How can we improve outcomes for excluded pupils?

Fifteen years ago I met a vicar in a bar in Oxford who had spent 20 years working in prisons with violent male offenders. He told me that the youngest ones only had two shots at turning their lives around.

“Either they find Jesus, or their girlfriend gets pregnant and they suddenly get the preciousness of humanity,” he said. “That last one is risky, though. Sometimes it makes them realise how badly they’ve hurt other people and they give up altogether.”

His comments stayed with me as I went into teaching and found myself dealing with a small number of pupils already on track for future detention at her majesty’s pleasure.

Among that group only two seemed entirely lost: dead behind the eyes, empty in their hearts. It slayed me every time I noticed it. And I tried everything: tough love, caring love, personalised attention, harsh reminders that society wouldn’t put up with this behaviour, detentions, encouraging feedback, the whole gamut.

And yet, and yet.

In the years since I taught those pupils I’ve often wondered if either found religion or a pregnant girlfriend. Unfortunately I think it’s more likely they found the end of someone else’s knife.

On Tuesday, the schools minister Nick Gibb was rightly called to account for the government’s fairly limp actions on pupils who are permanently excluded from schools and placed into pupil referral units. Most future prisoners come from within this group, and their educational outcomes are poor. Just one per cent of excluded pupils receive five passes at GCSE including English and Maths. Ninety-nine in every hundred enter the world without those basic qualifications, and with an exclusion on their school record. It’s not entirely surprising they end up in prison.

And yet, and yet.

The problem for Gibb, and for all of society, is that we don’t really know what to do about this fact.

In the years since I taught those pupils I’ve often wondered if either found religion or a pregnant girlfriend

In the same way that we struggle as a society to know what to do with people who have dementia, who are suicidal, or who have long-term chronic fatigue, we all shuffle around the problem hoping that by talking about some other proxy – money, delivery targets, accountability – that we can get away from the reality that some genuinely shitty things happen and we don’t know what to do about it.

With exclusions and prisoners, one approach is to say that we should divert the cash for prisons into more nurturing activities. The broadcaster Afua Hirsch wrote in The Guardian last year that a place at Rainsbrook secure training centre for young offenders costs over £160,000 per student. Rugby School, the top independent establishment, just down the road from Rainsbrook, only charges around £30,000.

I desperately wanted my challenging pupils to be perfect, but they’d have been every bit as difficult at Rugby as they were in our school. The reason why Rainsbrook costs so much more is that it involves more supervision, more restraints, more locked doors. That’s sad, and not how anyone wants it to be, but the hope that nurturing more will fix things isn’t enough.

Gibb’s brightest idea in the session was that if schools are stricter early on then children get more used to behaving and never need to be excluded. But as one alternative provision leader said to me after hearing about this sort of logic: “That’s a great approach, but how would he cope if – as has happened to me – a kid climbs up on the roof, takes a shit, wipes his arse with a sock and then hangs it off the edge shouting SMELL THIS, SIR? That kid doesn’t give a stuff for your rules, so then what?”

While the colourful details of this story are the bits that will stick in your mind, the important words are “so then what?” Because, being blunt, that’s what we don’t necessarily know. All across the country, teachers, leaders, PRU workers, support staff and mental health workers are tearing their hair out trying to get kids who are violent, desperate and disengaged to stay on the straight and narrow. But strong, practical knowledge of how to do this is little-known, little-shared, and little-evidenced.

The upcoming Timpson Review will help; it is going to gather best practice. More important, perhaps, is the work of The Difference, the charity seeking to get teachers to move from mainstream and work in PRUs so they can help build this knowledge and then return to the mainstream and share it. If nothing else, it will at least mean an influx of qualified teachers into a sector that is currently running at twice the number of unqualified and temporary teachers compared to the mainstream.

It is okay that we do not yet have answers to this problem. I don’t blame Nick Gibb for not having solved something that no government has solved in a hundred years.

But we’ve got to start seriously trying. Jesus needs a back-up plan.

Laura McInerney is contributing editor of Schools Week

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  1. Here’s what I said to Oxfordshire’s Cabinet last month when they discussed the issue of exclusions

    Cllr John Howson
    Lib Dem spokesperson on Education, Oxfordshire County Council
    Exclusions Report
    Thank you for allowing me to speak as a local member. I don’t know whether or not it was the decision of our Education Scrutiny Committee to look into the rise in exclusions that prompted the DfE to also investigate this issue, but Cllr Waine is definitely to be thanked for making this report the first ‘deep-dive’ of the Committee under this chairmanship. I would also like to thank Cllr Gill Sanders for chairing the Group that put the report together.

    As we have Ofsted Inspectors around, I would also like to pay tribute to the head teacher of the virtual school for the immense amount of work that she and her team have undertaken to ensure no child taken into care is permanently excluded by a school. I am not sure that every council has such dedicated staff.

    I would also like to pay tribute to the staff and trustee of Meadowbrook College. Ofsted wrote in February this year about Meadowbrook in a letter to the Head Teacher that:

    Under your strong and dedicated leadership, you have implemented many successful changes which have enabled pupils to make positive strides in developing their social, emotional and academic skills.

    Pupils who join your school often have complex needs, many have had negative experiences of school. Several of the pupils that inspectors spoke to had only been in your school a short time, all were positive about the welcome and kindness they had received.

    The ethos of Meadowbrook College is based on helping pupils develop their self-esteem and achieve success. Your staff excel in developing these skills. Pupils say that staff at this school really care about their well-being.

    One parent told Ofsted that, ‘For the first time in years my child wants to get up and come to school; he comes home with a smile on his face.’

    The challenge is how to develop this experience of wanting to attend school for all children across the county, including all those so often excluded for persistent disruptive behaviour. Whether a maintained school, an academy, a free school or any other form of educational setting, including home schooling, it is the responsibility of everyone to do the best for every child.

    The Teaching School, our National Leaders of Education and of Governance and our local training providers, must take heed of this Report and ensure they work to ensure best practice in behaviour management across all our schools. While central government continues with its ludicrous policy of allowing academy chains to surcharge schools as much as they want for central services, maintained schools must buy such services. I seriously doubt whether that model represents the best use of the limited funds for education in helping reduce exclusions. I welcome the move towards collaboration between schools. Some schools will always be second-chance schools, they should look on this role as an honour and not a burden.

    I fully endorse the recommendations in the Report to Cabinet. I am sure that Cabinet members will want to discuss how the present funding model for schooling will allow for the different recommendations to be taken forward within an overall policy aim of reducing exclusions in all state-funded schools in Oxfordshire.

  2. Mark Watson

    I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to be rude, but the above is a wonderful example of the problems identified in Laura McInerney’s article above.
    I’m not always Ms McInerney’s biggest fan but this piece really made me think.
    It’s not about politicians playing pass-the-parcel or saying how well school X is doing or saying we need more money etc.
    I’m sure Meadowbrook school is excellent, and maybe it’s true that all their pupils are positive, but as the article says we need to consider the reality which is that some children (the sock-waving example above) are not going to be helped as things stand.
    There are some really difficult questions here and I don’t think we’re going to get any help from politicians because the discussion is too toxic.
    What are you going to do with the sock-waver? How much funding are you going to allocate to such children – twice what a ‘mainstream school pupil’ gets, three times, ten times? Given we live in the real world of limited budgets, is there a point at which you have to draw line and recognise that this is diverting funding away from other children?
    If we truly believe that all children are equal and deserve the same opportunity, how do we square this with the fact that well-behaved children get a much smaller slice of the pie?
    None of these questions are easy – I genuinely am uncertain about my own views. I understand that the funding for a child in a PRU is substantially more and I am fully behind that because it’s the right thing to do. But if it’s not working then “so what next” indeed.
    I see nothing in the statement above that moves this discussion forward in any practical sense.