School exclusions are hugely damaging, and affect certain students disproportionately. We have known for years what could reduce them – but exclusion rates in England and Wales remain unacceptably high. One significant reason progress remains slow is because we are culturally invested in removing people, rather than facing up to complex social problems, argues youth worker Luke Billingham.
We know that school exclusion has devastating effects on young people, and on society. The life outcomes for young people who’ve been excluded are significantly worse than those who remain in mainstream education. Earlier this year, the parliamentary Youth Violence Commission final report made clear the links between exclusion and youth violence. A report published by law firm Just For Kids Law presented further evidence of the close connection between school exclusion and criminal exploitation. School exclusion makes a young person far more likely to become a victim or perpetrator of harm.
As a youth worker, I’ve been in school meetings at which both students and their parents have been patronised, belittled and stereotyped, due to their class background, ethnicity, or both.
No-one suggests that school exclusion is the sole cause of a someone’s later difficulties, but it is clear that remaining in mainstream school is a hugely significant protective factor for our young people. Regardless of whether school exclusion badly exacerbates a young person’s problems or just reflects pre-existing issues, every school exclusion represents a failure to adequately protect a young person from harsher adversity.
We know that school exclusion disproportionately affects students from certain backgrounds. According to the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), excluded pupils are ‘twice as likely to be in the care of the state, four times more likely to have grown up in poverty, seven times more likely to have a special educational need and 10 times more likely to suffer recognised mental health problems’. Recent reports – by the Institute for Race Relations and children’s charity 4in10, Just For Kids Law and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England – show that black students and those from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families are far more likely to be excluded, as are poorer students from working class backgrounds. As a youth worker, I’ve been in school meetings at which both students and their parents have been patronised, belittled and stereotyped, due to their class background, ethnicity, or both.
School exclusion can destroy a young person’s faith, hope and trust in adults, institutions, agencies, and mainstream society. I’ve worked with many young people who have always been wary of ‘services’ and suspicious of authority figures, and who’ve had negative experiences with state agencies like the police or social care. But often it’s their school exclusion that most profoundly alienates them, and most powerfully cements their marginalisation. This is because school is our only universal institution – the only institution that almost everyone has to attend for at least twelve years – and so what happens to a young person in school can fundamentally shape their orientation towards society.
We know what could be done to reduce school exclusion. The RSA, the Centre for Social Justice, The Children’s Commissioner, JUSTICE, and the Timpson Review have all presented detailed reports with clear, evidence-based recommendations for how we could achieve significant reductions in exclusion. They cover school-level factors, society-level factors, the procedural (in) justice of the exclusions process, and changes needed to the wider education system. So why do we still have so many school exclusions? Why is change so slow?
We are far more invested in the removal of ‘problematic’ people from our society than we are in tackling complex social problems that consistently underly problematic behaviour.
One significant factor which doesn’t receive enough discussion, in my view, is a disturbing and somewhat peculiar feature of our culture, as compared to other Western European nations. We are far more invested in the removal of ‘problematic’ people from our society than we are in tackling complex social problems that consistently underly problematic behaviour.
England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe. There are more people in our prisons than there are in Carlisle. The government expounds the virtues of scrimping and saving when it comes to free school meals or housing benefit, but merrily dispenses billions on new prisons. This is despite the fact that prisons don’t work for reducing crime. If they did work, we’d see less and less crime as our prison population expanded. If they did work, we wouldn’t have such an awful reoffending rate. But we’re deeply tied culturally and emotionally to the idea that certain people who behave in certain ways – disproportionately poorer people and people of colour – need to be disappeared from our society. (Our record on deportations and hostile environments is of course further distressing evidence of this). We too often fail to address the entrenched social problems that predictably generate harmful behaviour and crime, preferring instead to remove the people whose actions manifest them.
Our society is increasingly structured as an ultra-competitive, individualised race for scarce resources, in which different people have vastly different starting positions. The prize for victory is ludicrous wealth, and the price of falling behind is punitive stigmatisation, exclusion, or institutionalisation.
I think this logic and culture infects our education system. It is built on the premise of pseudo-meritocratic competition which valorises some students, whilst treating others as disposable. The statutory guidance suggests that exclusion should be a last resort, but we know that’s far from always the case. This is especially due to the huge plasticity with which the phrase “persistent disruptive behaviour” – the most common reason why pupils are excluded – can be used.
School exclusion not only has enormous, widely-known negative consequences for students – it’s also incredibly expensive and ludicrously inefficient for schools and the wider education system. If an exclusion is appealed and goes to a Governing Body Student Disciplinary Committee and then to the Independent Review Panel, it takes up days of headteacher and governor time. And then Local Authorities spend millions on alternative provision (AP) for excluded students.
If we were less attached to the principle that problem people are to be got rid of, we would scrutinise the illogical mess of school exclusion with a clearer head.
Sometimes the cost of AP can be comparable to that of a high-end private school, despite the serious doubts about the quality of much AP across the country. In 2018, Ofsted’s analysis suggested the average cost of a full-time placement in AP for an academic year for a local authority is £18,000. This is just shy of the £21,600 annual fees at one north London private school. If we were less attached to the principle that problem people are to be got rid of, we would scrutinise the illogical mess of school exclusion with a clearer head. We would also more effectively monitor the various other means used to remove students.
Despite the damage it causes and despite its expense, we continue to exclude so readily because – among many other reasons – we’re emotionally and financially invested as a nation in the idea that the way to deal with undesirable behaviour is to remove the culprits from mainstream society and deposit them in under-regulated, ineffective institutions. We treat the people exhibiting such behaviour with fear and incomprehension, rather than addressing the complex (but often predictable) causes of their actions.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As a recent RSA report has highlighted, there are schools across the country who – amid this flawed system – are pioneering effective, compassionate approaches to preventing school exclusions.
We would have a better education system and a better criminal justice system if we rid ourselves of culturally-engrained punitive and exclusionary instincts, and worked to build upon the most effective and empathetic features of our institutions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EachOther.