The school exclusion debate: giving up on kids?

Sunday 3 November, 10:0011:30, Frobisher 4-6Battle for Education

The shocking rise in knife crime among young people has provoked difficult questions – especially as some have suggested a link between school exclusions and young offenders.

A Ministry of Justice report from June 2018 found that ‘almost a quarter of children in England who said they had carried a knife in the previous year had been expelled or suspended from school’. In a letter to the prime minister, police chiefs argued ‘it cannot be right that so many of those who have committed offences have been excluded from school’. Likewise, London Mayor Sadiq Khan claimed that ‘it’s no coincidence that so many young people involved in knife crime have been excluded’.

Not everyone is sure of the link between expulsions and knife crime. Ofsted have defended schools, claiming that there is ‘no convincing evidence that exclusions lead to knife crime or gang violence’. The Ministry of Justice report itself preaches caution when making causal links – pointing out that 41% of knife-crime offenders receive free school meals (FSM), but most commentators would be rightly cautious about drawing a link between FSM children and crime statistics. Others note that pupils who are involved in violent gangs or knife crime may well exhibit poor behaviour at school and be disproportionately subject to exclusion.

But moving beyond the immediate crisis of knife crime – the discussion around school exclusions is itself already highly charged and raises some important questions. Should the state step in to stop schools from excluding pupils who are seen as extremely challenging / badly behaved / potentially violent?  Who should decide on the tolerance threshold? NAHT trade-union leader Paul Whiteman insists school leaders ‘need to retain the autonomy to exclude a violent pupil in order to keep everyone safe’. Ros Griffiths, chief executive of Southside Young Leaders Academy, told the BBC that pupils at risk of exclusion needed ‘care’ not ‘punishment’.  But some argue this approach demonises teacher autonomy, ironically undermining adult authority and hence making disciplining pupils even harder.

While the increased use of off-rolling – when a pupil is unofficially moved out of schools – is condemned by many as a cop-out for schools who don’t want to deal with difficult pupils, many teachers argue that exclusions remain an important tool for maintaining school discipline.  Others suggest that this means dumping young people into a neverland of no or inadequate alternative provision, disparagingly dubbed as sin bins.  One positive aspect of the knife/crime exclusion linkage might be that the Department for Education has announced funding for 37 new special provision schools for excluded students, but still, critics have labelled these ‘holding pens’ for badly behaved kids. Others have argued that cutbacks to funding for schools have left teachers with no time or energy to put in the work needed to give difficult pupils the attention they need to change.

Can knife crime be blamed on exclusion, or is this overly simplistic? Should exclusions be used more sparingly as a last resort? Is part of education taking on the responsibility of shaping and moulding young minds – meaning we should never give up on a kid’s ability to change? And is the discussion around knife crime treating schools as problem-solving institutions, rather than places where kids become inspired?