Excluded from school - next stop jail?
On GCSE results day in August 2018, an anonymous group claiming to be south London students organised a guerrilla poster campaign on the Northern Line. The posters showed a map for the fictional “School to Prison line”, along which children journey from “Sent out of class”, through “Temporary Exclusion”, terminating in a vicious cycle of “Prison” and “Reoffending”. According to a statement by the organisers, “Every day, 35 students (a full classroom) are permanently excluded from school. Only 1% of them will go on to get the five good GCSEs they need to succeed.” Furthermore, “The impact of exclusion is irreversible: not only are you more likely to be unemployed, but you are four times more likely to go to prison.”
The campaign and its hashtag #EducationNotExclusion made the national news, as did a Guardian investigation which revealed that 45 schools, mostly academies, excluded a fifth of their pupils during 2016-17. The Outwood Academy chain came in for particular criticism, with its school in Ormesby suspending 41% of its students, the highest rate of fixed-term exclusions of any school in the country. A spokesman for the trust responded that it had taken over “some of the toughest schools in England” and repeatedly turned around their performance, and that the school was oversubscribed.
What’s behind the high number of exclusions? Critics argue that pupils are often excluded for trivial uniform or behaviour transgressions and that some schools are using exclusion to “game the system” by excluding lower performing students in order to improve the school’s results. What’s more, children with special educational needs are seven times more likely than the average to be permanently excluded. Perhaps the exclusions are a result of an overly standardised education system which fails to accommodate the different learning styles of pupils.
Others argue that exclusions are justified because bad behaviour is now the norm in classrooms. Teachers are often subjected to verbal and physical abuse from pupils, and they need to be able to draw a line on behaviour if the majority of well-behaved children are to have any hope of learning without distraction. Perhaps exclusions are inevitable when standards are raised and pupils realise that more is now expected of them. And are we over-diagnosing “special needs” when many children’s behaviour problems are really just them being “naughty”?
So is it ever right to exclude a child from school? And what happens to the children who are excluded? Is their future really as grim as the Northern Line campaigners claim, or do the “From School to Prison” posters inadvertently reinforce the high stakes testing culture in education, by implying that life without GCSEs is a dead end?
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chief reform officer, Catch22; former director of strategy, Ministry of Justice
CEO, Children England; regular columnist, Children and Young People Now and Civil Society; trustee, Children’s Rights Alliance for England
executive principal, Advantage Schools; principal, Bedford Free School