Let’s see if we can agree two principles from across the educational debate:
- The vast majority of children with disabilities present no risk to other children, either a physical risk or a risk to the learning of others. There is therefore no need to exclude them from school.
- Exclusion from school is likely to have a negative impact on an excluded child. It’s possible that a new school might provide a fresh start or that alternative provision may help a child but, on average, we would not expect exclusion to be beneficial.
A lot of questions then arise. The law requires us to make reasonable adjustments for disabled children. What do these look like? What is reasonable in a particular circumstance? Guidance on this is helpful for schools.
Secondly, is there a way that we can improve provision for students who are excluded? Can we invest more in the relevant services? What does the evidence say about what works?
Very few of these questions are ever addressed in the headline debates about exclusion. And part of the problem is that researchers view the issue from one, narrow perspective; that of the excluded child only. They take into account nothing else, asserting that exclusion is wrong because it does not benefit the excluded child. And yet children are excluded due to their impact on others; an issue on which researchers remain utterly silent.
A good example of this argument comes from David Armstrong writing yesterday in The Conversation. He notes that students who are most affected by exclusion tend to be those with disabilities and mental health needs, which is hardly surprising given that many researchers class things like Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) as a disability. It would be worth disaggregating the figures to see which disabilities and mental health needs feature most prominently.
“Research shows students who are expelled have a higher future risk of engaging in criminal and anti-social behaviour, or consuming drugs. Excluded young people also have lower odds of a stable, happy and productive adult life.”
There is no reason to doubt these findings and I don’t think anyone is publicly making the case that they are not true. However, it is worth pointing out that this doesn’t prove exclusion caused these negative life consequences. For instance, a child might have an underlying condition such as ODD that caused the exclusion and that also caused the other behaviours.
Interestingly, there has been a flurry of recent press about exclusions in the Australian state of Victoria. In one instance, a principal resigned because he could not guarantee a safe environment. He had excluded a child who threatened others with a knife and who had repeatedly bullied a student with an intellectual disability and this exclusion was overturned. This would have presented an excellent opportunity for Armstrong to address the issue of balancing the rights of the community and the rights of the child. But he chose to enter into no such discussion.
There is a loud group of inclusion experts on Twitter who see inclusion as an absolute, backed by law and even the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. They dismiss any talk of inclusion failing as not true inclusion or mere ‘integration’. And they too focus only on the excluded child and never on the community. When a story breaks in the press that doesn’t fit the narrative, all you get is silence.
I think we need to move on from such polarised positions. Nobody wants children to be excluded and everyone would like to see exclusions reduced. The question is: how do we achieve this?
On one side are those who seek top-down, legalistic barriers to exclusion. We saw above what this causes in Australia and we have plenty of evidence from the US. Preventing schools excluding for relatively trivial matters certainly seems to have merit, but generally bearing down on all exclusions is associated with schools that are less safe.
On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that schools that are effective at tackling issues such as bullying have consistent enforcement of discipline backed up by lots of support. Although the authors of this study try to conceptually separate strict behaviour policies from those that are ‘punitive’ and involve suspensions, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the schools where students felt most able to report bullying incidents to teachers were the ones that had lower suspension rates.
If we sweat the small stuff and intervene early then we might be able to prevent behaviour issues from escalating to the point where exclusion becomes necessary. By strongly enforcing conventional boundaries, children have no need to seek more radical boundaries to transgress. This will not work for all students, all of the time, but I believe it is our best bet for reducing overall exclusion rates.
I might be wrong in these conclusions but it is a discussion worth having. I think that reasonable people with no axe to grind need to start taking control of this debate. It has been the domain of intransigent absolutists for too long.