Recent government legislation has created new opportunities for multi-agency working in addressing and reducing exclusions from schools, says headteacher Neil Berry

It goes without saying that the best way to reduce exclusions is to ensure that the students behave well and are taught effectively. As all of us who work in education know, there are some students that present massive challenges to the system and provision has to be made for them. Exclusions overall will only be reduced if focused provision is made for the need of the student in line with the Every Child Matters (ECM) outcomes: being healthy, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, and staying safe in particular. I am strongly of the view that exclusions are not just about the education rights of individuals who transgress, they are also about the ECM agenda and the effect that inappropriate behaviour has on the rest of the school community. By this observation I do not mean to write off individuals who don’t fit into school for whatever reason. We need to ensure that what is offered to them as a part of their educational entitlement is a genuine desire to meet their particular needs and not about forcing a square peg into a round hole because the provision that is available is all that is on offer. If this is the case, matters need to change.

Exclusions are made for a variety of reasons such as:

  • disruptive behaviour
  • dangerous behaviour
  • persistent failure to follow school rules
  • inappropriate behaviour
  • truancy/failure to engage in what the school has to offer.

This is not an exhaustive list but in my experience most exclusions fall into these categories.

Looking for root causes

It is important when dealing with students whose activities/behaviour put them in danger of exclusion to make a judgement about why they are behaving in the way that they are. Excluded students may have any of the following causes/reasons for their behaviour:

  • mental illness, now most commonly manifested as a result of drug abuse
  • dysfunctional family background
  • failure of any adults to impose suitable boundaries in their lives
  • a perceived grievance against someone in the school which leads to long-running discontent and poor behaviour such as bullying
  • a tragic event, eg divorce, death of a parent, relative or sibling – this used to be a rare event when I began teaching in 1971 but sadly it is more common today.

Again this is not an exhaustive list but it is obviously necessary to understand the reasons for exclusion in order to put together the right package for the student to either be reintegrated or, in rare cases, move on to another kind of educational provision.

A range of solutions

Due to recent government legislation, schools are now increasingly looking for in-house solutions for excluded pupils. How this is done very much depends on the funding available and the degree of collaboration between schools in order to gain economies of scale where budgets are tight. In urban areas there are some exclusion centres set up where schools can send fixed-term excluded students for up to 15 days. Work is sent to the centre by the school for the students to do so that they will be not too far behind their peers when they return to school. While at the centre, they are encouraged to reflect on their behaviour and the reasons for it so that when they return to school they will be better able to learn and conform to expectations of both the school and their fellow students. This can often be a successful approach for students who make a serious one-off mistake and as a result of their experience resolve not to return to the centre. Some authorities and schools use the local pupil referral unit (PRU) to deliver bespoke curriculum packages for excluded students in conjunction with the school in a similar way to the urban exclusion centre. However, this is becoming increasingly less common as the drive is for schools to work with the more challenging students on site as their chances of continuing in education productively are obviously greater if they remain in the system rather than outside it. In areas and schools where the budget is an issue, clusters may be established where excluded students and their staff are sent to a facility in the host school where the student is given a programme of work to follow. This has two advantages. Firstly, the excluded student is removed from his school and his friends, which for many is the greatest punishment. Secondly, they are expected to work and are supervised by someone who knows either them, their history or preferably both. The costs involved in this are minimal compared with a bespoke inclusion centre and the connection with their home school is maintained, albeit remotely. Sometimes community-based projects are available to cater for fixed-term excluded students. However, a health warning comes with these. While most do a good job for the student concerned, some do not. If such a project is used, it is crucial for the school to have a clear idea of what it is going to involve. If what is offered does not suit some of the particularly challenging students, there is a risk that they will arrive back at school after the exclusion more badly behaved then before (if they are not kicked out first.).

On-site facilities
A route that some schools take is having an exclusion facility on their own site. I know of such facilities which are called Remove, Holding, The Unit, The Curriculum Support Centre or simply by the room name, ie F6. In the past there has not always been a clear idea of what went on in these facilities. It depended very much on the philosophy of the member of staff who ran it, often with a high degree of autonomy and independence from the senior leadership team of the school.

Those schools that have integrated responsibility for internally excluded students with either learning support or special needs departments have avoided this vacuum being created. The regime can vary wildly, from rigorous and punitive – no talking, no eating, no breaks, written work for five hours, followed by a detention – to ‘sit down and have a cup of tea and a cake and tell me your problems’ and a wide range in between. The advent of Ofsted and the introduction of league tables has made the latter approach inadvisable but I do not believe that schools take sufficient care to ensure a kind of curriculum entitlement for those who receive such provision. This is, for many reasons, not simply because the school does not care about the individual. Now, however, there is an increased expectation that this aspect of education will be dealt with more assiduously by schools and this is correct in my view.

Partnership working
With some of the more demanding students, especially those with mental health or massive social problems, a plan for their education is essential. Such cases are often highly complex and I have found that the best way of making progress with such cases is by adopting a multi-agency approach. I am aware that in the past there has been debate about the effectiveness of such groups but one of the good things about the introduction of the ECM agenda is that there is now a greater imperative for all agencies working with children to work closer together. This is a good thing.

I chair a forum called The New Thinking Group, which is specific to the London Borough of Newham. We have to work within budgetary constraints, so the students that we discuss have a wide range of multiple and complex needs. Representatives at the group include those from organisations working with young people in the fields of mental health, social services, schools psychological service, counselling services, education welfare practitioners and family services. The group discusses students from any school in the borough that sends us a referral with the aim of cutting through the red tape that sometimes inhibits progress. We are often successful in finding approaches and provision for difficult students. There is much goodwill within the group and a genuine desire to do all we can to meet the needs of individuals so that they will get what they need, rather than being excluded. The biggest barrier that I face as a headteacher in the battle to reduce exclusions is often the failure of the parents to actively engage in the process of attempting to make things better at school for their child. Many take a hostile view of the school and sometimes take the opportunity to re-run perceived injustices in their own educational career, asserting that their son or daughter has a personality clash with a member of staff and that the school is blame for the current unsatisfactory situation. It is possible to talk a good many of such parents round by involving them in the process and being completely transparent at all times. Some parents, though, are hard – or even impossible – to reach. I have explored the possibility of acting in loco parentis with outside agencies where in my view an intervention through them would be helpful but I have been advised that a test case would be necessary to establish whether this would be possible.

Room for optimism?
I remain both optimistic and pessimistic about the future prospects of reducing exclusions. My optimism stems from the opportunity recent government legislation creates for multi-agency working in a more effective way than was available before. The intentions are good and there is an increased motivation and energy level to work with vulnerable students.

My pessimism stems from the small pool of resource, both human and financial, to engage in the work that is necessary in the most difficult of cases. Through judicious use of resources and creative, flexible thinking, most schools will be able to offer a curriculum for the fixed-term excluded students. The more serious permanent exclusions, however, will require greater clarity of thought. It may be the case that the new vocational diplomas will excite those that the education system has thus far turned off, if they have no other personal issues which impact on their education. Nevertheless, bespoke solutions are needed in a significant minority of cases. There is not one problem for these students, so there certainly can’t be one solution. It is the pulling together of a plan, resources and new opportunities of working with such students which will hopefully engage both them and their parents.

My biggest fear is that non-engagement from parents will lead to the maintenance of the status quo for those who most need to move out of the place they currently occupy in the system.