Monday, 22 June 2015

There’s more than one reason to hate an exclusion...

@ChocoTzar is a Secondary Head Teacher, and former SENCO. This article first appeared on the Labour Teachers blog, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author. 

Once, as an NQT in a tough Birmingham school, I remember my head of department despairing about a Year 8 boy in his tutor group. He was a bully, disruptive and afraid of no one. “He spat out a sweet and forced it into the mouth of another kid; I mean, what else does he need to do to get thrown out?” I agreed then; now I know it isn’t so simple.

This is not an apologist blog. I am in no way suggesting that any child deserves to have their lessons disturbed or to feel intimidated; I believe very strongly in discipline, in standards, in a line that cannot be crossed. Staff deserve to be able to do their jobs without worry or harassment or putting up with crap. And this is why my exclusions are so high. But I have worked extensively across my career with children that are forgotten, on the edges, that have few people to care for them. I’ve been a SENCo, the Senior Designated Safeguarding Officer (CP), and Inclusion is at the heart of my philosophy. I’ve sat with angry children's about to be excluded trying to get hold of an adult (anyone really) to come and take them home. I’ve visited homes without carpets, beds, food, and had to ask about why their son wasn’t in uniform or completing work. I’ve met with parents so angry at the world, so poorly parented and educated themselves, that trying to explain that their daughter calling a teacher a “f***ing c***” is actually offensive falls on deaf ears. Essentially, by the time some children reach me aged eleven the game is pretty much up.

I’ve never walked away from a fight in my life and I don’t quit easily. Excluding a child, even for a day, feels like I’ve given up on them. That is not to say some don’t deserve time out – and their class mates and teachers certainly deserve a rest. But staying at home is often not a deterrent. Often parents aren’t home, or don’t supervise the work we send home for completion, and sometimes we believe it is unsafe for them to be home for that long. I am also aware some children that come in to misbehave so that they get sent home – missing school without their parents getting a fine for persistent absence can be a blessing in disguise. Recently one of my senior leaders sat in a return from exclusion meeting with a Year 8 girl and it was obvious that there were no boundaries at home. This can be common; kicking against boundaries at school, where we mean what we say, can be a real challenge. However, this young lady quietly asked her mum to spend time with her. “Why would I want to do that?” replied mum. “You’re a bitch. I hate you.” After the meeting my Assistant Head needed a good cry; why should this girl ever bother to do anything for her mum? The people that provide the support she needs are the other naughty girls at school – and that who she is out to impress. My own PA once had to step between a child and his father, who was about to punch the twelve year old in Reception. Later that day the boy punched another child; I wonder where he learnt that?

The resulting effect of exclusion on the educational progress of these children is horrific. And this is something that weighs heavily on my shoulders. Each exclusion moves them further away from where they should be, as if trapped in ever hardening concrete. Sometimes poor behaviour in lessons can be triggered by not wanting to be challenged intellectually. “It’s hard,” “I can’t do it,” followed by disruptive behaviour – or even refusing to get through the door. By withdrawing the student from the lesson the others can learn – but that student doesn’t learn, and falls further behind; the work gets even harder and they cease being part of the class community. It is an ever widening circle. Trying to accommodate students in another class, or in an isolation room, can be two solutions – but you have to have the staff, and if the child continues to refuse the situation only escalates. Frequently they give up attending altogether.

But the line is the line. I will do everything I can to slow children running towards it; if they cross it I have few alternatives. Negotiated transfers and managed moves. Alternative provision. Interventions, mentoring, workshops, programmes, visits to prisons and visits from ex-inmates, drug addicts and the homeless. Working in partnership with other schools with the same values… all bring about varying degrees of success. They’re expensive and can often aim to shut the barn door well after the horse has bolted. Some of the most depressing days are when there is no alternative but to permanently exclude (PEX) a child. After the paperwork is completed I attend a governors’ panel where I present the school’s case for the PEX. The parents/carers then present their case. My governors are brilliant, they always ask the child for their view – and this is when the hardened, confident shell cracks. The local authority summarises whether we have followed the procedure accurately and all parties can ask one another questions. The governors then choose whether to uphold the PEX or not. Luckily my governors have never overturned one of my decisions by I would imagine this would be horrendous – what confidence do they have in my decisions?

Every year I receive £4000 per student to educate them. If I PEX a student I have to return this money (or a percentage of it if later in the year). I am also fined £5000 by the local authority. This penalty goes towards educating the child somewhere else (e.g. a PRU) and costs incurred trying to arrange this education. It is also designed as a deterrent. I then also have a space in my year group that is usually filled by another hard to place child, which I cannot refuse, thus leading to the merry-go-round of challenging students. Last year I had to PEX a student with us for six months, who had come to us after being PEXed from a PRU.

I’d like to be able to use more alternative provision. There’s a serious shortage of places, even before I quality assure the provision itself. If I opened an AP centre tomorrow morning it would be filled by the afternoon. I paid £4000 for twelve weeks of provision for a twelve year old. Add taxi fees (it is the other side of the city and mum has no transport and three younger children) and that cost doubles. £8000 for twelve weeks (and I only get £4000 to pay for the year). And for Year 11 a decent AP place costs over £12000. By choosing a more suitable provision for certain students I am taking money away from the others. It’s cheaper to PEX. How horrendous is that?

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