There was some powerful blogging this summer about social inclusion and in some cases a lack of it by some mainstream schools. Amongst the most thought provoking were two blogs by @jordyjax giving a perspective from a Pupil Referral Unit: To Exclude or Not to Exclude and Transition Anxiety. They are well worth a read.
In our education system you are far better off with bright middle class children, if you want to be seen as successful, as the limited measures used for a school’s effectiveness will work in your favour. You will be lauded and escape the worst extremes of our pernicious accountability system. As the attainment of a school’s intake on entry gets higher you reach a point where it is just about impossible to be graded less than good by Ofsted.
There are no medals or plaudits for those schools, teachers or leaders who hold the most difficult and damaged children “closest to their hearts” but let’s be clear someone has to. This isn’t a post proposing there are no lines or limits in terms of acceptable behaviour, there are and needs to be. However, understanding that a permanent exclusion, a decision I have made a number of times as a head teacher, can be a disaster for an individual child and is a failure not a success for a school is a critical perspective.
The Awkward Squad & Attrition Games
I don’t like labelling children but you probably know who I mean. The awkward squad is not a homogeneous group and vary including those from backgrounds with multiple and complex issues to those who have a stable and secure family. Data in Beware the Charter Attrition Game by Diane Ravitch shows the dangerous game that can be played out in a system where academic results are the only real measure of success. In her critique of some American Charter Schools there are attrition rates (children who started at a school but are no longer there at the end) of over 60%, in a few cases, with lower achievers being more likely to leave or be required to leave. This makes some of their success rates a little bit less sensational than the original published headline grabbing figures. My issue here isn’t the manipulation of examination data but what happens to those excluded children, both in their immediate and longer term future, and the impact generally on society. The misfits, the marginalised and the missing have to be a concern for us all.
Get a group of head teachers together and disharmony soon appears when discussing who is taking their fair share of the most challenging or lowest attaining children. Everyone needs to be responsible and take responsibility but what a fair share looks like is anyone’s guess. Throw in a discussion about managed moves or reducing pupil referral unit numbers by reintegrating children back into mainstream and the blue touch paper is well and truly lit.
In a group of seven schools with over sixty permanent exclusions between them, in a single academic year, there are two schools with no permanent exclusions and the other five averaging twelve each. The two schools with no permanent exclusions in the academic year have a different intake compared to those excluding– in some cases less challenging intakes and in other more or very similar. It’s difficult to get any sensible discussion going when admissions and exclusion rates vary so widely. I’ve always taken the approach of “loving the ones you’ve got” as much as possible. Sometimes new starts and managed moves can work but my experience suggests that it depends how hard the receiving school actually tries though the children can too often be their own worst enemy.
As Head Teacher at St. Mary’s I oversaw the introduction of a new no-nonsense and no-excuses discipline system. If you make this choice, as a student, than this consequence will follow as sure as night follows day. It’s still being tweaked by the new Head Teacher, who actually did the vast majority of the work implementing it when deputy head teacher, and we could do with being a bit more consistent. Its aim was to address incidents of low level behaviour which are the bane of teachers’ lives and most often cited in discussions about behaviour. It is a straightforward mechanistic system up to a point. The point comes when students have worked their way through the various levels on intervention and the system hasn’t yet changed their behaviour. It is too easy for some schools to move the difficult child on, pretend that they have solved the issue and leave it to another school or Pupil Referral Unit. Systems work for the majority but not for all. There comes a point at which a different tack has to be taken for the long term good of the individual and society. Maybe some schools and PRUs are simply better at maintaining high standards using different approaches? Maybe as a system we need to have an honest debate about how we should seek to address this issue rather than allow grey exclusions and unequal responsibility for the most difficult children.
My challenge to self and others, this academic year, would be; don’t allow nonsense or poor behaviour but a no excuses approach that allows you to simply move on any difficult and challenging student, for someone else to look after, isn’t that great a system nor should it be copied. Not all schools can simply move the problem on and thankfully not all schools do. In the end someone picks up the pieces if not another school than an unjust and inequitable society.