Blame cuts – not headteachers – for school exclusions

Posted on: 2018-09-18 05:45:00

Have you heard the stories about headteachers callously excluding children to make their school’s results improve? In a few instances, it’s true. But for the most part, the exclusion figures are not because evil school leaders suddenly care more about exams. The real problem is squeezed budgets. Heads care about every child: what they can’t do is teach all of them.

When people think of excluded children, they often imagine a gobby teenager sent home for wearing an inappropriate skirt or flashy trainers. In reality, schools deal with far worse. Teenagers are often angry and physical violence erupts. In my first year of teaching, I had my ribs broken in a fight and a pupil came at me with scissors threatening to stab me in the eye. Some are intent on physically harming themselves but take others down in the process, setting off fires or throwing around chemicals. Some steal from friends, or plot horrific assaults, or spread indecent images, or bring in weapons. It’s no surprise heads feel compelled to do something to keep the other thousand-or-so pupils safe.

The question is why schools are excluding children, or “off-rolling” (telling parents to take their child elsewhere to avoid exclusion). Why aren’t they providing more support? I recently encountered the pupil who tried to stab me. He’s now in his mid-twenties and a lead earner in a blue chip company, having got a degree from a top university. We didn’t exclude him. We showered him and his family in pastoral support. Key workers, housing help, attendance officers picking him up when his attendance dropped low. How? Because it was the mid-2000s: cash was liberal and the curriculum flexible.

Fast forward and schools are now cut to the bone. Secondary schools have replaced their welfare officer with a data manager, who also part-runs the photocopying department and the reception on a Friday. Sixth formers are increasingly used to help out. “Now they’ve cut the funding for A-levels back to 15 hours per week, we’re getting sixth formers to work as sports coaches and do tutoring in the leftover time,” one head recently told me.

In this environment, a violent pupil has far less hope of getting help. Criteria for accessing overstretched mental health services are much higher and last year welfare cuts meant that more than 128,000 children lived in temporary housing. So even if a school can afford home support, it’s harder to arrange. Special needs funding is limited as cash-strapped councils try to cover more and more pupils with lower and lower budgets.

Amid all this, headteachers are doing their best. As one pained leader in the north-east told me, in 15 years the school hadn’t excluded a single child. It had always found a way to pay for specialist tutors to work with challenging pupils; now, with the cuts biting so hard, it was no longer possible.

“We’ve had to pull back on our vocational and specialist courses that catered for maybe 20 out of the 1,500 pupils, that was all, but it really mattered. I regret that. It has meant we just can’t keep everyone here like we used to.”

Once out of school excluded pupils either move into alternative provision schools – where teachers are more likely to be temporary, according to a report by the thinktank IPPR– or they simply sit at home. Their chances of getting good exam results are practically nil. It’s no wonder the education secretary, Damian Hinds, has bleated that he wants fewer excluded pupils. Yet his only action is “commissioning a review” into the problem – ministerial speak for “kicking it into the long grass”.

Ultimately, it suits the government to have a few heads scapegoated as the baddies and make out that a cultural shift in schools is all that is needed. A cultural shift isneeded. But it’s one in which the Conservative party realises that austerity, not evil headteachers, increases exclusions.

Laura McInerney

Source: The Guardian

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