Ok, this is bad. It’s time for the hard hats. The exclusion rate is rocketing skywards, ground control has lost communication with Major Tom and everyone’s running for the shelters.
A headline from BBC News recently;
“Barnsley and Middlesbrough see pupil exclusion rises of 300%”
“The number of pupils expelled from schools in some parts of England has risen by more than 300% in three years.
There were 5,800 permanent exclusions in 2014-15 compared with 4,630 three years ago, government figures show.
Fixed term or temporary exclusions rose from 267,520 to 302,980 in the same period.
Some councils where large rises have been recorded said the increase reflected a greater willingness to tackle “poor behaviour”.”
What causes what? Local authority resources like school support teams have been cut to the bone, traded services have replaced free-at-the-point-of-use specialist provision. Maybe it’s coincidence that these numbers have shot up at the same time. Maybe schools under pressure to perform are basing their selection of students on children’s ability to conform. What is clear is that there’s something here that needs sorting out, punishment in the form of exclusion is being used as the universal remedy and inclusion for its own sake is unethical and maybe unlawful.
Is exclusion working?
But hang on, if exclusion were the sure-fire way to guarantee inclusion by converting ‘poor behaviour’ into ‘good behaviour’, leaving out the issue of the health and happiness of children and their families caught up in this storm, then surely the numbers ought to be going down not up? At the very least permanent exclusions, coming as they do further down the road from temporary exclusions, should be showing a marked decline not a substantial rise in numbers? There’s a clue in the numbers – exclusion isn’t working as it’s supposed to, to teach children how to join in.
“Middlesbrough saw the largest increase in fixed term exclusions, up 357% from 750 in 2012-13 to 2,080 in 2014-15. Barnsley saw a rise of 303% and North Lincolnshire 110% during the same period.”
You can see this as evidence of schools doing their best to get the best out of their students by the only means they know, the Government approved method of punishing children with the intention of reforming them. Here we have it, in clear terms;
“The council says the rise reflects efforts by head teachers to tackle poor behaviour.
Exclusion – the measure of last resort. Really?
“Exclusions are a measure of last resort when all other avenues have been exhausted, and are designed to change behaviour and improve life chances,” a spokesman for Middlesbrough Borough Council said.
All other avenues exhausted? Sure about that? If exclusion really is the only resource we have and we don’t exclude does that mean giving up, allowing these disruptive and verbally abusive children a free hand to cause chaos in classrooms?
We can all agree with this sentiment; “Poor behavioural standards by students damages not only their own chances but the prospects of those around them.”
But exclusion as an educational ‘measure of last resort’ to teach children how to behave differently, better, in the long-term? The originators of behaviourism warned against it’s use in the real-life situation of school, far away from the laboratory precision of rats running in mazes and pressing buttons for food or electric shocks. They were clear about its potential to interrupt temporarily existing behaviour and its failure to establish ‘what to do instead’, i.e. generate new learning. And its potential to cause worse behaviour, escalating the problems.
Teaching – art and science in perfect harmony
New learning? That looks like the job of teachers rather than psychologists, it’s what we do – develop knowledge, look for explanations, explore options, construct solutions, correct errors. Teaching, unlike psychology, is not an experimental science, it’s based in the uncertainty of practical knowledge, possibility and relationship, characteristics specifically excluded by the psychological/experimental method of behaviourism.
The article continued; “The Department for Education was approached for comment three weeks ago. In a statement released on Tuesday, a spokesman said: “Every child should be able to learn without disruption – that’s why we’ve given head teachers more powers to tackle poor behaviour.
Permanent exclusion is still very rare and should only be used as a last resort.”
What does that mean? Every child? ‘Power to tackle’ sounds more like rugby than schooling. ‘Very rare’? Percentages don’t mean much to the individual excluded child and their family. Used for what? A last resort? It’s a clear sign of a failure to educate children to be full members of their community – their community, and using exclusion as a punitive lever to correct children’s errors is not our true work as educators, to my mind.
“We have also announced plans to make schools responsible for securing alternative provision for excluded pupils.”
Well that’s OK then, if we all agree with the Government that passing the parcel is good enough for these children lumped together for the one thing they have in common, that the grown-ups have passed them on because they’ve run out of ideas on how to include them in the fullest way. A group made up of those who have experienced family breakdown in their young lives, often repeatedly. Those who find learning hard for reasons of their own, those who look a bit different on the surface or see the world in their own unique ways.
And more stats.
Back to percentages. Most educators, including me, look for the best in children and treat them with kindness and if only there were a creatively knid way to replace exclusion with something better we’d take it. The simplicity of reward and punishment is seductive and in its gentlest forms seems fairly harmless. But we have no idea if it’s really necessary in teaching children to internalize and comply with rules and regulations, because most children are very biddable and it doesn’t take much to get them standing in line, wearing the right kind of shoes, at the right time and place.
But. When things get serious, when some children don’t fall into line, we have the clear evidence of consequent anxiety, mental distress and loss of entitlement, of harm being done. This tells that we should be more creative in how we view children and the ways they behave, as they meet challenges. More creative in how we build relationships and join with children in their struggles to become their best selves.
Hey …… over here!
So where can we look for a creative lead? Certainly not in the restating of the old lines, behaviour management by rote, ‘10 top tips’, all those lists of don’ts. And not in the support for any old type of schooling on the Darwinian grounds that only the strong should survive, misapplied.
The great hope lies in what’s already working, in those schools and their supporters, the children and their families and those who care for them, who have found inclusive and fully educational alternatives to punishment and exclusion. We’re beginning to know what works. For me being creative means being Solutions Focused. It’s certainly one good idea, but we don’t know enough about who is doing creative work and what exactly they’re doing – that’s why we’re both joining the dots and taking action in Lincolnshire to make inclusion work. And wherever you are, doing what it is that you do.
Action on Behaviour as Learning – it’s a great project, let’s join hands. Practice and research and practice.