Yes, school exclusions are up. But zero-tolerance policies are not to blame

Posted on: 2018-07-26 17:00:00

The education select committee this week claimed that rising rates of school exclusions amount to a “scandal”. MPs pointed the finger at several culprits for the growing number of children being temporarily or permanently excluded from school, most notably the rise of so-called “zero tolerance” behaviour policies.

This approach, borrowed from the US, aims to reduce misbehaviour by lowering the tolerance teachers have for rule breaking. For example, if a student is late then they get a detention – no excuses, and no exceptions. Advocates of the policy claim that the increased certainty of sanction reduces the overall temptation to break the rules.

Zero-tolerance policies have become more popular thanks to some schools that have vocally championed their use, such as the Michaela community school in north London and Magna academy in Poole. They are frequently criticised for being too inflexible and inhumane. But are they the smoking gun the committee thinks they are?

The claim that these policies are responsible for more children being excluded from school has little evidence to support it, beyond the testimonies of some of those who gave evidence to the select committee. If there is a serious attempt to verify that claim, I haven’t seen it. Hearsay isn’t enough – and in the enormous ideological punch-up of education, it’s wise to be suspicious of anything that is claimed but not supported by evidence.

No student was ever excluded for a one-off minor breach. Indeed, it remains hard for a student to be excluded: the most common reason remains persistent disruption, which, as any teacher will tell you, is no laughing matter. Zero tolerance is a red herring. The rise in exclusions is more likely to be explained by new rules that, from 2014, increased school autonomy over exclusions.

The proportion of children permanently excluded from their school remains very low: the most recent government figures show it increased from 0.08% of pupils in 2016 to 0.1% in 2017. This seems too small an increase to panic about, especially since levels of exclusion are still lower than they were in 2007.

It’s not a happy thing to see anyone excluded, but if we want to reduce exclusions, then we need to do so organically rather than synthetically. We mustn’t deter schools from excluding when they need to do so in order to preserve the safety and wellbeing of staff and students. We need to get better at creating whole school cultures that encourage positive behaviour. Far from zero-tolerance behaviour policies being a problem, when schools sweat the small stuff – offer clear guidance on good conduct, insist on calm, civil spaces, and help students feel valued as members of their school community – the need to exclude goes down.

"No student was ever excluded for one-off, minor breaches. Indeed, it remains hard for a student to be excluded"

The select committee is right about one thing, though: we need more investment in better provision for excluded students. Some is superb; in other areas it is nonexistent. Match that with better training in in-school behaviour management and you just might see the reduction in exclusions that everyone wants.

The select committee report is called Forgotten Children, but the children it does end up forgetting are the vast majority of students who don’t tell teachers to go to hell, who don’t commit routine acts of violence against others, persistently bully terrified peers, or wilfully and continually disrupt the learning of others. To ignore the needs of all children and staff in schools is extraordinarily shortsighted, and almost callous by default.

In all communities we balance as many needs and interests as we can, for the good of as many as possible. If the system is abused by a few schools, then we should address them rather than hobble the vast majority of schools and teachers working tirelessly for the good of their students.

But that’s what happens when people who are unfamiliar with working in challenging classrooms and schools attempt to fix complicated problems with simple solutions. If we want to provide children with safe and supportive environments free from bullying, intimidation and discord, where teaching time is maximised, and if we want to protect teachers from assault, humiliation and stress, then the right to exclude must be maintained – and schools should be supported in doing so when they have tried their best to avoid it. Anything else is just another knife in the back for schools already struggling to cope with one of the hardest, most important jobs in the world.

Source: The Guardian

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