Inspiration Trust’s data on exclusions have shocked some, while its actions to tackle the problem have riled others. Lead trustee for inclusion, Colin Diamond explains that the true story lies beyond these emotive responses

Dame Rachel de Souza, CEO of Inspiration Trust (IT), made waves last week when she revealed the trust’s fixed-term exclusion rate sits at 17.2%, compared with a Norfolk rate of 2.61% and a national rate of 1.4%. The numbers speak for themselves. Persistent absence and permanent exclusion rates only add to a negative picture, but it is not the whole picture. If it was, I wouldn’t be there.

When Dame Rachel asked whether I might be interested in becoming a trustee at Inspiration, I thought she had dialled the wrong number. I couldn’t see what added value I might bring to the MAT.

Their website proclaimed commitment to academic excellence, a knowledge-rich curriculum, sports and the arts, but there was no mention of inclusion. Professional development opportunities looked fine for orthodox subject leaders, but nothing was visible for SENDCOs. Moreover, it all appeared very white, with few visible BAME role models for students or colleagues.

Yet, she was adamant that she had the right number. Inspiration was serious about tackling inclusion and would aim to become a beacon of practice, and to share its approach with other MATs.

One year later, as lead trustee for inclusion, I am pleased with our progress. The board agreed to commission an external review of its inclusion policy and practice – it’s where these numbers emanate from – and has taken on its full recommendations.

If such practice persists, something is wrong

Heads of individual schools have discussed the review findings with Dame Rachel directly. Improvement plans have been produced. An inclusion lead has been appointed to work with the standards director. An inclusion scorecard is now reviewed at every board meeting alongside attainment and progress. This half-term, the annual Inspiration conference adopted inclusion as its theme and the message was clear: inclusion is a priority and performance must improve. Resources will be made available.

IT has a powerful track record of turning around chronically underperforming schools in an area of England that is among the lowest performing nationally, and many MAT leaders will recognise the challenges a low bar on behaviour and historically poor aspiration represent.

Radical measures can be required to get new academies into shape in the first couple of years. At its core, inclusion is about ensuring everyone’s needs are met, but this can be at odds with making sure the majority’s needs are met in the first place. Sometimes that can mean forms of internal or external exclusion, but as Dame Rachel reminded colleagues, if such practice persists once things are steady, something is wrong.

The question then becomes a practical one: How do those academies become truly inclusive for the long-term?

There are no quick fixes here. Investment is required in staff, pupils and their families, and our work with wrap-around services. There is no balance or harmony if any of these elements is neglected.

Building staff’s confidence to become more inclusive is critical. Values-led leadership sets the tone for that, and a good supply of local, high-quality CPD can make the difference. At board level, we will continue to back our schools on their inclusion journey, as well as further examine gaps in local offer, such as alternative provision or access to CAMHS.

Some observers have raised concerns that increasing inclusion implies accepting poor behaviour. No. There is no trade-off. Done well, inclusion improves behaviour in most situations by adopting and adapting approaches that engage pupils in everything good about learning. There are hundreds of schools in socially challenged areas that have the highest standards of behaviour coupled with strong pupil outcome.

Since the Academies Act 2010, policy has focused on structural reform. The Children and Families Act 2014 attempted to refocus attention on inclusion but relegated the idea to a subset of SEND policy, itself concentrated on rising costs. We now need a connection between these policy silos so that standards and inclusion are not seen as mutually exclusive. Inspiration Trust is now modelling that synthesis.