Why we asked ministers to mind their language on exclusions


14 May 2021, 5:00

Ministers have agreed to reconsider new language around exclusions that caused a visceral reaction. Philippa Stobbs explains why words matter 

Nationally, disabled pupils are more likely to be absent, excluded or bullied. At the Council for Disabled Children, we devote a lot of energy to understanding and preventing that, and we know the language we use is crucial.

So we were dismayed when we heard ministers use the words ‘expulsions’ and ‘suspensions’ instead of ‘permanent exclusions’ and ‘fixed-term exclusions’.  And we weren’t alone.  A number of people contacted the Council for Disabled Children about the change in language.

‘Expulsion’ implies a more vigorous approach. Meanwhile, substituting ‘suspension’ for ‘fixed-term exclusion’ implies that this is not an exclusion at all, when in fact these can add up to a term’s worth of lost school time.

In a period of recovery, we need to analyse and explore the behaviours we observe and understand what they are telling us. We need to avoid punitive and rejecting responses – because absence from school for whatever reason rarely solves an underlying problem and often causes new ones.

That’s why we wrote to ask the minister to reconsider the language of expulsions. Offering a hand up while castigating the person you’re helping to their feet won’t work.  And we are delighted to say that we have just heard the change is going to be reversed. In addition, the minister is going to meet with stakeholders to maintain the dialogue.

There are important messages here for the Covid recovery

There are important messages here for the Covid recovery. These messages are all the more important for particular groups of pupils who are disproportionately excluded. Our response needs to explore and analyse the underlying reasons for this uncomfortable fact. Because only when we understand the drivers for this can we start to address them. Endorsing a more vigorous approach to exclusion will fail to do that.

We undertake our work with schools and families in a spirit of mutual respect and trust. In between lockdowns, we were in schools meeting people face-to-face and getting a feel for the impact of Covid on the vulnerable children we work with, and seeing the positive reactions of both staff and pupils.

There were fears, and we were concerned, that the re-opening of schools to all pupils would see a significant deterioration in behaviour and an increase in exclusions. Along with everyone else, we were pleased it broadly failed to materialise.

But that is not to say that all is well. There is evidence of the significant impact of the lockdowns on the mental health of children and young people themselves. Gaps are widening between disadvantaged and disabled pupils and their peers. Among younger children, there is growing evidence of an impact on their early language development.

On top of all of that, we also know the impact of the lockdowns has been hugely variable for different children.

Given all this evidence, it is heartening that the government is committing to substantial investment in a recovery package for schools and their pupils.

Wellbeing and learning go hand in hand. All the research shows that poor wellbeing undermines learning, and poor learning undermines wellbeing. Recovery needs to turn this into an upward spiral, restoring learning and wellbeing together, not as separate endeavours or separate timetabled activities, but as a whole approach. So too with government support and communication.

With more recovery funding announced in the Queen’s speech this week, the government’s commitment is evident. And these programmes are being overseen by the new Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, recently chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation. That strong foundation in evidence is encouraging too.

The foundations are laid for a well-informed recovery. And most encouraging of all, perhaps, is the department’s willingness to engage and to adapt in response to feedback.

One thing is for sure, any initiative to make up the lost ground from the pandemic will work better with less punitive language supporting it.

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