A children’s consultation could be a game changer. But only if we’re ready to hear the truth about curriculum’s role in exclusions, writes Meena Kumari Wood

“This is the moment for something big,” said new children’s commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza last week. Steered by an ambitious vision of “reducing exclusions to near zero”, she offered a consultation with young people on the “future of childhood’ that will seek to “identify the barriers preventing children from reaching their full potential, propose policy… solutions and targets”.

De Souza’s comments are set against a bleak backdrop of an unacceptably rising trajectory of permanent and fixed term exclusions over the past thirteen years. Boys, and children who are Irish, Black Caribbean, Gypsy and Roma are significantly far more likely to be excluded than their peers.

Unsurprisingly, post-16 progression evidences that fewer than 2 per cent of excluded pupils finish school with the maths and English qualifications they need, while half of all those who are excluded are not in education, employment, or training (NEETs).

DfE reports and teachers’ professional development programmes largely focus on what schools can do in relation to reformative behaviours. Exclusions are, more often than not, linked to a school’s behaviour policy. But if we look beyond that, what else might this consultation reveal?

Young people may cite inconsistent and unfair approaches by teachers in applying school behaviour policies, resulting in repeat internal exclusions. Some will raise the barriers they face in accessing the curriculum, including their literacy, oracy, numeracy, language skills, or other educational needs.  Others will identify the quality of the teaching as, without doubt, the prime factor affecting their learning and motivation.

A strong correlation between curriculum and exclusions is seldom postulated

So far, so expected. A strong correlation between curriculum and exclusions is seldom postulated. And yet, a knowledge-based curriculum with sequential learning should raise concerns. Are excluded students consistently monitored in every subject? Do they receive quality teacher feedback so they ‘catch up’ on learning missed? Undeniably, gaps in students’ knowledge and skills, accruing over time across the curriculum, demotivate and can result in poor behaviours and low achievement.

Most importantly, young people know only too well when the curriculum is relevant and meaningful for them.  The curriculum may not cater well for children who do not fit the typical mould of an academic student.

In researching Secondary Curriculum transformed, I spoke with many young people whose stories speak of an almost inevitable disaffection. Kwesi, for example, was permanently excluded. “I’m not smart academically and am dyslexic,” he told me. “I found science, construction and technology easy. I wanted to be an architect but failed maths and English GCSEs. I had to find my own way of solving things and remembering information.”

The secondary curriculum cannot be deemed broad or balanced unless it recognises students’ actual capability and future aspirations. And the reality is that it takes little account of individual student’s preferences. Even the most academic are challenged when faced with subject choices in year 9. One student I spoke with saw her career aspiration of robotic engineering reduced to a Hobsons’ Choice. She was unable to pursue both technology and computer science as her options were narrowed by EBacc and Progress 8 ‘baskets’.

Curricular pathways should enable young people to move seamlessly from key stage 4 into post-16 academic or vocational education, training or apprenticeship. Narrow choices mean far too many are unable to study the technical, vocational, creative subjects they want or need for their post-16 destination. It is hardly surprising that by Year 9 or 10, a great many feel they have been shoehorned into subjects they didn’t choose and become disaffected or disengaged.

At last, a welcome consultation about why young people do not achieve their full potential is going to be asking young people themselves. In aspiring to ‘re-set their future’, the children’s commissioner has a valuable opportunity to make a difference to their lives and remake our social settlement.

All she has to do is listen, without fear or favour, and place children’s voices and aspirations –  including those who are marginalised – at the heart of planning their future education.

And if she can manage that, it’ll be a powerful game changer.