“Forgotten children”: Our education system is excluding, and failing, more pupils

New figures show the number of children excluded has risen for the third year in a row. 

NS

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Vulnerable children across England are being kicked out of schools and left to languish without the support they need.

MPs have warned of the “scandal of ever-increasing numbers of children being excluded and being left abandoned to a forgotten part of our education system”, and say a government accountability drive is partially to blame.

The plights of pupils shuffled out of their schools, often illegally, is one of the great social ills of our time. Left unchecked, a perfect storm of funding cuts, onerous demands of school league tables and a lack of moral leadership will ruin the lives of children up and down the country.

Today, the Commons education select committee published its landmark report on exclusions and the quality of alternative provision (often called pupil referral or exclusion units).

The report, set in the context of new figures that show the rate of permanent exclusions from English schools has risen again for the third year in a row, makes for gloomy reading.

Kiran Gill, a former IPPR fellow and founder of The Difference, a teacher training charity for the alternative provision sector, said excluded pupils already face the “ultimate community rejection”, compounded by a lack of support once they leave mainstream schools.

“After that it’s variable,” she warns. “If you get the right school and the right teachers, it can be the best thing that’s happened to them. Great things can happen. But actually, the data shows rising numbers of staff in the sector aren’t qualified, and it means the children might not get the right support.”

MPs on the committee blame stringent government accountability checks for the increase in prevalence of so-called “off-rolling”, an illegal practice whereby problem pupils are encouraged to leave schools, but aren’t recorded as having been officially excluded. They are also suspicious of “zero-tolerance” behaviour policies, and want an investigation into their impact.

In particular, the committee believes many of the problems stem from the introduction of progress 8, a relatively new measure which rates a school on the average progress of pupils between ages 11 and 16. Its critics say it encourages schools to get rid of pupils who might affect their progress score before they take their GCSEs.

Robert Halfon, the former Tory education minister who now chairs the committee, says children are being left to a “Wild West of exclusions”, with “too many pupils in alternative provision who shouldn’t be there, and those who are there not receiving the right support or the early intervention needed to make a difference to their lives”.

These pupils aren’t always disruptive, and often have special educational needs, mental health issues or problems at home, like bereavement or family illness. In fact, an IPPR study last year found that at least half of pupils permanently excluded from school have a mental illness.

But is the government’s focus on progress to blame? According to the heads Kiran Gill has interviewed, it is a factor, though she is keen to point out that everyone she speaks to supports the move by the government from measuring attainment to measuring progress.

“Perhaps previously you might have kept a child on roll and done some additional external work, lots of heads regularly say that progress 8 changes that calculation,” she says. “It’s because there is a widespread perception that outliers will disproportionately affect their school’s progress 8 score.

“The majority of children who get excluded have a lot of complex issues going on. I would argue that schools do the best they can, but we haven’t invested a lot to work out what works with these children. I think we need to spend more time and money thinking about what works with them.”

Exclusion can also further exacerbate mental health problems. A study by Professor Tamsin Ford at the University of Exeter found that children’s mental health worsens after they have been excluded from school. But those with existing mental health needs are already 10 times more likely to be excluded in the first place, so many of these children face a double whammy.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers union, says there is a balance to be struck.

“The decision to exclude a student is never taken lightly and always as a last resort,” he says. “School leaders need the autonomy to decide when and how to exclude students to protect the health, safety, education or well-being of other pupils and staff in the school.

However, with school budgets “at breaking point”, measures that schools take to ensure good behaviour and adequate support for pupils are “under threat”, Whiteman says. Special needs funding, local authority behaviour support teams and speech and language therapy services have all been cut, and there are are “frequently” delays in providing mental health treatment for the pupils who need it.

“Exclusion must not be thought of as getting a child ‘out of the way’ but of finding a better place to serve that child. The issues that underpin exclusions reach far beyond the school gates, so schools need access to expert resources to help them support at an early stage those students who need more help.”

Dave Whitaker is the executive principal of the Springwell Learning Community, which runs ten alternative provision units in Barnsley. He says there is “no doubt” that schools are unnecessarily excluding some pupils.

“Over the last 10 years we were doing a good job of getting [the rate of exclusions] down,” he says. But there is now “no incentive” for mainstream schools to be inclusive, beyond the “moral compass” of their leaders.

Whitaker also warns of a “postcode lottery” of funding for units like his. “There seems to be a real lack of parity in AP funding between areas, because it’s done on local agreement. You can be excluded in one country and be well-funded, but excluded in another and you’re not.

“It’s the toughest gig to get right as a teacher and as a leader, and you can’t get it right on a shoestring.”

But what is the solution? Whitaker supports calls in the committee’s report to force mainstream schools to be more accountable for the pupils they exclude. He says proposals for a “bill of rights” for excluded pupils won’t be needed if the report’s other recommendations are fast-tracked.

MPs also want to see reforms to progress measures, an investigation into the impact of strict behaviour policies, and are also demanding that schools be forced to publish termly information not just on the number of pupils they exclude, but on those who leave supposedly of their own volition.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, says exclusions "should only ever be used as a last resort”, and “should always be reasonable and justified”.

“Where pupils are excluded the quality of education they receive should be no different than mainstream settings. We are taking a range of actions to drive up the quality of alternative provision, and have launched an external review to look at how exclusions are used and why certain groups are disproportionally affected,” Gibb says.

But Robert Halfon wants the government to do more.

“The young people who are excluded are the forgotten children,” he says. “Many already face a host of challenges, with children in care, children in need... and children in poverty, being far more likely to end up in alternative provision. They deserve the best possible support but often they don’t get the education that they need to thrive.”

Freddie Whittaker is political editor and chief reporter at education newspaper Schools Week. He tweets @FCDWhittaker.