Exclusion – what is it good for (again?)
Exclusion is a dark corner of educational practice. It’s been frequently in the news this year because supposedly high-performing schools across the country are gaming the system by excluding students who don’t jump the performance bar. One Select Committee report “Forgotten children; alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions” shines a bright light on what’s going wrong and another Committee “The Government’s Green Paper – Failing a generation” makes sharp points about meeting children’s mental health needs in schools. This isn’t new news. I’ve seen it happening at first hand in my work with students threatened with exclusion over the last two decades. As Children’s Commissioner Dr. Maggie Atkinson reported on it fully more than five years ago in hard-hitting language. Investigative journalists are hard on the heels of tracking down evidence of the abusive use of exclusion. But does ‘exclusion’ have an educational meaning, for children as they grow and develop and move into their best futures?
And that’s the elephant in the room. The dark shadow that we all see but don’t talk about. The purpose of schools is to educate our children. That means all of our children, with all the rainbow of variety of strengths and needs they bring with them. Exclusion is put forward as the “last resort” by government ministers and the tiny, ideologically driven clique of advisers who whisper their ear, but what is that supposed to mean? The last resort, given what?
As educators we know that there’s no such thing as a “last resort” for any child, because come what may this child will grow and learn and make mistakes along the way and our job as educators is to teach them in the best way we can to meet their needs. The child doesn’t vanish when they are ejected from a school, they are our responsibility wherever they are, and we take the responsibility seriously.
Look at what we do already.
In my work as a behaviour specialist I studied at great length to develop an approach that meets the needs of children to ensure their inclusion, children who struggle in mainstream and special schools and show their distress in their behaviour. And that is not ‘behaviour’ as defined by the ideologists, it’s across the whole range of communication from anger and shouting through quieter disengagement and disruption to complete withdrawal and collapse of confidence and wellbeing. I started from the point of saying ‘Suppose there was alternative to exclusion, what would that look like’ and found it.
In mainstream schools the majority of educators find ways of working that provide comprehensive support for children who struggle with life and learning, balancing the competing demands of children and systems. They look for alternatives and find them.
In special schools, staff take children for who they are, whole people with a life to lead for whom achievement is highly personalised, for whom there is no “last resort” but in its place a process of continuous professional development and learning and the individualised practice that emerges from it. Looking for alternatives.
Do we hear much about our schools who take as their mantra “We are the last resort”? Of course not. Steady, quiet work and hopefulness don’t grab the headlines. But with the attention drawn to high flyers being abused by the system as flag bearers maybe this is the time to tell this story.
The hard fact is that exclusion does not have an educational purpose. What is it good for? “Absolutely nothing” (Edwin Starr, if you need a prompt). The current crop of behaviour management ideologists blur any meaning the term ‘exclusion’ might have, either intentionally to try to retain control of a system based on segregation and control or unintentionally because they lack the critical ability to take it apart.
We know ‘exclusion’ is not one thing and it is at odds with our core work. From one perspective it stands at the apex of misapplied psychological theory, on a continuum of punishment that is taken at face value to be a valid teaching and learning work, when we all know the limitations of reward and punishment in schools. Does one size really fit all, for a five year old with a medical diagnosis disrupting a classroom and a fifteen year old bringing a knife into school? Is the maintenance of ‘discipline’ a good enough reason to disrupt a child’s education when the meaning of ‘discipline’ is undefined and entirely context-related? Is ‘exclusion’ really a good enough process to accurately diagnose the special needs of children and ensure they receive appropriate support or intervention? Or is it judicial, handing down a sentence for an offence committed in school, like wearing the wrong kind of shoes, or behaving like a child?
It’s time to develop this critical work and share it.
It’s time to exclude exclusion and put education in its place.
As Leonard Cohen says, ‘Everything’s got crack in it, that’s where the where the light gets in’ and it’s true for exclusion, a dark corner of educational practice with a new light getting in.