Children have a right to an education. This has been written into English law since the Forster Education Act of 1870, which began the process of making education compulsory for children aged between five and 13, and no one in their right mind would oppose that statement.
So when the number of permanent exclusions from schools is on the rise, the reasons behind this should be examined carefully. A child excluded from school is not accessing education, and therefore their rights have been violated. But is it really that simple?
A breakdown of the groups most often excluded does not bring up many surprises. In nearly half the cases, exclusions are for persistent disruption. Sex and drugs, bullying and racism come much further down the line. The types of children excluded are also, alas, not very surprising. Children over 14 make up more than 25 per cent of the number. There are three times more boys than girls excluded, four times more disadvantaged children than non-disadvantaged, and — this is perhaps the most concerning — children with special educational needs are seven times more likely to be excluded than those without.
Conspiracy theorists like to suppose that schools are keen to ‘move on’ students who are unlikely to make the grades and that this is why such a percentage of excludees (for want of a better word) are older. But how many of those conspiracy theorists actually work in schools? Might it not be the case that the older children are naughtier, more wayward and more aggressive than the younger ones?
I have to admit that when a child with persistent non-attendance, bad behaviour and a lack of interest leaves my class for whatever reason, I cannot help
but heave a sigh of relief. This is for two reasons. The more unworthy one is that with that child out of the class, my results will look better. I can’t help it; as teachers we are judged on our results. But the other reason is more honourable. With that child gone, the rest of the class can work better. When I am not constantly struggling with the behaviour of an individual, I can give more time to the children who are struggling with their work.
I’m meant to be ‘good with boys’. Often the ones who will not work for other teachers will make a stab at it for me. Why? It’s because I sit down beside them, talk to them like human beings and help them understand the work we are doing. All well and good. But while this is going on, what is happening to the other 25 children in the class, who turn up day after day, do their best and still find it hard to analyse a poem? They are staring into space, twiddling their thumbs or looking mournfully at ‘Tissue’ (a poem on the curriculum that has us all foxed) in the hope that it will by magic spring into sense. The truth is that when the disruptive students are out of a class, results improve not only because of the loss of that one child, but because the other 25 will also do better. Do the 25 not have as much right to an education as the one?
If you Google ‘school exclusions’, one of the first responses is ‘Child Law Advice’. If we take the reason for the majority of exclusions — poor behaviour — you cannot but wonder at the parents whose children behave so badly that they are excluded from school then taking the time to sue the school. Why don’t they spend that time impressing on their children the importance of good manners and hard work instead of running off to a solicitor? Because in my view that is where the trouble starts: at home.
The majority of teachers will bend over backwards to keep a child in education. I have been sworn at, had a table thrown at me and narrowly missed a punch swung when I tried to break up a fight. None of those children was excluded, in part because I said I did not want to pursue the incidents. The table–thrower was a disadvantaged, special–educational-needs, free-school-meals boy. He ticked every possible box. When he came home without a detention his mother would reward him with a packet of cigarettes. On the days he was excluded, she would take him shopping. Her attitude (and therefore his) was that teachers were the enemy, out to get her boy. Oh, and why did he throw a table at me? Because I had to physically intervene to stop him from strangling another boy with his tie.
Not all problems, but certainly a huge number, have their roots in the home. It beggars belief the number of times I have rung a pupil’s home and the mother just backs the child up. ‘No, I can’t get him to do his homework — it makes the atmosphere at home too difficult.’ ‘No, I’m not going to talk to him about his behaviour — that’s your job.’ The abrogation of responsibility is extraordinary.
The school I work at is implementing a new policy called Ready to Learn. There are ten simple rules which the children are expected to follow: rules as clear cut as turning up on time, working silently when asked, and not shouting out. If they breach one rule, their name goes on a board. If they breach another, they are sent to isolation for five lessons and an after-school detention.
It has had the most extraordinary effect on our school life. Not only the teachers, but the children, have noticed how much easier our lives have become. Even the ones who caused trouble last year say it is easier, because it is consistent and they know what is expected. Add to that the fact that our GCSE mock results were way up on last year’s, and it is clear that a stricter system works. They are children and they need rules. Children will test the boundaries, but they have to know the boundaries are there.
The system has, however, caused a rise in fixed-term (one- or two-day) exclusions. If you up the ante on behaviour, you have to take it all the way. For this reason, a child who visits isolation too often is sent home for a day. These exclusions are not counted in government figures.
Do we send them home so that we can have quieter classrooms? No. We send them home so that they and (perhaps more importantly their parents) will understand that we mean business.
The other reason that we send them home is so that the other children, many of whom are also dis-advantaged, have special needs and are boys, can have a fair crack at their GCSEs. They, too, have the right to an education, and we will do our damnedest to make sure they get it.