‘It’s like being in prison’: what’s behind the rise in school exclusions? | Schools

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I meet Lewis just before the first lockdown, early in 2020. He is 18, and in the middle of his A-levels: a sparky, irreverent presence, with a strong sense of injustice about what he experienced at his London secondary school. In year 9, around the time he turned 14, he started being bounced around the school’s disciplinary system. At one point, he spent every school day for six weeks in a single-room facility called “the annexe”. He was also forced to spend time at home. Sometimes, work was sent for him to do; sometimes, he spent whole days doing nothing.

“I was in the top sets for a lot of things, and there weren’t many black kids in those classes, so I tended to stand out,” he says. “But also, I was acting up.” There were reasons for his behaviour: “I had a lot going on. My mum had had a miscarriage. My grandma was diagnosed with cancer. I had an uncle who was sectioned. I’m not going to be like, ‘I was a good kid.’ I was lashing out. But the worst part was, I’d spoken to some of my teachers about the reasons.”

I’ve seen children in isolation rooms on trumped-up charges. And they were full of black kids

Today, Lewis is part of the Advocacy Academy in Brixton, south London, a pioneering after-school project that aims to turn young people into activists and leaders. The academy’s students have come up with two initiatives aimed at highlighting the issue of school exclusions: No Lost Causes, and IC Free. Lewis is involved in the latter project, which takes its name from IC3, the police shorthand for someone identified as black.

Both campaigns highlight the fact that school exclusions disproportionately affect black and ethnic minority children and young people, and often represent the first nudge down a path to crime and imprisonment. Those involved tell me it is impossible to separate permanent and temporary exclusions from “isolation units” within schools, in which pupils are forced to spend days of “internal” exclusion, usually in sealed-off booths. Most exclusions are the result of zero-tolerance behavioural codes common to a huge number of schools, whereby answering back or refusing to follow an instruction can take someone from a relatively trifling punishment to exclusion in short order.

Lewis and others also talk about pupil referral units (PRUs), places that deal with children who have been excluded from state schools. The units, they say, are always of interest to the drug trade. “Olders round my area know that if you’re looking for a runner, someone to work for you, the easiest place to look is PRUs, because kids aren’t doing anything,” Lewis says. “A lot of people who were in PRUs are in cunch now.” Cunch, an abbreviation of countryside, is slang for the county lines drugs business.

In July last year, government figures showed that temporary (or “fixed-term”) exclusions in English schools in the year 2018-19 had reached a 13-year high of 438,300, up 7% on the previous year – a rise partly driven by pupils being repeatedly excluded. Permanent exclusions were almost unchanged on the previous year, but up 60% on five years before.

It’s too early to judge the impact of the pandemic’s school closures, but a report published last November by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, said that temporary exclusions seemed to have risen at the start of the academic year in some schools – because Covid restrictions had reduced the space available for pupils kept out of normal lessons. But by any measure, exclusions are now an integral part of life in thousands of schools, and a regular experience of pupils and their families.

Esther Atunrase outside her home in London
‘You can’t talk to anybody, you can’t stand up if you don’t ask,’ says Esther Atunrase of internal exclusions. Photograph: Alex Ingram/The Guardian

Esther Atunrase, 18, is another of the young people behind IC Free. At school, she tells me, “I got bullied quite a lot for being tall.” She says her attempts at self-defence resulted in internal exclusions. She describes being placed in a booth, where “you can’t talk to anybody, you can’t stand up if you don’t ask. Literally, it’s like being in prison. I’ve been there multiple times, I’ve lost count. The longest I’ve been there is a week – five days straight.”

After emailing her former school, La Retraite in Clapham Park, south London, I receive two pictures of a compact space divided into booths and adorned with pictures of Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela, along with such words of encouragement as “One small POSITIVE THOUGHT in the morning can change your whole day.” The headteacher describes it as, “Quite a welcoming room where the students have an individual teacher supporting them. The idea is to reduce the need for external exclusions and support the student in making the right decision in the future. Students will also have support from a member of the pastoral team while in the reflection centre. Students, however, who spend time in the room may not perceive it as such a nice space… Esther had a few challenges to overcome, including a sports injury – which she did very well, with a lot of support from staff here. This did include some time on different occasions in the reflection centre. Our records don’t quite match her perception of the events – and that is to be expected.”

There was no learning. Kids with headphones on, playing cards, turning up when they wanted. It was like a bad youth club

A few days before meeting Esther and Lewis, I speak to a teacher based in London. She is well acquainted with systems of discipline in schools, and has also worked in a PRU – and, like a lot of the people with experience of exclusions and the issues that surround them, she insists on remaining anonymous. “Let’s say there’s been a fight,” she says. “There’ll be no ‘fight’ in the school’s system: the only option will say ‘assault’, so that’s what you click on. I’ve seen children being excluded for reasons that didn’t reflect what had happened. The same thing was happening in isolation rooms: kids in there on trumped-up charges. And they were full of black kids.”

At the PRU where she worked, she says, only three out of 15 members of staff were qualified teachers. She met children who were “naughty, but bright”, and who often felt “a sense of hopelessness” – especially if they were in year 10 or 11 and approaching the end of school. “There was no learning,” she says. “Kids with headphones on, or playing cards; kids turning up when they wanted. It was like a bad youth club.”

***

There’s no single factor that explains why exclusions in English schools have gone from being a last resort to the go-to punishment for kids who are disruptive or simply don’t fit in. Part of the explanation is the effect of 10 years of austerity on the pastoral care that might have helped a child or young person in the first place, as well as cuts to social care beyond the classroom. Another is a fragmented schools system that allows some academy chains to slip free of accountability. Finally, there is the overarching focus on success in exams, “outstanding” ratings from school inspectors, and what politicians call “discipline”.

These have been close to the hearts of successive Conservative education secretaries, beginning with Michael Gove, who held the post between 2010 and 2014, and often seemed to believe in two apparently contradictory things: getting exclusions numbers down, but also “making exclusion of the most disruptive more straightforward”. Worries about increasingly high numbers of exclusions then began to increase, to the point that, in 2018, the government commissioned an official review, then pledged to help schools “to intervene early to help a child before exclusion is necessary”. But since then, people in power have continued to use a very familiar vocabulary. In September 2019, only a month into the job, the new education secretary Gavin Williamson told journalists that if any headteacher decided “to either suspend or expel a pupil because they need to do it in order to be able to enforce proper and full discipline in their school”, they would have his backing.

They have to sit there in silence for a day with three toilet breaks. Theoretically, they give them work, but they don’t

As the young people at the Advocacy Academy note, pupils with black Caribbean heritage are nearly three times as likely to be permanently excluded as white children. In 2018-19, two groups had the highest rates of exclusion: those from Gypsy and Roma families, along with those classified as “Traveller of Irish heritage”. Across all categories, boys vastly outnumbered girls. Many people who work in schools also talk about a strong class dimension, and point out that children with special educational needs are particularly likely to face exclusion.

One of the chains whose exclusion policies have attracted the most attention is the Outwood Grange Academies Trust, which runs schools from Nottinghamshire through to the north-east, many of them so-called “left-behind” places. Outwood schools present themselves as engines of success and opportunity, and have a disciplinary policy centred on one key stipulation: that “refusing a reasonable request” can be grounds for a fixed-term exclusion. In 2016-17, of the 45 schools in England that had excluded at least 20% of their pupils, nine were run by the trust.

After my visit to Brixton, I meet two families who have children at Outwood Grange schools. Jenny and Martin’s 15-year-old son, James, attends an Outwood academy in a former mining community. Divorced but on good terms, both parents are employed in management positions by local firms. The stories of James’s exclusions are full of the small change of school life: allegations of chewing gum being stuck under tables, a penis supposedly drawn on a book, refusal to hand over his mobile phone. James disputed many of the things that landed him in trouble, but inevitably, doing so made things worse. “I’ve said to the school, ‘I don’t want him to go into the world and not challenge things he feels are unfair or unjust,’” Martin says. “But there’s no encouragement for the children to have those kinds of discussions, because you just get accused of refusing a reasonable request.”

At James’s school there is a disciplinary code with a scale of “consequences” (C4 is a 30-minute detention, C6 is a fixed-term exclusion). There are also isolation booths, or what the Outwood chain somewhat euphemistically calls a “reflection room”. Each of James’s exclusions – which, his parents say, totalled nearly four school weeks – was followed by at least half a day spent there. “James would describe it as a little seat with a booth that he can’t even fit his shoulders into,” Martin says. “They have to sit in silence for half a day, or a day. They’re allowed three toilet breaks. Theoretically, they give them work, but they don’t, really.”

When James was excluded, his parents tell me, they received a phone call, and that was that. Any work he was sent to do at home was minimal, and nothing to do with his GCSEs. “It takes him about half an hour to do,” Jenny says. “There’s stuff in there like ‘I before E except after C’: really basic stuff. And anyway, nothing can replace having time with a teacher.”

I speak to Jenny again in November. On the basis of teacher assessments, she says, James was awarded six good GCSEs, and briefly enrolled in the local Outwood sixth form to do three A-levels, before thinking better of it and starting an apprenticeship in construction. “I’m happy he’s found something he wants to do,” she says. “But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth – that he could have had a wider range of things to choose from if his education had been normal.” She also says that the two years he spent constantly colliding with exclusions and isolation had taken a toll.

He’s been excluded for playing with a fidget toy that they gave him. He’s been excluded for asking for work

Becky Hunter and her 14-year-old son, Mackenzie, live in Skellow, a former pit village near Doncaster. Mackenzie has a diagnosis of autism, and is in year 10 at the Outwood academy in Adwick, where, in the academic year 2017-18, 27.9% of pupils were subject to fixed-term exclusions, the eighth highest rate of any school in England.

When we meet, Mackenzie is at home thanks to yet another fixed-term exclusion, this time for refusing to sit in a “reflection” booth. His mum tells me he was excluded 16 times in year 7, and 25 in year 8; between September 2019 and March last year, he was sent home a further 11 times. When he has been in school, Becky says he is often left alone with a laptop, and told to busy himself on a maths app and do reading exercises. She sounds weary as she explains Mackenzie’s latest exclusion. “This one’s for a day and a half, because he refused to go to the booth. He’s been excluded for playing with a fidget toy that they gave him. He’s been excluded for asking for work. He’s been excluded for retaliating with kids who were aggravating him. Yesterday, another child turned his laptop off, so he threw a pencil at him. They told him to go to the reflection room, and he refused.

“When Mackenzie’s been at home,” she goes on, “he’s emailed teachers and asked them to send him work. But the only thing we get is this.” She hands me an A5 booklet, with 16 wonkily photocopied pages, containing a guide to writing a story titled The Robbery, as well as a selection of maths questions. “He’s had the same workbook for about two years now. How many times can you do a workbook?”

Mackenzie comes in, and plonks himself next to his mum.

How does he feel about being excluded? “Happy to be out of that school, and not where kids can bully me. But horrible, because I’m not getting my education.” I ask him to describe the reflection booths. “You get a chair, you get a desk. It’s got sides on, and a mirror – so if you put your head down, the teacher can see you.” What does he do when he is in there? “Just sit there and colour.”

“Colouring in,” Becky says. “In year 9.”

In the autumn, I get in touch with Becky again. Since September, thanks to a plan drawn up with the help of a sympathetic member of staff, Mackenzie has been at school for only two and a half hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, concentrating on maths, English and food technology, while training as a car mechanic on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Becky tells me she “fought tooth and nail” to put these arrangements in place, after three years of exclusions. “He’s very far behind, and he knows that.”

Outwood Grange Trust declined to answer specific points about James and Mackenzie’s cases, but sent a short statement: “We simply don’t recognise the comments being made and neither do the tens of thousands of parents whose children attend our academies. Ofsted’s recent evaluation of our trust, the countless excellent Ofsted reports following inspections of our schools and the numerous inclusion awards we have won underline this. We will remain proud of our track record.”

***

In Lincolnshire, they are trying something different. In 2017, the county council replaced its PRUs with alternative provision (or APs) – in this case, two compact schools for children who have been excluded, run on the basis of unconditional “positive regard”, a therapeutic concept that boils down to a kind of institutionalised kindness. Both are run by an academies chain called Wellspring, which began life in the Yorkshire town of Barnsley, and now runs 24 educational facilities.

On a Tuesday morning last March, I arrive at the Wellspring AP in Grantham, Lincolnshire, which has around 50 pupils aged four to 16, many of whom have either been permanently excluded or sent on 16-week placements. My guides are Dave Whitaker, the teacher who serves as Wellspring’s director of learning, and Phil Willott, the Grantham facility’s executive principal. As they show me around, the difference between APs and most mainstream schools is obvious. One child is seated with a teacher coaching him in the use of an app that can monitor his heart rate, and help with what an educational psychologist would call “self-regulation”: calming yourself down rather than succumbing to anger. On a nearby landing, an older boy who has evidently exited a class is being coaxed back in. On just about every wall are murals and posters focused on emotions, full of words like “care” and “trust”. Each class has no more than eight pupils.

Many of the children have special educational needs. Most, say Whitaker and Willott, also have personal histories that contain trauma. The way they are treated here draws on research into what stress does to children, and the idea that disruptive or even violent behaviour is often a kind of misdirected communication. “This is neuroscience: it isn’t me and Phil making this up,” Whitaker says. “Some kids are exposed to constant stress, and that stops them making the connections in their brains to allow them to function properly. One of the things they do is adopt high-risk behaviours. Telling teachers to F-off is a high-risk behaviour.”

We may be in Lincolnshire, miles from any big city, but many of the problems that intersect with exclusion in urban areas are present here, too. “We get children who have been excluded from mainstream schools for carrying knives,” Whitaker says. “We have to have them, because the law says they have to have an education. We’re vigilant. We have risk assessments in place. If we need to, we’ll use metal detection. But what we will do is work on our relationships being strong enough. Children stab people, in my view, when they’re angry, or they’ve got a grudge or an issue with somebody. We’re not taking risks, but we work on relational behaviour management. So we’re not forcing the kid into a situation where they feel they have to react violently to us.”

Dave Whitaker, director of learning at Wellspring Academy Trust, which uses a pioneering compassionate approach to manage behaviour.
Dave Whitaker, director of learning at Wellspring Academy Trust, which uses a pioneering compassionate approach to manage behaviour. Photograph: Antony Sojka/The Guardian

I meet two of the AP’s pupils. Emily is nine; Jade, 14. I am told not to ask about their home lives, but a couple of subjects are allowed: the way they feel about school, and their past experiences of the education system. Emily is bright and talkative, and says that when she leaves school, she wants to “go round the world and try to help animals”. What were things like at her previous school? “I was swearing and kicking off. But now, basically [they’re] helping us not to retaliate. I understand more what the school’s trying to do.”

Jade says she wants either to do “something involved with helping kids, or hair and beauty”, and talks matter-of-factly about the mess of disciplinary systems she has got used to navigating. “I got excluded from two schools. I started getting excluded in year 7. I got sent to a different mainstream school in year 8, then got excluded from there in year 10.” A brief pause. “It’s only recently I found out I’ve got ADHD. I’ve got medication. My teacher says he thinks I should go on a higher dosage. He doesn’t know whether it’s working.”

What did she do all day when she was excluded? “I was watching TV. I wasn’t really bothered. I’d rather be at home, to be honest. I didn’t learn much anyway. I got kicked out of every lesson, cos the teachers couldn’t handle me.” Does she think she was treated fairly? “Sometimes I was, because I wasn’t the most pleasant person. But sometimes I think I should have just got isolation for the day, not exclusion. But they started getting bored of… [long pause] trying to sort me out, and they started just excluding me, even for the littlest things. And then they ended up getting rid of me.”

When the first lockdown was imposed, the Grantham AP stayed open, although many of the children stayed at home. “We did hundreds and hundreds of welfare visits, and daily phone calls,” Whitaker tells me in October. “We had staff knocking on doors, delivering work, monitoring remote learning. It was a very steep learning curve.”

And what had happened since pupils returned in September? “There are still exclusions – we’ve taken new referrals,” he says. “We haven’t had some crazy floodgates open in the last few months. But it hasn’t stopped, either.”

***

Three weeks after my visit to Grantham, I spend two hours in a Harvester on the edge of a large northern city, talking to Ananya, a mother of four who works as a secondary school teacher. Her son Joe, 16, is of mixed British-Asian and black-British parentage. After attending a “school in a leafy village”, he went to an academy in the suburbs, run by a trust that controls more than 40 schools, where he was one of the few kids who wasn’t white.

Joe had been predicted to do well at secondary school. But in year 9 he became acquainted with his school’s disciplinary system: report cards, detentions, the exclusion room. There was a context: Ananya’s diagnosis with a serious, long-term illness. “I felt I’d been very transparent with the school,” she says. “I said he was undergoing trauma. He had to be tested, and he had that anxiety: ‘Have I got it, too?’ The school said, ‘We’ll keep an eye on him, and if he wants to talk to us, we’re more than willing.’ And it was left at that.”

During the first months of year 10, Joe started to truant. Ananya got a call saying fireworks had been let off on the school field, and that Joe had refused to allow his bag to be searched, before walking off the premises. He was excluded for three days. When he returned to school, he and his mother were told he was the subject of allegations concerning illicit substances, which meant another 10 days of exclusion. “The story had changed, from fireworks into a drugs investigation,” Ananya says. “And I felt it was a bit racially motivated.” She insists there was no evidence: “It was based on the hearsay of other children.”

By the end of that week, Joe had been permanently excluded. From November 2017 until March 2018, he had no education, until he was given a place at a PRU. The timetable ran from 9am until 1pm. “There wasn’t a culture of learning: it was just about bums on seats,” Ananya says. Joe was found with a small amount of cannabis, given a police caution, and permanently excluded from this facility. He soon fell in with older people involved in gangs and crime. A stabbing put him in hospital. Then, in summer 2018, Joe was arrested. “He’d been involved in a firearms incident, where shots were fired at a house. At that point, it became clear he was involved in what you might call gangs, or county lines,” Ananya says.

Joe was remanded to a young offender institution and then, because of safeguarding concerns, moved to the south of England, where he lived with his biological father. At his trial, it was accepted that he had been groomed. Joe was given a non-custodial community order. After a run of placements in care, he was eventually allowed to live near his mother.

Not long after the start of the first lockdown, Ananya calls me and says that Joe has been shot at, and moved to an institution for vulnerable children and young people. Then, six months later, I learn that he has been arrested for possession of what the law calls a “bladed article”. His local authority had placed him in another city, where he would supposedly study A-levels: “plonked on his own to live in his own place, in a random place, as far away as possible,” Ananya says. She tells me that Joe was threatened at his accommodation, and when he set off for an interview, he took a knife, only to be stopped and searched by the police.

He is now on remand at a prison in yet another part of the country, “spending 23 hours a day locked in a cell, because of staff shortages”. Ananya has not seen her son since last March, and fears that the pandemic means his trial could be postponed. Next year, he’ll turn 18. “It’s like a bereavement, only your child’s still alive,” she says.

If a lot of Joe’s story happened well beyond the classroom, it seems nonetheless to speak a painful truth about many of our schools and the way they work. What to do with kids who serially misbehave, stray into breaking the law, or lose interest in education is an eternally valid question. But so is the way we treat those who might be traumatised, living with special needs, colliding with adolescence, or at the receiving end of other people’s prejudices. As things stand, many other young people risk having their lives ruined by policies, systems and decisions that fulfil the demands of “discipline”, but fail when it comes to care, and basic humanity.

“Let’s say that 80% of kids in a school respond really well to a zero-tolerance, no-excuses policy,” Dave Whitaker says. “Well, what about the other 20%? Do we accept them as collateral damage – or do we improve our systems so we’re getting nearer to 100%?”

“The education system is wonderful when children toe the line,” Ananya says. “But the second you deviate from the norm, there’s too little support. And kids get damaged.”

• Some names have been changed.

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