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.