Ten or so years ago, I was assistant headteacher at a high school in London. As part of my role, I line-managed two heads of year and this meant that I took on some of the most difficult discipline issues in these year groups.
I had worked with one student for some time. He had a challenging home background and was disruptive. I had taken him to see the headteacher more than once. I had liaised with our school’s behaviour improvement workers about a suitable program. I had investigated when he had tracked-down and threatened a peer in the corridor. Then, one day, as the students were lining up outside the hall for an assembly, he took the needle from a set of compasses and stabbed it into the legs of three students. This was directly in front of me and I saw him do it. I had to physically restrain him.
The student had been temporarily excluded before and, with a heavy heart, I suggested to our headteacher that he be permanently excluded. I then went home and stayed up all night preparing the paperwork; one flaw in it and the exclusion would be overturned on appeal. Once a headteacher has made the grave decision to exclude, the worst possible outcome is for that decision to be overturned.
I tell this story to make what, to me, is an obvious point. I did not recommend exclusion because I thought it would be a good thing for the student. It was a decision taken gravely because we knew this student would be likely to fare worse without the support of our community and its resources. The exclusion was in the interests of the other students; the threatened, the stabbed.
I have already mentioned the resources that we had available such as the behaviour improvement workers. These were a team of three or four led by a psychologist. They had their own area of the school where they could withdraw students from classes in order to work with them, typically on issues such as anger management. A limited number of students had a pass that allowed them to leave lessons and come to this area. The behaviour improvement workers could also support students in lessons.
We also had an area of the school set up for ‘inclusions’. Students would arrive and leave at a different time to the rest of the school and work under the supervision of a member of staff. I can already imagine people snorting, ‘but that’s not inclusion!’ I know that. ‘Inclusions’ were given this name because they were used as an alternative to temporary exclusion. For many students, it was a far worse punishment.
These measures were expensive. We were part of a project that attracted additional funds under the then Labour government. Initially, as part of this project, we were effectively banned from excluding any student. This later relaxed but there remained more hurdles to exclusion than in other schools.
I am not a fan of looking at headline exclusion rates and making inferences about whether they are good or bad. A school with poor systems may allow far too many students to spin out of control to the point that they are excluded. However, a new principal turning around a failing school or a school trying to deal with a gang issue may see a similar spike in exclusions. It’s the wrong level of analysis.
Of course, there are hardened ideologues who would assert that there should be no exclusions at all. They might point to the negative effects of exclusion on the excluded. These arguments fail to place exclusion in the context of the interests of the whole school community.
There is no experimental evidence that I am aware of about the effects of different exclusion practices on schools. I don’t think there could be. So all we can do is look at epidemiological studies.
There have been two recent reforms to suspensions in New York. The first, under mayor Bloomberg, stopped teachers issuing suspensions for first time, low level offences. Quite right too. Overall school climate – as assessed by a survey that New York City regularly issues to teachers and students – seems to have remained stable under this reform.
The second reform under mayor de Blasio led to a similar reduction in suspensions. This reform toughened-up the suspension process by requiring principals to seek permission from district administrators in order to suspend a student. The introduction of this reform correlates with a significant decline in school climate across the district.
We can draw nothing definitive from this data. There might have been another factor that led to a decline in school climate. But I think that this evidence should at least make us pause before we introduce policies aimed at eliminating exclusions.
Exclusion is not a good thing to be applauded as a sign of toughness. It is not a bad thing to be dismissed as a signal that teachers and schools don’t care. It is, instead, a necessary measure to take in order to protect a school community when all else fails.