Richard Derecki: How do we prevent the damage done by school exclusions in London?

Richard Derecki: How do we prevent the damage done by school exclusions in London?

“You become a non-child, it had such an effect on my daughter, she didn’t exist, and she couldn’t understand why…”

Recently published data shows that last year across London, 851 young people were permanently excluded from their secondary schools. That’s roughly a full class of young people excluded in every borough. During the same period, over 41,000 fixed term exclusions were issued, up by 6 per cent on last year, with over 25,000 young people being excluded on one or more occasions. 

The rate of permanent exclusions from secondary schools has been on a rising trend since 2013-14, though it has stabilised in the past two years, and while London’s rate at 0.17 per cent is a touch below the national average (the North East has the highest permanent exclusion rate at 0.40 per cent) some boroughs in the capital have rates well above the average: Ealing’s is 0.27 per cent, Hackney’s is 0.31 per cent and that of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) is 0.32 per cent. 

The negative impact of exclusions on children and parents who have suffered it is well documented. The kind of impact it has on a young person ranges from a loss of confidence to feelings of shame, with parents feeling unable to cope and family resilience severely tested. For some young people school exclusion becomes a life-altering event, limiting all future opportunities.

A working group, of which I was a part, recently investigated RBKC’s increasing rate of permanent and fixed-term exclusions. It found that boys are more likely to be excluded than girls and that children of Afro-Caribbean heritage are over-represented as an ethnic group among the excluded. It also found that young people at secondary school with Special Education Needs (SEN) were at high risk of receiving fixed-term exclusions, with the rate of exclusion of children with such characteristics higher than the London and national rates. Data mapping found a correlation between deprivation and exclusion, mostly in the north of the borough, but also in pockets in southern wards. 

While many of these characteristics overlap, disproportionate exclusions for particular groups suggests either that schools may be failing to adequately support certain learners, or that school behaviour systems inadvertently work against some pupils. As an Institute for Public Policy Research report last year highlighted, there is growing evidence that the system within which schools operate may be incentivising the exclusion of students with complex needs

“Zero-tolerance” behaviour policies were signalled as a cause for concern by the community organisations supporting excluded children that we spoke to: “All behaviour was a form of communication and the system needed to react to what was behind the behaviour rather than being purely reactive [punitive]. This was a big issue with Black/Caribbean boys”

We saw how excluded pupils were often able to excel in alternative provision or at out-of-school clubs, which suggested that there was an issue with the way some young people were interacting and reacting with the school environment that needed to be addressed. 

A possible reason for the high level of exclusions in the borough could be that schools are slow to deal with emerging issues. Early intervention relies on having the necessary information for each young person, but often the quality of the data coming to the schools, particularly if there are a lot of changes of schools in a student’s history, can be patchy. In an ideal world, each young person would have a complete digital record of assessments going back to Early Years. This would immediately flag up to new teachers if there is a need for additional support or specialist intervention – something we have asked RBKC to pilot. 

Heads of schools will argue that they only ever use exclusion as a last resort and after a series of chances to re-set behaviours. However, as their primary concern is to ensure the safety and well-being of all students and staff, there are red lines that signal an immediate exclusion, such as bringing a blade or drugs into school. 

What happens “outside the school gate” can be as much, if not more, of an influence on a young person as what happens within school. RBKC provides early support via an inclusion programme and its early help team. The latter works alongside the school and the family. The programme is targeted at children on a trajectory for potential exclusion, where school-based interventions alone may not be sufficient to enable change.

The council works with schools to review behaviour policies and to understand how behaviour points were accumulated. With the highest proportion of exclusions happening in Year 9, the key is to identify those children most at risk in Years 7 and 8 to enable effective prevention, working with the family to develop and maintain a strong relationship to create improved and sustained change. Early results from the programme are encouraging in reducing incidents of poor behaviour. This has, in turn, reduced the overall risk of fixed-term or permanent exclusion for the pupils referred. 

The broad welcome last year from government for former education minister Ed Timpson’s review of school exclusions held out hope that there would be action to implement his 30 recommendations and his call for additional resources. But, so far, evidence that anything has changed has been hard to find. Let us hope that the likely retrenchment of council spending following the Covid pandemic does not endanger those vital local initiatives that could be starting to make a difference.

Richard Derecki is an economist and governance expert who has worked for the 10 Downing Street strategy unit and the Greater London Authority. Follow Richard on Twitter. Photograph from GLA.

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Categories: Analysis

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