Jennette Arnold: London must reduce school exclusions and needs the funds to make that happen

Jennette Arnold: London must reduce school exclusions and needs the funds to make that happen

The worst outcome for young people who find themselves in circumstances beyond their control is to be excluded from school – from education, the very thing that has the power to change their lives.

This week, the Government has published its long-awaited Timpson review into the issue. It recommends some significant overhauls to the process of excluding pupils, aimed at the Department for Education, Ofsted, schools and local authorities. I welcome the review’s conclusion that schools should be responsible for the exam results of pupils they exclude. This will be vital for cracking down on “off-rolling”, where students are informally excluded under the radar in order to protect schools’ results.

By its nature, it is difficult to assess the prevalence of off-rolling, but recent reports, calculating the number of students who apparently “disappear” in this way estimate that as many as 49,000 children from one cohort in England may have been “off rolled” at some point during their education, representing one student in 12.

Timpson’s findings follow a recent report by the London Assembly education panel, which sets out many of the same recommendations for tackling London’s astonishingly high rate of secondary school exclusions. It revealed that these have risen consistently since 2013, with vulnerable youngsters at higher risk, particularly those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and those from an ethnic minority background.

Given that just one per cent of excluded pupils get the five “good” GCSEs they need in order to find work, these unfair inequalities simply cannot be ignored. We urgently need to prevent any more vulnerable children and young people being excluded in the first place.

Pupils with SEND are vastly overrepresented in exclusion figures, accounting for 14 per cent of the secondary school population and 42 per cent of exclusions in 2016/17. In a climate of extremely tight budgets, schools and local authorities are left unable to provide the level of support that these young people need.

In recent weeks, we have also seen the High Court reject a legal challenge to their local councils by the families of young people with SEND, which accused them of letting down these young people. I have full sympathy for those parents, but it is clear that responsibility lies with central government.

A London Council’ survey revealed that all but one London borough had a shortfall in their high needs budgets in 2017/18, amounting to a £78 million shortfall across the capital. Unless government steps up for London’s young people with SEND, these shortfalls will continue to marginalise and push vulnerable young people into exclusions.

Black and Gypsy/Roma children are also consistently overrepresented in exclusion figures, with boys from these groups being at particular risk. Unconscious bias is a key driver of this, for which London’s teachers and support staff urgently need support. However, I also want to pick up on the issue of ensuring a diverse teaching and support staff workforce. Research has found that, in London, there is a considerable gap between the proportion of BAME teachers compared to the pupil population.

In Inner London, the proportion of BAME teachers is just 26 per cent while the proportion of BAME pupils is 81 per cent. In Outer London, the figures are 22 per cent and 65 per cent respectively. We need to be working with schools and teacher training facilities to support the recruitment, retention and professional development of BAME teachers to help ensure that school staff are representative of their pupils at all levels, including senior leadership.

However, the elephant in the room is that the Timpson review and the government’s response place much of the responsibility for reducing exclusions at the feet of schools, without providing the necessary additional resources. Between 2018/19 and 2022/23, London is estimated to require an astonishing £1.2 billion just to meet the shortfall in mainstream school places.

The provision of tailored support to the most vulnerable pupils will inevitably suffer the most if this funding gap is not closed. The government has an opportunity to step up for London’s schools at the spending review later this year, providing the levels of funding needed rather than the “little extras” they have previously allocated.

The good news is that London’s deputy mayor for education and childcare, Joanne McCartney, has developed a number of programmes aimed at improving inclusion in London’s schools. The Teach London programme is tackling some of the biggest barriers to becoming a teacher in London, such as housing, and supporting teachers with developing their careers.

The Schools for Success programme is actively highlighting best practice, including support for pupils with SEND. However, I would like to see the Mayor keep up his discussions with the secretary of state on these issues and to continue to champion the needs of the capital’s most vulnerable pupils.

Jennette Arnold is London Assembly Member for Hackney, Islington & Waltham Forest and a member of the Assembly’s education panel.

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