The best of Alternative Provision is a joy to behold. They take children and young people battered by life, rejected and in some cases further damaged by their mainstream experiences, slowly piecing them back together; supporting them as they move on in life.
Some children and young people make bad choices and continue to do so until they are permanently excluded. However, our colleagues, in Alternative Provision, are far more likely to deal with the disadvantaged, vulnerable and traumatised. These children and young people need the unconditional positive regard and clear boundaries found in the best of Alternative Provision.
Behaviour has always been an emotive subject in schools. Teachers face the daily reality, for better or worse, of classroom behaviour. Parents experience it through their children who perpetrators or victims, sometimes both. It can be too easy for those of us in senior leadership positions, if divorced from the daily maelstrom of the classroom, to look back with rose tinted glasses or forget the level of challenge poor behaviour can bring. However, on occasion, a system wide view is needed with respect to the expectations and drivers that are shaping or may shape future responses to poor behaviour.
There are schools who deal with a level of demand from their community they cannot meet alone; any support has dried up as austerity has bitten deep. They maintain orderly and safe communities including through the use of exclusions and working in partnership with Alternative Providers. It’s all too easy for some to point the finger at them for off-rolling. The idea that the permanent exclusion is in the best interest of the child or the process provides a secure route for parents to argue their case is the product of a middle class mind. For some of our most deprived and disadvantaged families it provides nothing of the sort; they lack the capacity, confidence and capability to use the system.
There are schools that need to turnaround a situation where poor behaviour has become endemic and rightly needs challenging. Inappropriately, this can be used by schools who, long after the “turnaround phase”, continue with high levels of exclusion. See, if we remove all our difficult pupils, who aren’t doing very well, then our results are really good. Their intention appears more cohort change; the manipulation of the performance tables and the inspectorate. Their unnecessarily high exclusion rates become a proxy for school improvement to the detriment of their own school and most certainly those in the locality. I wonder whether these schools have been doing this for so long it has become habitual; they have actually manged to convince or confuse themselves that it is appropriate and right.
Whether they are zero tolerance, warm strict or schools that don’t particularly name their approach to behaviour, we have a few schools with substantially higher numbers of fixed term and permanent exclusions than all or similar schools. In these cases, exclusions are not related to levels of deprivation; schools with very similar numbers of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have dramatically different exclusion rates. Some of these schools are part of Trusts who continue on their chosen path of high exclusion rates in the full glare of publicity and limited accountability. Their view is that the most challenging children and young people are someone else’s problem to sort.
The current moves by the Department for Education to increase investment in Alternative Provision could be applauded or damned depending on the purpose. A substantial investment in high quality provision – not all Alternative Education is good or even fit for purpose; buildings, training and staffing would be welcomed. Alternative Provision suffers from opaque and differing funding. In contrast to teachers pay, no additional funds are provided to meet the salary increase of the many support staff employed in Alternative Provision putting massive pressure on their budgets.
The concern would be if the policy aims to simply provide for ever higher levels of permanent exclusions; above that which is reasonable. Working for the common good isn’t simply looking after the majority; it’s also about preferential care for the most vulnerable and poorest in our society. In essence, the levels of permanent exclusions we are prepared to accept is inextricably linked to our view of humanity. Is Alternative Provision there to provide care, support and education for those who need greatest nurture or part of a high stakes punitive system?
In any forthcoming election, education – and accountability with its impact on retention, recruitment and workload of teachers – will be front and centre stage (Brexit aside). The exclusion culture in some schools needs a counterbalance; held in tension by the accountability system.
Headteachers Roundtable has long expressed the view that schools need to be held proportionately accountable for any pupils who attends their school. At a secondary level, imagine if 40% of a pupil’s GCSE results are credited to the school s/he is attending on the October census in Year 7; add 5% a term all the way through to the October census in Year 11. This provides the tension required. We would most likely see a sharp dip in the number of pupils suddenly disappearing out of mainstream state schools in Year 10 and Year 11, prior to the third Thursday in January. In primary schools, where the issue is less pronounced, starting with the October census in Year 3, schools are held proportionately accountable for 10% of a pupil’s results per term s/he is in on the school’s role.
Passing on the responsibility, for our most vulnerable, disadvantaged and challenging children and young people, as a school, system or society will not end well. As equity dips, people diverge and a more fractured and confrontational society is formed. Ultimately, we won’t be judged on our latest Progress 8 or combined RWM score but on how we treated those in greatest need, in our society.