The reality for excluded children is already dismaying and Covid could make it worse. It’s time for concerted action, writes Claire Heald

Behind all those pupils who celebrated the bright futures ahead of them this summer and who are preparing to return to school this week, are pupils whose future is simply not so bright. Among those, pupils who have been excluded are a prominent group. For them, this period of educational disruption will have undeniable far-reaching effects on their lives.

But the problems affecting them were already in train long before Covid-19. Recent news that the attainment gap is no longer closing but actually widening simply highlighted what those of us in schools know to be true: that those falling furthest behind are our most vulnerable. Those children who simply aren’t on the pathway to a successful future; pupils who did not get or are not on the road to getting the grades that open doors.

Just 1 in every 100 excluded pupils gets the 5 passes at GCSE that they are likely to need to progress to the next stage of their education or into successful careers. Over the past three years, only 4 per cent of pupils educated in state-maintained AP achieved a grade 9-4 in maths and English. By comparison, 64 per cent achieved this across all state-funded schools (special and AP included).

Excluded children are also far more likely to become frequently absent or become NEET, in many cases directly after their GCSEs. They are also more likely to be in care, to have grown up in poverty, have special educational needs or mental health problems.

It is clear that a zero exclusions approach is not realistic

I see first-hand the impact of exclusions, and I know the difficulties surrounding this in mainstream schools. I know that school leaders never want to permanently exclude a child, but I am also certain that more can be done to tackle preventable exclusions and improve the life outcomes of vulnerable pupils. It starts by raising the status and expertise of those who educate them, by sharing expertise between mainstream and alternative provision, like The Difference Leaders Programme aims to do.

In my own MAT, I see daily the very positive impact of prioritising inclusion. It is clear that a zero exclusions approach is not realistic, but in thinking analytically about what we use as preventative tools, we increase our confidence that we have done everything we can to prevent exclusion. To that end, leaders from Inspiration Trust are joining the 2020 cohort on The Difference’s Inclusive Leaders course to improve our capacity for examining, implementing and improving preventative support in our schools and reduce avoidable exclusions.

But much more needs to happen across the education sector, and I am pleased that The Difference will be playing its part in three other key ways: developing specialist school leadership who possess an understanding of both mainstream and AP best practice to significantly improve the expertise of staff in mainstream schools when it comes to supporting young people at risk of exclusion; pioneering evidence-led practice to develop and share a better understanding of what works to support vulnerable and disengaged young people; and influencing policy and raising awareness so that the wider education system is aware of the problem and equipped to find solutions.

Alternative Provision schools have real expertise in supporting young people in their care. However, the stark reality is that pupils who leave mainstream education will have often insurmountable barriers to accessing the same life opportunities than those who have not experienced exclusion.

In a post-COVID landscape, developing calls for a Vulnerability Premium by The Difference’s CEO would certainly help these pupils. But recent studies show that the risk of high levels of absence once schools ‘reopen’ is high for pupils at risk of exclusion, and this can only widen the attainment gap further.

It can’t be allowed to happen. The current situation is already a failure in social justice, and we simply must do more to rectify it.