Should schools be clear about which behaviours result in exclusion?

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Early in my career, I moved from a school that had a pretty transparent behaviour policy to one where it was a little more opaque. It is not a coincidence that the behaviour in my new school was poor. As a teaching body, we constantly sought to clarify exactly what kind of behaviour should lead to what consequence because the leadership appeared to be capricious.

My suspicion, shared by others at the time, was that the avoidance of clarity was deliberate. If the leadership said, for instance, that swearing at a teacher would result in a fixed term exclusion then we could hold them to this the next time a student swore at a teacher.

However, I now realise that even in schools where behaviour is good, it can be important to have a little wiggle room. We might agree that ‘fighting’ should result in an exclusion, for instance, but that covers a range of acts from self-defence to an unprovoked attack on a younger student carried out as a dare. And as a science teacher, I remember performing a chemistry demonstration that one student greeted with an astonished, ‘f$@& off!’ Technically, he swore at me. I had a word but I took it no further.

I suppose this is a similar argument to the one around mandatory sentencing in the criminal justice system.

I was prompted to think about this by reading the comments made by Akala, a British rapper, at the Wellington Festival of Education. He wants a ‘universal code about what constitutes an expellable offence’.

Akala is concerned about the level of exclusions and their disproportionate impact on some groups of students. He suggests some students may be being excluded to enhance a school’s results.

Having worked in schools, I suspect the current bias is toward not excluding. If we codified excludable offences and removed the discretion of headteachers, I would expect exclusions to rise. Maybe this would capture some of Akala’s ‘children who were bringing drugs into school [who] were never arrested, were never searched and now are lawyers and barristers putting people away for taking drugs,’ but I’m sceptical about that.

I wonder whether the wider community really understand what schools are like, particularly those serving poor urban areas. The practice of headteachers citing ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’ as a reason for exclusion does not help because the public probably imagines a student who is a bit cheeky in class, whereas I imagine a student who repeatedly threatens and assaults other students while swearing at teachers.

When a headteacher excludes a child, he or she is denying the stability of school life to a young person who needs it the most and headteachers know this. I therefore struggle to believe that they take this step lightly. Let us all agree that exclusions should be avoided and that we would like to see fewer of them. But instead of achieving this through simplistic top-down targets, codes or regulations, let’s do this from the bottom-up, using evidence and expert knowledge to help prevent the kinds of behaviour that lead to exclusion from arising in the first place.

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