More exclusions are definitely NOT the answer

31 Jul 2018, 17:48

Jules Daulby hits back against the claim that the number of pupils being excluded from mainstream schools might be too low

In a recent article for Schools Week, John Blake, head of education at the influential think tank, Policy Exchange, appears to be fist-pumping the air, celebrating the rise in exclusions and salivating over the idea they could be even higher. At least this is what it seems.

His criticisms of the education select committee’s report were scathing, but I agree with him on two points:

  1. Pupil referral units should be renamed

This is already happening. Dorset’s PRUs, for example, are called ‘learning centres’, In a move Blake would no doubt approve, the local authority has also extended the criteria for entry to include children at risk of exclusion alongside those permanently excluded. In May this year, however, they closed the doors because the learning centres were all full and currently, no student other than those permanently excluded can attend. Unless more resources are allocated, renaming PRUs is a euphemism at best.

  1. Trainee teachers should NOT work in PRUs irrespective of quality

This would be, as Blake says, an unusual way to train teachers in best practice. Only excellent alternative provision should host trainee teachers. The training should prioritise an understanding of learning difficulties and mental health – two major factors in exclusions, with children with SEND seven times more likely to be excluded.

So, where do we differ? Blake believes the scandal is not that we already have 40 permanent exclusions a day in England, but that this figure may not be high enough. This is like claiming a high prison population is a marker of a successful society.

For the sake of argument, let’s explore this.

This is like claiming a high prison population is a marker of a successful society

Blake argues that schools are now better at identifying disruption, hence the higher exclusion rate. So is he suggesting we should see the 1,632,800 sessions of fixed-term exclusions as a good thing? How much learning are these children – usually those who need education the most and have the fewest resources available to them – missing?

Middlesbrough has the highest exclusion rate in secondary schools – an indicator of high quality education, if Blake’s hypothesis is correct. Yet Middlesbrough is also the third poorest local authority in the country with a child poverty rate of 37 per cent, rising to 61 per cent in the poorest ward. Children on free school meals are four times more likely to be excluded. Should we really be encouraged by these figures?

Surely – and here is something on which we can all agree – exclusion is only justifiable if the alternative provision is of high quality. Otherwise we are removing the poorest, most vulnerable children from the chance at a full and balanced education, without offering them the remedial support they require.

A bizarre switch in Blake’s argument goes from calling for evidence on how many exclusions are acceptable, to announcing, somewhat naively, that ‘no headteacher excludes lightly’. I’d like to believe this too, and it is certainly the case for many schools.

However, several reports show heads may exclude lightly, whether officially or via another route such as off-rolling or encouraging home education – a new report on this is coming soon from the Education Policy Institute.

Blake has drunk so much of the ‘no excuses’ Kool-Aid that his vision of the school system no longer correlates with the reality on the ground. He is naïve in imagining that all exclusions are done for the right reasons, and that exclusion is always the last resort of a school that’s tried every reasonable intervention – rather than a desperate attempt to cope in a context of stretched budgets and high accountability.

These are the elite comprehensives

This denial from Blake does a disservice to the inclusive schools who play by the rules and only use exclusion as a last resort and with a heavy heart. When a school acting ethically knows there’s a head up the road who is Ofsted outstanding, despite discouraging certain students from attending their school and excluding or off-rolling many others, it is not a fair system. The playing field should be level. These are the elite comprehensives, an oxymoron sadly created by a system that rewards schools for exam results rather than inclusion.

Blake seems to crave an elusive formula to gauge the correct level of exclusions a country is prepared to accept, yet the more obvious statistics slapping him round the face like a wet fish, he ignores. Education Datalab found 7700 children lost to the education system in year 11 this year, compared to those on roll in year 7.

There are inclusive schools, and many in deprived areas, that manage to educate challenging children, keep exclusion rates low and thrive under ethical leadership. Yet we’re not hearing these success stories. That we’re not listening to these schools and learning from them to prevent exclusions, well, this is the real scandal.



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  1. The debate needs to continue but can be too polarised without context. Many schools are already struggling with recruitment, falling rolls, the vagaries of the big O…and then taking loads of ‘tricky’ students because other schools are full or won’t take…I know of a school that took 38 (yes 38) students in one year from a mix of ex-PRU when all the PRUs closed in a county, in-year-arrivals in an area with a growing demographic and managed moves where grammar schools and other selective schools refused to take. It was the only moral thing to do but it cost (more than the CEO salary of one of the schools excluding by the back door and selectively participating in ‘managed moves’). LA were impotent at best and trying to be inclusive cost the school’s reputation and subsequently student pride in their school, numbers on roll, parental support and almost a whole leadership team with a great record of improvement and inclusion their jobs. Those rightly engaged in this important debate need to be aware of how much ‘moral’ schools try and how, sometimes, doing the right thing is just so bloody hard!

  2. Mark Watson

    Do I personally (admittedly with little expert insight) think we should be excluding more pupils? No.
    However the problem I have with this debate is, as ‘P’ refers to above, the extreme polarisation.
    The person whose position I actually agree with takes a terrible and unsupportable position in the piece above, unfairly and unreasonably making a direct personal attack on John Blake.
    Just listen to the language she uses – “John Blake, head of education at the influential think tank, Policy Exchange, appears to be fist-pumping the air, celebrating the rise in exclusions and salivating over the idea they could be even higher”.
    Now go and read what John Blake actually said (https://schoolsweek.co.uk/is-this-the-real-exclusions-scandal-leaving-too-many-kids-in-mainstream/). Note the headline of the piece is not a quote from John Blake but typical media sensationalism. Blake’s main point is that this whole debate is taking place in a vacuum of knowledge – “no-one knows what the “correct” level of exclusions should be.” He therefore correctly questions a default assumption made by the PEC and asks on what this is based. That’s good objective debate.
    Blake asks the question as to whether the number of current exclusions is too high or too low, and yes his view is that he thinks it might be too low. But all through his quotes he uses words such as “likely”, “could be”, “perhaps” etc. He has his opinion, which I disagree with, but he seems to recognise that it is based on an incomplete picture, and therefore could be changed if new evidence is presented.
    Now contrast that with the “I know I’m right and I won’t even dignify any contrary opinion with objective debate” spouted by Daulby above.
    Daulby doubles down on the personal invective – “Blake has drunk so much of the ‘no excuses’ Kool-Aid that his vision of the school system no longer correlates with the reality on the ground”, “he is naïve” etc. I’m no shrinking violet, but in another context this would look like cyber-bullying. Why on earth is this level of vitriol necessary in a civilised debate?
    To be clear, I support the headline of this piece far more than the headline of the piece quoting Blake, but I can’t bring myself to support the person who approaches an important issue like this.