both of whom have had sons who have been excluded; two different cases in two different schools. Seeing the profound distress and helpless despair of those loving parents first-hand, made me seriously contemplate (and not for the first time) the overwhelmingly negative impact of school exclusions. Of course, there will be reason, in certain cases, for a permanent exclusion to be the only option; where the child is a danger to themselves or others, where the child has needs which simply cannot be met in mainstream education and who need specialist settings and support.
The two cases I am referring to however, are far from that. One boy, 15, had a spotless record at his school and was doing well academically. He had been sorely provoked and taunted for some days, targeted due to his culture and background and, entirely out of character, he finally lashed out against those who were harassing him. He is the one punished with exclusion; the severe provocation he experienced was a shame, but the aggressors had only used vile and hurtful words, while he had used his fist.
The other boy, coincidentally also 15-years-old, had a few detentions on his record, for not wearing the right colour shoes, and submitting his homework late. Encouraged by his group of friends, he did a very silly thing, which hurt no one, but it took place in school grounds at the weekend when access was prohibited. He was accused of trespass. In both cases there was no recourse to restorative practice, no opportunity to bring people together to repair harm done, no real listening, no contextualizing to make sense of the bigger picture and frankly, not much evident caring.
Neither case involved pupils with persistent disruptive behaviour; both were one-off incidents and both were totally untypical actions. Apologies, accountability and remorse had little impact on the decision makers.
The wonderful Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families lists on its website the most typical characteristics of excluded children and yet the three cases I have referenced in this blog all fall outside those ‘norms’, other than that they are all male.
That is my point really; some important research has been done to evidence the devastating impact of exclusions, and the focus quite rightly is on the glaring social injustices and the disproportionate effect of exclusions on specific groups (males and particularly black Caribbean males, children with SEND, Gypsy Roma and Irish travellers, children on free school meals) but the cases I have referenced in this blog (and I have many more) fall outside those cohorts. Whilst we must address the clear disparities in exclusion practice we must also be aware that many other children are also falling foul of the lowering bar for exclusion. As Alfie Kohn also said; “punishments erode relationships and moral growth”. Exclusion is a real issue for all children, full stop.
Justice, a human rights charity focusing on the most vulnerable in our society, has established a working party to examine the process for challenging school exclusions. It identifies a need for “fairer, more effective and more efficient” systems and refers to increasing numbers of permanent and fixed term exclusions, and importantly acknowledges the number of informal exclusions not included in the data, including the ‘roll off’ elective home educated children who I have raised concerns about in previous blogs.
The Justice team states that “being excluded has a significant impact on the pupils’ lives; pupils who have been excluded are far less likely to reach the same levels of academic achievement, and far more likely to end up in prison, than their peers”.
In their 2019 report Challenging School Exclusions, they also state “any exclusion interferes with a child’s right to education and permanent exclusions in particular can have far reaching and serious consequences for a child’s future”. Their main premise is to establish whether some exclusion processes are actually operating within the law, and they are well aware that parents, carers and families can feel overwhelmed, intimidated and ill equipped to challenge the process. Justice advocate that the child should be central at all stages. In one of the two recent cases I referred to earlier, the decision to exclude was taken without even a meeting with parents or child, who were informed by letter after the decision had been made.
Schools Week (July 30 2021), quotes the latest government data which shows a seven per cent increase in fixed period exclusions (or suspensions) from 410,800 in 2017/18 to 438,300 last year. This is the highest figure since 2006/7. The rate of permanent exclusions has remained on a par with last year; surprising considering we have had over 12 months in a pandemic, and even then, up 60% from five years ago. John Harris, writing for the Guardian in January 2021, in an excellent article well worth the read, points out that “exclusions in English schools have gone from a last resort to the go-to punishment for children who are deemed disruptive or simply don’t fit in.” and asks the question “Is there a better way?” I believe that there is and that we need to find it, urgently.
In FE, we are sadly only too familiar with the experiences John Harris describes so well in his article; we not only have students for just 15 hours each week, but also typically for a couple of years only, and previous experiences in education including suspensions and exclusions add up to a need for substantial resource in additional support and mental health care. Recent reports evidence a clear link between school exclusion and referrals for young people at risk of exploitation and involvement in gangs, youth violence and criminality. Most of those are male and 14/15 years old, living in deprived areas and displaying disruptive classroom behaviours. I am deeply gratified that my own Local Authority has recognised this and responded by launching a ‘no exclusion’ initiative, designed to ensure early interventions and restorative support are available at first indications to avoid, or at least minimise, the need for exclusions. In other words, disrupting the ‘pass the parcel’ conveyer belt of moving ‘difficult’ children on for other services to then pick up. Dr Rita Pierson, in her TED talk, stated “Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”
Education can, and must be, the restorative link in the chain to support wider society with this valuable approach in protecting all our children’s futures.
We are on a journey, and it will take time, but the endless stories our students tell us of isolation, seclusion booths, segregation and separation, are far removed from the ethos of restorative practice and inclusion which is essential in stopping the growing culture of exclusion. Don’t push them out, keep them in.
The impact of school exclusions can be catastrophic and lifelong. That is not to say that every case fits that description, and that colleges don’t often make up to some extent for the trauma of exclusion, they often do; but they also exclude students themselves and this must be carefully scrutinised to ensure every chance is given to succeed, through meaningful, restorative, and aspirational positive behaviour policies and practice.
We started this blog with the story of T; a boy who read books and wrote poems and travelled abroad; who had family Christmases and Sunday dinners, albeit with only one parent. He did end up doing an Access course, he even went on to university (though dropped out after a year) and he talks now, aged 31, about the pain of that time and the profound impact it had on him and his family; his brushes with the law after his school exclusion, the seductive pull of gang life and the importance of ‘belonging’ to a new group, and how he felt pushed towards their open arms through his ostracization from his former life. He had been thrust outside and thus became an outsider. The subsequent path he stumbled along for many years took countless dark turns, including unemployment, self-harm and addiction. T is not out of the woods yet. He shakes his head, recalling being one of the highest achievers in his year group; the school’s need to make an example of him and demonstrate the power of their policy as a warning to others, overrode any consideration for his learning or his future. T remembers the unused cannabis grinder found in his bag, a cool trophy intended to impress his peers, and repeats a story he recently heard about a college student who had his cannabis grinder confiscated at college, and whose parents phoned to complain because they had given it to him for his birthday. The birthday present was returned with a clear and understood message that it was not to be brought in again. How times change.
T doesn’t want to chat about this anymore, he’s helped with the blog and time’s up. He gets up from the table and says, ‘cup of tea mum?’ and I nod and look at him with love.
Education and Training Association Associate, Assistant Principal and Designated Safeguarding Lead, Kirklees College, and Chair, NAMSS.
Polly’s other blogs for the ETF website are available on the Safeguarding and Prevent blogs page.