Is it realistic for schools to adopt non-exclusion policies?

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Adopting a non-exclusion policy may be morally justifiable but what practical measures do you need to have in place? Richard Steward provides a checklist of culture, policy and resource requirements and considers the broader implications. 

Summary

  • More pupils are being permanently excluded from schools to the great detriment of themselves and society.
  • There are a number of basic factors that schools must have in place if they wish to adopt a non-exclusion policy.
  • Schools must also consider the impact on other students and their parents.

According to the most recent government statistics, the number of permanent exclusions from schools in England has reached its highest point for a decade, with 7,900 children permanently excluded in 2017-2018. This is equivalent to 42 permanent exclusions every day.

Persistent disruptive behaviour is the most common reason for exclusion, but the latest figures show rises in exclusions for bullying, drugs and physical assaults against adults.  The number of fixed-term exclusions has also risen.

These figures paint an alarming picture of discipline in our schools and they raise serious concerns about pupils who are excluded. Permanent exclusion can have a devastating impact on a child’s life, as full-time education is stripped away, a good set of GCSEs is virtually impossible to achieve and hours of boredom are inevitable as youngsters find they have nothing to do during the school day.

Nor should we ignore the social stigma attached to exclusion which makes finding employment incredibly difficult. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many permanently-excluded pupils turn to crime. With so many excluded every year, we also have to consider the impact on society of children cast adrift by their schools and communities. The decision to permanently exclude a child is never taken lightly but it is clearly taken far too often in schools today.

Why the increase?

It is undoubtedly true that under-funding has contributed to the rise in exclusions, making it harder for schools and children’s services to provide early intervention and to support children with challenging behaviour. It is also true that funding cuts have led to the closure of pupil referral units (PRUs), or to cuts in the number of places available, the effect of which has been an increase in the number of disaffected and disruptive pupils in mainstream classrooms. 

Schools are working hard to decrease the numbers involved and the DfE has plans to introduce stringent measures to make headteachers think more carefully before excluding. For example, the examination results of excluded pupils are likely to be included in the school’s performance figures even though the pupils concerned are no longer on the school roll. 

Ofsted is also looking much more closely at exclusions and off-rolling than ever before. Measures such as these may lead to a slight fall in the number of permanent exclusions, but are we ever likely to see more significant reductions? Is it realistic never to exclude?

Non-exclusion policies

Some schools are now adopting non-exclusion policies, with the aim of never excluding a child, either for a fixed-term period or permanently. This is a worthy aim but one that will be incredibly difficult to achieve in practice. Advocates of these policies argue, however, that it can be done.

Given sufficient funding, the right support and a determination to succeed, a non-exclusion policy is not only possible but essential if we really care about the children in our society. So, what needs to be in place to make non-exclusion policies possible?

Staff commitment

Firstly, every member of staff needs to be committed to supporting pupils, no matter how challenging their behaviour. As every headteacher knows, getting staff to operate behaviour policies consistently is one of the most difficult things to achieve in a school; getting them to agree to endless support for children who continually disrupt their lessons is even harder.

Pastoral structure

Second, there needs to be a strong and supportive pastoral structure in place that not only responds quickly to any issues that arise but identifies potential difficulties early on and provides appropriately targeted support. This is likely to involve a large team of people and significant investment will be required.

Restorative justice

Restorative justice is popular in many schools nowadays and, for non-excluding schools, it is a necessity. This means employing staff who are skilled in talking to challenging pupils and an understanding that these conversations take time.

Schools are driven by timetables and bells, with pupils moving on from lesson to lesson with dizzying speed. For difficult conversations to have an impact, it takes time. If a pupil needs to talk all day, then someone needs to be available to support them. Moving from punishment to understanding is the biggest step schools have to take.

Rather than sending pupils out of class, banishing them to a detention room or sending them home, staff will need to adjust to the fact that the first step is to identify the reasons underlying their poor behaviour. A pupil who is disciplined and ignored is much more likely to continue to behave badly than one who is listened to and supported.

Exclusion and referral rooms

The shift from punishment to understanding means that exclusion rooms, or referral rooms, become places where children are helped back into the classroom. It is good practice nowadays for referral rooms to be staffed by counsellors who talk through the issues that led to the child being sent out of class.

Many schools now insist that the teacher who sent the child out goes to speak to him or her later in the day to discuss what went wrong. This makes a return to the lesson much easier and good behaviour much more likely.

External support

Of course, many of the problems underlying poor behaviour are too complex for schools to deal with. This means that non-exclusion policies also depend upon easy access to external support. Children misbehave for a reason; identifying that reason and addressing it often needs the help of skilled psychologists, family therapists, mental health workers and a host of other social service professionals. Again, this implies significant funding.

Alternative provision

The school also needs guaranteed access to high-quality alternative provision and increasingly, this means that the school will have to establish its own alternative provision. In a large multi-academy trust this may be possible; however, for a single school the costs may be prohibitive.

An accommodation needs to be reached, therefore, with the local authority, local charities and other schools prepared to facilitate managed moves. Again, this is no easy task and, in some areas of the country, beyond the bounds of possibility.

Balancing needs

A non-exclusion policy is certainly difficult, and the more challenging the school, the more difficult it is likely to be. However, it is not impossible. Headteachers driven by strong moral purpose, who have the backing of their staff and access to substantial funding, can make it work. Nonetheless, there is a question that is often overlooked by zealous advocates of non-exclusion: what about the other children in the classroom?

Concerns over exclusion tend to focus on the excluded child but the impact of one child’s poor behaviour on others can be profound. A disruptive pupil can ruin a lesson, and if the disruption occurs on a daily basis, as if often does, the result is the potential loss of hundreds of hours of learning for the rest of the class.

Disruptive children also encourage others, leading to widespread misbehaviour and, sometimes, defiance. In circumstances such as these, teachers simply cannot teach and pupils cannot learn. Most worrying of all are the safeguarding issues relating to non-exclusion.

A violent pupil, or one who has been caught supplying drugs, is a danger to others; a pupil who has assaulted a member of staff becomes a risk to everyone who tries to teach him or her.  Are schools therefore really able to manage the risks involved in keeping potentially dangerous pupils in school?

The views of parents

This brings us to possibly the biggest barrier to the implementation of non-exclusion policies: the views of parents. Parents will need a great deal of convincing if they are to send their children to schools where potentially violent pupils, and those caught supplying drugs, are kept on site and reintegrated into the classrooms where their sons and daughters are trying to learn.

Ultimately, the introduction of a non-exclusion policy is both courageous and morally justified; it is, however, a tremendous risk. It depends upon huge staff commitment, strong parental support and, of course, significant funding. If pupils at risk of exclusion can be supported back into the classroom, this is a cause for celebration; if, however, they disrupt the learning of others and threaten their safety, should they really be in school?

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

Checklist – Is your school ready for a non-exclusion policy?

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About Author

Dr. Richard Steward

Dr. Richard Steward is the headteacher of The Woodroffe School in Lyme Regis, Dorset. He has a wide range of experience in school improvement and has served as the South West representative on the Teaching School Council. Woodroffe is an outstanding school, a teaching school and a Maths Hub. richardsteward@mac.com

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