Despite some misleading stats, Cath Murray finds a well-made documentary with simple yet powerful solutions to reducing exclusions
It was a fairly standard GCSE results day morning in the Schools Week offices. I’d just finished transferring JCQ data into subject tables and was trawling Twitter for stories from comprehensive schools. People were tweeting photos from the London Underground, where a group of pupils had done an ad-hack protesting what they called the “school-to-prison line”.
Overlaid on the maps of the Northern line, the first stop on the new posters read “Sent out of class”. After this point, the track branched into two: one line progressed through detention, isolation, temporary exclusion and finally to a circle of prison and reoffending. On the other line, labelled “Out of service indefinitely”, the stations had names like “Support” and led to “Success”.
Another poster set out their demands for a “more compassionate education system with a supportive approach to behaviour and discipline” and the funds for schools to implement it.
The story was picked up by the press, and in less than two years, the group had emerged from anonymity to present to Ofsted, witness to the Commons education committee, and begin work with human rights charity EachOther to make this documentary.
These young people’s moral compass comes through clearly
The opening credits flash up the over-simplified claim that, “Every year hundreds of thousands of students are excluded around the UK”, at which point I braced myself for a documentary that plays fast and loose with the facts. About 8,000 pupils are permanently excluded every year and the larger number (about 200,000 pupils) refers to fixed-term exclusions, which include children sent home for a single day. This is still problematic. As the young people in the documentary point out, “exclusions are wrong because they are supposed to be keeping you in school and they’re keeping you out of school” – but it’s perhaps not what the uninitiated will think of when they read that statistic.
Still, the film introduces some concepts then moves on fast to the stories, which is where its strength lies. It features exclusively the voices of young people (those who’ve been excluded as well as representatives of the “other 29 in the class”) and their moral compass comes through clearly: “If you’ve got a student you should keep hold of them”; “People have got stuff going on in their lives and teachers don’t take that into consideration”; “If you get to the point where the only thing you can do is to exclude a young person from school, that’s a failure”.
The young people relate stories illustrating how exclusions are treating only the “symptom”, when the root problems include mental health difficulties and unsafe home environments.
Their solutions are simple but powerful: have trained counsellors available in schools; be aware of the challenges your pupils may be facing beyond the school gates; don’t have low expectations for your pupils just because they live in a deprived area; repeat positive messages, like telling young people they can become leaders; support parents to understand school processes, so that they can support their children. And crucially, while it may be necessary to remove a child from the classroom to allow others to learn, the important thing is “what do you do after you remove them from the lesson?”.
EachOther uses stories to build support for human rights, and it opens this film by citing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifically: “The right for young people to express themselves on issues that concern them and to be listened to and taken seriously.”
It has done a great job of illustrating how this can be done – which is no mean feat. At Right to Succeed, the charity where I now work, we are having this debate right now. How do we authentically involve young people in the decisions that affect them? In this case, the producers employed young people as consultants and researchers on the documentary, as well as interviewees.
Ultimately, though, the power of this film lies beyond the abstract concept of rights. It lies in the stories, and the young people themselves – in short, in its ability to kindle understanding and empathy in the viewer.