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.
It was supposed to be a mid-Parliamentary term review of the educational landscape but when Headteachers’ Roundtable meet again in early October we will be drafting our third General Election Manifesto in less than five years.
As the stars are aligning around a general election so are we seeing alignment around some of the biggest challenges facing education: retention of teachers; funding for schools and pupils with high needs and how to increase the attainment of the long term economically disadvantaged.
Sadly, our accountability system actually works against those schools which have the highest proportion of the long term disadvantaged in. In a recent post, Nobody Knows which Schools are Good, Professor Becky Allen writes, “I use the word good advisedly. We do know which schools are exceptional and we do know which schools are in desperate need of support to improve. But that leaves a massive pile of schools somewhere in the middle of league tables that we can say little about, in my view.” Her concerns range from: what gets tested gets taught; teachers having discretion over the administration of the very same assessments by which they will themselves be judged and schools choosing which pupils count, some encouraging under-performing and difficult-to-teach pupils to complete their education elsewhere.
The later issue concerning pupils is interrogated in substantial depth and detail by Gorard & Siddiqui (2019) who evidence that “the duration and precise pattern of childhood disadvantage matter when considering school outcomes, especially for FSM and SEN”. Many of us knew that. But, the performance of different types of schools; the mythical north/south education divide or the impact of London Challenge are all questioned and found wanting.
“Our prior work has confirmed that considering long-term indicators of disadvantage, rather than simply flags for current or recent status, leads to better understanding of both disadvantage and its impact on outcomes. So, for example, the number of years a pupil has been known to be eligible for FSM is a better summary variable than either current FSM or EverFSM6. What this new work shows is that examining FSM status in sequence for every year that a child is in the school system is even better … the biggest difference lies in using FSM and other indicators of disadvantage in this longitudinal way.”
In short, a school’s examination performance is largely dependent on a school’s intake. The long term economically disadvantaged is the challenge we face and are collectively failing to meet; Education Datalab’s Looking at the London Effect Five Years on is revealing. Yet we still allow Ofsted and performance tables to give parents misinformation about a school’s effectiveness whilst paradoxically justifying their continued existence for the very reason of informing parents.
The recent Government publication on the Indices of Deprivation – analyses over 32,000 Lower Level Super Output Areas of approximately 1,500 people – shows the areas of deep deprivation whilst found across the country are predominantly in the North and some areas of the Midlands.
Blackpool has eight of the ten most disadvantaged areas in England; it’s at a scale that outsiders simply struggle to comprehend. Their frame of personal experience and reference is simply inadequate; this is true of Ministers and inspectors alike. Schools where the staff deserve medals are instead branded as failing or inadequate.
The three academies in BEBCMAT vary from 23% to 57% of their intake from the 1% of most deprived areas in England; it’s a mind-blowing level of poverty which we seek to overcome each day. How should we respond at a policy level to the issue of long term, deep, profound poverty at a pupil and place level? I’m genuinely open to ideas having wrestled with the issues for over 20 years. Please tweet me or add a comment to this blog, thanks in advance.
Here are some thoughts to get you going. What about Pupil Premium being paid at a variable level based on the number of years a pupil had been entitled to FSM? What about a “Deep Poverty” area fund to employ additional trained mental health and social workers working in schools and then out into families? Or possibly, in primary schools, in the most deprived areas or with the greatest percentage of long term FSM pupils, a statutory 1:15 pupil to teacher ratio in Reception and Key Stage 1 or a trained speech and language therapist in each of these schools?
In the end, schools can’t solve society’s problems. This isn’t simply about examination outcomes enabling the few greater social mobility so they can leave the deprived background where they started life. This is about deep social justice: less poverty; greater equity; a fairer society that is more at ease and at peace with itself and its people with each other. Not everything we value can be measure by Attainment 8 nor its bed fellow Progress 8.
The title of this blog (Wrestling with the Long Term Disadvantaged) is taken from one of the chapters of the book I am currently writing; or at least trying to. The book’s working title is “An Educator’s Hinterland: What Sits Behind the Decisions You are Making?” It may be out in 2020 – it depends how the writing goes.
However, if you’re interested in hearing more about these issues, Friday, 7th February 2019 – put a note in your diary – is the next Headteachers’ Roundtable Summit in London.
In June 2019, Headteachers’ Roundtable and WorthLess? submitted a joint letter to Amanda Spielman HMCI with a series of questions crowd sourced from thousands of headteachers and school leaders..