The debate about exclusion from school has permeated political, media and social discourse: from London mayoral candidates who pledge to stop them, to the Timpson review that sets out a series of recommendations, to limited and limiting tweets.
Viewpoints are often polarised. Some argue that schools should almost never exclude; others say exclusions are presented as an appropriate and proportionate mechanism to keep the school community safe from unwanted behaviour.
Against this backdrop, Jackie Ward’s book on preventing exclusions is a timely one. She presents a clear focus on understanding children at risk of exclusion, and looks at decision-making for and about them through the lens of special educational needs (SEN).
Using her experience working in a pupil referral unit (PRU) and mainstream schools, she uses case studies to showcase the different ways professionals may work with children and their families. Her words are always grounded in practice – a nice change from competing idealisms.
She begins by presenting statistics alongside the legislative framework to provide a useful, basic overview for educational practitioners who either are new to this aspect of leadership, or for whom the complex relationship between legal practices and permanent and fixed-term exclusions is confusing.
I couldn’t help but think, as I read On the Fringes, that it would also be beneficial for those working in local authorities, whose support in relation to statutory obligations and advice on inclusion can sometimes confuse schools and their leaders.
One aspect of Ward’s book resonated with the Timpson review and challenged my thinking. She asserts that a child’s permanent exclusion from school should lead to a series of assessments of need and careful planning of the support that may be helpful to them. At first glance, this makes the child the problem, rather than the wider social system.
A nice change from competing idealisms
However, I recognise that this would ensure that children with specific needs, such as speech and language difficulties, would be identified and support provided. The idealist in me wants to see this done first, but that is the power of the realism of Ward’s book and exactly what makes it stand out from the fraught debate. Although subtitled Preventing exclusions in schools, it accepts the system we have and is a testament to Ward’s commitment to vulnerable children in whatever circumstances they find themselves.
While she focuses on issues relating to lack of diagnosis, poor funding and zero-tolerance behavioural policies, there is little on why certain demographic groups may be affected by exclusions more than others. I wanted her to ask questions about why Afro-Caribbean boys feature heavily in the statistics and what we can do as practitioners to address this. While there was a nod to gipsy-Romany communities, there were no clear narrative or practical strategies for challenging this and reducing exclusions.
Schools who use this book will have a handy toolkit to talk through issues and a text to inform professional development conversations about how to conceptualise our work with children who have challenging behaviour.
Some of it would be incredibly beneficial for parents and carers too. The sea of information around exclusions can be challenging, especially in a crisis. This book is succinct and provides clear advice on ways schools and parents can develop effective practice together – and it is crystal clear on what constitutes illegal activities by schools.
Given the heated context, Ward walks a careful tightrope. She does not say we should never exclude, focusing instead on solutions to promote inclusion. It feels like a reluctant admission for her that sometimes exclusion is the only answer, but if the trade-off for her steering clear of politics is that her practical advice makes it into more hands, it might just be worth it.