“Always someone else’s problem” – a comment on the Atkinson Report

Always someone else’s problem – (unless you’re the child involved)

The recently published report on illegal exclusions ‘Always someone else’s problem’ by Dr. Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner, looks into one aspect of a serious and recurrent question; what we do when we’ve tried everything to get children to ‘behave’ and failed?
Her report, in common with most research activity, is problem focused. You could say “Well of course it is. If you don’t focus on the problem how will you come up with any answers?” She looks at the problem in detail searching for details of deficits in schooling and providing expert strategic advice on what steps must be taken to remedy these deficits. The title is telling – the ‘always’ indicates a rule, a theory about illegal exclusion that is supported by the evidence. The rule is that responsibility for ‘proper’ exclusion is always handed over to the next professional in the line. The purpose of this type of investigation is to make generalised statements that will apply in all situations. It was not the purpose of the investigation to look at exclusion as such, and it makes no connections between exclusions which comply with the law and those which are illegal.
Most responses to the report that I’ve seen over the last weeks take the same problem focused perspective in responding to the report, either attacking and criticising Dr. Atkinson personally and directly for her failures (http://behaviourguru.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/always-someone-elses-problem-no-its.html) or approving her reporting as one of a series, for its strategic problem focused advice. (http://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/info/schoolexclusions)
This polarised reaction to the report demonstrates the deeply embedded belief that when social behaviour is in question the way to change and improve it is by means of punishment and reward. In general schools punish mis-aligned children out of the belief that this will correct them and make them into good citizens, or at least discipline them into being good school students. In turn Dr. Atkinson recommends that schools are punished for illegally excluding children. In both cases punishments are renamed sanctions.
sanc•tion (s ngk sh n) n.
1. Authoritative permission or approval that makes a course of action valid.
2. Support or encouragement, as from public opinion or established custom.
3. A consideration, influence, or principle that dictates an ethical choice.
a. A law or decree.
b. The penalty for noncompliance specified in a law or decree.
5. A penalty, specified or in the form of moral pressure, that acts to ensure compliance or conformity.
6. A coercive measure adopted usually by several nations acting together against a nation violating international law.

Which one applies in this context?

Two excerpts from the report:
“Foreword from the Children’s Commissioner for England
For a long time, illegal exclusions from school have been an elephant in the room for educators, policy makers and others. Whenever I speak to head teachers, educational psychologists or education welfare officers anywhere in England, all will admit, always in strict confidence, that these exclusions do sometimes happen. But nobody wants to go public or is prepared to name names. There is a feeling in these conversations that for the sake of inter-school harmony, or the reputation of
the system, this is a subject best left alone. It is too hard to identify what is happening, or while there may be a few bad apples, it isn’t really a significant problem. As the conversation goes on, it usually dawns on those talking to me that, if you are one of the however few children it has happened to, it is very significant indeed.
A year ago I published “They Never Give Up On You”, the result of year one of my first formal Inquiry into school exclusions. Again, just as when I speak to professionals face to face, illegal exclusions were discussed. But finding concrete evidence that they do happen proved extremely elusive. We managed to find one head teacher who would admit, albeit anonymously, that not only did such practice take place, but that he excluded children from his school illegally – sending difficult,
challenging and troubled Year 11 children home informally, for months at a time, in the months leading up to their examinations. However, given the secret and covert nature of this – as of almost any illegal activity in any walk of life – we had no way of knowing whether his was the only case in the country. It seemed unlikely, given there are tens of thousands of publicly funded schools in England, but we had no way of proving it.”


“Reasons for illegal exclusions
We consider that illegal exclusions happen for four main reasons.
• Lack of awareness of the law
• Gaps in the accountability framework for schools
• As an unintended consequence of the incentives in place for schools
• The lack of a meaningful sanction.”

Some evidence from my practice.
For the past 15 years I’ve been employed to work with children who are struggling in school. My job title at the outset was Behaviour Support Teacher, I was given no specific training to do this job and had to rely on whatever experience and prejudices I carried into it. What was true for me is true for most if not all ‘Behaviour experts’ around today. As I developed my own skills in the solution focused approach, I developed a structured programme for children with what is called BESD (Behavioural, Social and Emotional Difficulties) which I called VulCAN (Vulnerable Children – Addressing Needs – one of those rather annoying reverse-engineered acronyms). In the course of my Ph. D. research into the area of EBD and PRU provision I came to see that most behaviour support was open ended. Because it had no proper structure it often carried on indefinitely, one behaviour support professional handing on to the next as the child got older, only ending in expulsion from school, or getting old enough to leave. I was determined to do something different, to be able to know if support was useful to the child and the school, and if not to do something different and timely. VulCAN is the embodiment of this. It comprises five solution focused (sf) meetings over a month. The first meeting is with the child, their parent(s) or carer(s) and closest school staff member, when I outline what the sf approach means, we agree the project, and start the work itself. We review on the fifth meeting to decide whether the project is complete in a good enough way, to run VulCAN again because the project in not complete or do something different because sf has not been useful. This prevents unplanned and over extended support. Because at the start I was the only person doing sf work and there was the potential of a high demand I set the acceptance criteria high. The criteria were:
For the student to be at the point of permanent exclusion
For people in school to be feeling stuck about what to do – everything tried and nothing working

In my experience, doing this solution focused work over many years, it is possible to unstick what seem to be the most stuck situations. Change is always happening, even on the brink of exclusion and when the change happens the student takes up their place in their school community with no fuss. I’m not saying that my approach is the only one that does something useful in directly supporting children’s educational rights, but it’s what I do and I don’t see much else on the horizon that can be delivered by education professionals within schools. With the current reduction in external specialist support, my work group is being made redundant this summer, it makes school based effective action even more relevant. Incidentally it also fulfils the best hopes of most professionals in schools to include the whole range of learners in their varied and dynamic school community.

So I would add to Dr. Atkinson’s list of four reasons for illegal exclusions a fifth:
The lack of a straightforward and effective way for school staff to support children in finding solutions and to avoid exclusion altogether

……. Or something like that.

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