Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children's Commissioner for England, was reported in The Huffington Post (19 March 2012) as saying that students should no longer be excluded for "minor infringements" such as wearing jewellery or incorrect school uniform, and that exclusions should only be implemented to protect safety and learning. This statement echoes recent criticism of schools that have implemented unofficial exclusions.
Research on unofficial exclusions suggests that they have long been embedded across schools of all kinds and assume many forms. These can include 'days out' for disruptive pupils during Ofsted inspections: in one school, students were put on a bus and taken to a theme park. Other students have been unofficially excluded when parents are given 'friendly advice' to 'home educate'. Schools also make use of 'managed moves' to other schools. Though such moves can offer a helpful fresh start to some students, in many cases, parents are often unaware that they have a choice. A managed move was described by one parent in my research as a 'jump or you're pushed' situation.
Actually, it does not really matter if the exclusion is official or unofficial. An unofficial exclusion often carries the threat of an official one, and has many of the same effects. My research shows that both official and unofficial exclusion from school reveals a deep undertow of institutional prejudice on the basis of ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and class; and that children who are excluded are more likely to experience institutional prejudice as a result of the exclusion.Where there is an official exclusion meeting with governors, parents often feel that their presence is merely symbolic and that head teachers and governors have usually made up their minds in advance. One parent told me: 'The head teacher said, "the governors will side with me. They always do"'.
An article by Jeevan Vasgar in the Guardian (19 March 2012) reports that the government should 'recommend measures to prevent a "small proportion" of schools continuing to act in this way'. Unfortunately, Dr Maggie Atkinson did not offer any solutions. I venture to make some suggestions here:
Firstly, teachers should be able to train in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) and special schools. Charlie Taylor, Expert Advisor on behavior to the Department for Education (DfE), recently suggested this; at Goldsmiths, we place many of our teacher trainees in PRUs, and they come back into the College full of ideas and enthusiasm for engaging, empathic, practical ways to manage classroom behaviour.
Secondly: the rules on exclusion are available from the DfE, but clearer and more widely publicised guidance for head teachers, governors and parents as to what is legal and appropriate should be widely distributed. Worried and confused parents often ask me for advice on threatened permanent exclusions. Translation facilities in schools are not always readily available, and where English is not a parent's first language, unofficial exclusions are often accepted as immutable. I would love to see a big advertisement on a bus explaining: 'Exclusion from school? You have the right to a fair hearing and an appeal!'.
Thirdly, schools also need support to develop constructive responses to disruptive behaviour, such as restorative approaches and consultation with parents and pupils. There are reams of books and resources on mediation and conflict management for schools. And student voice is very effective where it is included in the development of school policies on behaviour management and mutual respect.
At Goldsmiths, the 'Illuminate Student Researchers' project works with schools to embed students' voices into school governance. It lends itself well to the development of school behaviour policies that have genuine buy-in from students.
Finally, I would suggest more widespread use of on-site programmes designed to cater for pupils who might otherwise have been sent to PRUs. Research undertaken by some of my students suggests that these units maintain links with mainstream education in a way which off-site provision can not. Charlie Taylor has praised a current pilot requiring schools to retain responsibility for the educational attainment of excluded pupils, leading to smarter commissioning of alternative education provision. Many schools are now finding it more affordable and supportive to set up their own ideal provision.
Some teachers have responded to this debate by questioning their ability to uphold school rules on uniform, chewing gum, and equipment for lessons, if they are no longer to receive this 'back-up'. But does exclusion deter students from contravening school rules, or does it just remove them for a while? A head teacher I know, in a school in a very deprived area, reduced her exclusions to zero- with the full support of her staff- when she banned them altogether.
Disruptive students were instead educated on site in a separate and very quiet room. Special lunch and break times meant that the students could not socialise with their friends. Low-level disruption fell drastically. There are issues with on-site exclusion rooms: access to the curriculum and institutional prejudice can still have their negative effects. But exclusion from school, whether unofficial or official- which pathologises the student, and takes all responsibility for change off the institution- is not the answer.
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