Sarah Mitchell, Minister for Education in the Australian State of New South Wales, is proposing brave and, in my view, misguided reforms to behaviour policy that will affect government schools.
These reforms are brave because Mitchell must be aware of how they are likely to be received by teachers and, as the consequences start to filter through the system, by parents. No doubt, Mitchell is making a principled stand for what she believes to be right and is prepared to weather the criticism. I respect that.
However, the proposals are misguided and I suspect that this is caused by a lack of balance in the voices Mitchell has been listening to. On the one side, we have the loud campaigning of professional and semi-professional activists who believe in the ideology of full inclusion. On the basis of little evidence, they assert that pretty much all children, whatever their needs and behaviours, should be in regular classrooms with their same-aged peers at all times, and that this may be achieved by teachers making use of differentiation i.e. adapting requirements, content and teaching methods to the individual needs of these students. School suspensions are anathema to these activists, as are pretty much all disciplinary responses to poor behaviour. Instead, poor behaviour should be interpreted as an attempt by the child to communicate that their needs are not yet being fully met and so yet more adaptations and more individualisation is necessary. Rinse and repeat as required.
On the other side we have New South Wales public school teachers, the people who have to implement this scheme and who understand the practical challenges, who are largely muzzled by heavy-handed media and social media policies. It’s no wonder Mitchell would be unaware of their concerns.
The fact is that differentiation just does not work very well. There is no strong evidence base to support the practice and this is understandable when you think through the practical implications. Unless politicians decide to invest the money required to cut class sizes to two or three students, we will continue to have classes of 20-30 students with one teacher and perhaps a teacher’s aide. And this is in a context of students being labelled and needs identified at an ever expanding rate. In systems that do try to cope with this approach, you are left with a bureaucratic nightmare:
One strategy pursued by campaigners is to promote the idea that the labels we assign to students are actually disabilities. They then invoke disability legislation as a form of coercion. What many people probably don’t realise is that a lot of the disabilities identified in this way are behavioral. For instance, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which is sometimes categorised as a disability, is diagnosed via, “A pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behavior, or vindictiveness lasting at least 6 months.” Such a disorder is likely to be the result of a complex set of circumstances and blaming the child may not be particularly constructive. However, it does bring home the potential difficulty in accommodating the needs of such a child in a regular classroom, not least in terms of the impact on other students.
Such issues require intervention from right at the start of education. Students need to be taught to read so that it is possible for them to engage with school education. Students with special educational needs require clear and explicit guidance and routines – something that all students will benefit from, regardless of need. Many students need to be taught appropriate behaviours and these need to be positively reinforced, with the ability to apply mild negative consequences when appropriate (see e.g. here). If necessary, children with specific needs should be withdrawn from class for small-group or individual interventions using a model known as ‘response to intervention‘. This is not what campaigners want.
Instead, they seek to influence politicians like Mitchell to reduce the freedom for schools to act once issues escalate. In the plan proposed for New South Wales, “The new strategy will seek to minimise the use of suspension to avoid the cycle of exclusion and school disengagement.” This is because, “Suspension has been linked to increased recurrence of problem behaviour, lower scores in academic achievement, lower school retention rates, increased likelihood of involvement with the youth justice system, and poor long-term health and wellbeing outcomes.”
Well of course these problems are linked to suspensions, but you would have to ignore the most basic rule of statistics – that correlation is not causation – to assume suspension is the cause. Instead it seems highly likely, for instance, that a student whose behaviours result in them being suspended from school is a student whose behaviours are more likely to bring them into contact with the youth justice system.
Perhaps even more significantly, “In the case of expulsion, a principal will be required to identify alternative appropriate placements for the student, such as another school, education pathway, transition to work program or work experience program that will contribute to the student’s education.” This is clearly intended to be a barrier to principals excluding, because principals are likely to find it extremely difficult to find these alternative placements. I recall a similar, short-lived policy during my time teaching in the UK that also effectively prevented exclusion in this way.
The New South Wales report also ominously refers to, “alternatives to suspension, including restorative practice and performing a service for [the] school community”. There is mounting evidence that the use of restorative practices to deal with serious misbehaviour is ineffective and perhaps leads to worse outcomes.
With all the jargon and labels, it can be hard to remain clear about what the issue actually looks like in real schools. I remember being involved in the exclusion of a student from a school in London. Among a range of other incidents, he had forced a smaller boy to kneel in front of him in the corridor and beg for his life. The perpetrator had a number of complex problems in his home life, as we may expect in such a case, but the victim still needed to feel safe in returning to school the next day. The victim needed to know that he would not be confronted by the perpetrator in the corridor again. When people claim that suspensions and exclusions do not work, they mean that they do not miraculously solve the complex issues faced by young people who exhibit these behaviours. That’s true. But they work for the victims, they work for other students and they work to maintain basic conditions of employment for teachers.
Because we should not forget, of course, that discipline issues and a lack of support with them are a key driver of teacher turnover. If New South Wales wants to hold on to good teachers in challenging public schools, reducing schools’ ability to act in the case of serious behaviour problems is not a good plan.
And what of schools’ role in preparing young people for the real world: A world with far more serious sanctions for the kind of behaviour that leads to a school suspension? Simply bearing down on suspensions does not attack the root cause of the problem. It is a cosmetic exercise in manipulating the figures rather than a serious attempt to address the issues that sit behind those figures.
I am sure Sarah Mitchell wants what is best for students in New South Wales schools and I am impressed that she is courageous enough to pursue a stance that would not normally be associated with her end of the political spectrum. However, her principles would be better applied to a more systematic approach that listens to the experience of the professionals on the ground: Teachers.