Exclusion – Bursting the Bubble

Reported rates of exclusion are rising inexorably, by as much as 300% in some areas of England. It’s the ‘last resort’ of the behaviour management approach most schools are advised to use.

Exclusion is producing a growing strain on limited cash and resources in the education system. There is also an inevitable human cost as school staff find themselves unable to alter the behaviour of the most needy children using the limited tools they have to hand, consequences, sanctions and punishments and children suffer too. Regardless of its effects and the evidence of its futility, the management approach that imagines exclusion to be the one hammer that can hit the behaviour nail exists in its own reality bubble, seemingly impervious to change.

But in one county in England, things are looking very different.

Outcomes: Comparing the first 4 half terms of the academic year:

Overall rate of Permanent Exclusion, terms 1  – 4

2013/14                                148
2014/15                                142
2015/16                                112
2016/17                                104
Reduction 30%


2013/14                                40
2014/15                                31
2015/16                                36
2016/17                                15
Reduction 62%


2013/14                                108
2014/15                                111
2015/16                                70
2016/17                                89
Reduction   17.6%

Out of the total of 360 schools 86% are zero-excluders. This includes 11 Secondary Modern (non-grammar) schools. In view of the known linkage between social deprivation and exclusion Lincolnshire non-excluding secondary moderns which are providing for the most deprived children offer an examples of strong inclusive practice. While some schools, generally in multi-academy trusts, do exclude the fact that the majority do not do counters the unevidenced claim in Bennett (2017) that ‘permanent exclusion is a necessary feature of a functioning school system’.
In secondary phase (11-18) schools in general a number of exclusions appear to be the result of school managers gaming the system, as evidenced by a peak in Key Stage 4 exclusions. (see Bennett 2017;  Office of the Children’s Commissioner, 2013 in ‘other resources’ below).
A city Secondary school which had the highest exclusion rates in the county has rewritten its Exclusion Policy as an Inclusion Policy (see thesolutionsfocusedcoach.com website) with Solutions Focused coaching replacing the automatic use of punishment of children who struggle to conform. This is resulting in a marked reduction in exclusions without abandoning the rule based aspects of the Behaviour Policy. The Deputy Headteacher in charge of inclusion attributes the change to the adoption of SF coaching across the school provided by school staff. He has recently appointed a member of staff from the SEN team to the SF coaching team to strengthen the inclusion of children with additional needs.

Latest cross-county data for the current school term show continuing progress in reducing exclusions.

How do you get to here from there?

One widely promoted answer to addressing the children’s problems of coping and heathy distress that are crudely bracketed together as behaviour difficulties, is do more of the same, to tighten the degree of control over all children in a school so those who cannot or will not comply within a strict regime will be rapidly identified and removed. This results in a rising exclusion rate. Bearing in mind that vulnerable children with additional educational, social and mental health needs are most likely to be excluded, their removal lowers the demands made on their schools. However transferring the demand out of school means there has to be readily available high-quality alternative provision where they can continue to learn and thrive and this in turn demands a increase in the availability of highly trained specialist teachers and the funds to support them in newly commissioned special schools. In the current climate these needs are unlikely to be met.

Schools adopt rules and structures to be able to function properly. Given a simple framework children learn how to behave in a way that optimises their freedom and the freedom of others around them. It happens naturally without the need for the contrived push of rewards and punishments or a rigid regime of extent control because social cooperation is hard-wired in humans. It is a key to how humans gained their dominant position on Earth. Most children just ‘get it’ and the great majority of schools operate successfully within boundaries as inclusive communities and do not exclude children. Schools know how to approach this task with kindness and most children readily comply, even when rules seem to them to be a bit daft.

The big problem comes with the children who struggle to fit in, to comply, to defer to their elders and to get on with their schoolwork. To respond to their needs by stepping up the intensity of external control and management is an example of theoretical overreach and cognitive bias. Behaviourism was never intended to be used for this purpose in schools and clearly does not support children’s learning in this complex area as evidenced by exclusion figures. If all you have is a hammer, everything look like a nail.

Our global intention in schools is for all children to internalise reasonable boundaries being intrinsically motivated to cooperate, succeed and achieve in school. For that to happen they need to experience autonomy, meaning and purpose (Pink 2009) in the challenges they face and ‘working with’ children rather than ‘doing to’ them provides this framework. (James 2016)

This ‘walking alongside’ is essential in working with children who have additional needs. However Bennett (2017) re-emphasises an adherence to punishment as an external motivator in making several discriminatory claims wrapped up in dense language;

“Some disabled students, such as those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autistic spectrum disorders or learning difficulties, are much more likely to break the school rules than other students. Rigid application of this policy would be likely to amount to indirect disability discrimination because, where a reasonable adjustment has not been made, a school will find it very difficult to justify the treatment as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. However, schools must still always aim high. A school should do as much as possible to demonstrate high expectations of all students, and to scaffold the best behaviour that a student is capable of, otherwise there is a risk that some students with SEND will suffer from the poverty of low expectations. Schools must be careful to publicly and consistently apply consequences to students’ actions. If a student misbehaves and no response follows, the student is encouraged to assume that the school does not mind. Worse, there is a possibility that the student will explore greater misbehaviour.” (Bennet 2017)

This exposes the low expectation inherent in this approach, that children with additional needs and disabilities are preternaturally different, that they actively choose to ‘misbehave’ unless they are coerced and shamed into compliance unlike their peers who happily cooperate.

It keeps Behaviour trapped in a Bubble.

Higher expectations, greater inclusion.

What is happening in Lincolnshire that’s making a difference?

The strategic project to support schools in achieving zero exclusion has been set up by the Inclusion Service Manager of Lincolnshire County Council, Mary Meredith (2017), who has developed the Lincolnshire Ladder of Behavioural Intervention. This allows schools to access additional resources, such as a behaviour outreach support or an intervention place within a alternative provision, on the grounds they can demonstrate that the Ladder has been followed. A key step within the Ladder is the Solutions Focused Pastoral Support Programme (SFPSP) – essentially, an inclusion plan. Agreed with family, student and key school staff, this captures and monitors the impact of reasonable adjustments as well as providing strategies to promote social and emotional learning. A key intervention here is the support of a Solutions Focused coach who is member of the school pastoral team. The SFPSP is actively promoting inclusive practice in Lincolnshire.

Facing up to their nationally high rate of exclusion county officers decided to work from first principles. This brief note is a snapshot of the wave of change happening across a large community of schools.
I’m involved in the project as consultant for Solutions Focused coaching (www.thesolutionsfocusedcoach.com) practice, training and support. My work is based on scientific findings and a long trail of evidence including;

The Elton Report (1989) with its warning on the of overuse of punishment in schools;
Alfie Kohn’s (1992) book ‘Punished by Reward’
The growth and development of Solutions Focused Brief therapy and coaching in the UK
The Steer (2005) review reconceptualising of behaviour as an aspect of learning;
The Garner review (2011)
Primary National Strategy of the Labour Government’s ‘Every child matters’ project; Solutions Focused coaching (website) – a new approach to behaviour change
The incorporation of the SF approach in the primary PGCE course at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln;
My own practice and research (James 2005, 2016) from 1998 to the present, incorporating new ideas on motivation and flow, neuroscience, and the solutions focused approach to solving complex problems.

Over the last year I have been training school staff to provide Solutions Focused coaching, increasing the internal capacity of pastoral teams within schools to provide preventative support for children who experience educational, social and mental distress.

Don’t give up.

Bennett (2017) contains this statement; ‘Exclusions must be only used when they are needed. This means they must be used when all else has failed, and not before.’

This carries the implicit message that with some children failure should be expected and when it comes, exclusion is the necessary and justifiable last resort. I disagree strongly with this view and it does not match my experience of working with children over many years who have run the gamut of Behaviour Management as the most common form of ‘all else’.

I find children to be always hopeful, successful, and resourceful people who are capable of making changes to bring them to their better future, when they are given the opportunity to engage actively with the meaning and purpose of what is being asked of them.

As we are finding in Lincolnshire and others are demonstrating across the world, this way of working can be the pin that bursts the bubble.


Bennett T (2017) Independent Review of Behaviour in schools DFE-00059-2017
Elton R (1989) ‘Behaviour and Discipline in Schools’
Garner P (2011) ‘Promoting the conditions for positive behaviour, to help every child succeed’ National college for school leadership
James G (2005) PhD Thesis ‘Finding a pedagogy’ (on solution-support.co.uk )
James G (2016) Transforming behaviour in the classroom; a solution focused guide for new teachers
Kohn A (1992) Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes
Meredith M (2017)
Pink D (2009) ‘Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us’ Riverhead
Steer C (2005) ‘Learning behaviour – lessons learned. A review of behaviour standards and practices in our schools’ DfES

Other resources:





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