“If they don’t like it, they can go somewhere else. Parents have a choice.”
I’ve read about Headteachers who say this. I’ve even used a similar phrase for dramatic effect with my students – if you want to belong to this community to have to follow our rules; if you don’t you’ll have to go somewhere else. But the truth is that it’s a bit more complicated; at least, it should be. A serious challenge in schools is to balance inclusion – the rights of every child to receive a good education regardless of their circumstances – with the reality that some children have an unacceptably detrimental impact on the learning of others. However, not only is it a lie to suggest that all parents have a genuine choice of secondary school, once they get there, it’s not a straight-forward to chuck kids out when they challenge the system.
As Headteachers we are responsible for the education of the children in our care; we’re responsible for ensuring that individual students do not harm each other or disrupt their learning. But, we also share the collective responsibility for the education of all young people in our community. At least, to my mind, that’s how it should be. A hard-line ‘take it or leave it’ approach is only tenable if you are part of the community that provides the safety net for all the young people who struggle to function within the boundaries of school life. If all schools took the view that ‘it’s not our problem’, we’d have kids roaming the streets every day all over the country. The community I serve is massively diverse; with 70%+ children receiving pupil premium, every possible social issue manifests itself at our school every day and we work very hard to manage the boundaries of our expectations. Recent changes to our behaviour system have had a significantly positive impact. Inevitably, the same students find this more challenging and we have to consider whether they can thrive in the discipline environment we’re creating.
In the last year, I’ve had to recommend the permanent exclusion of a number of students for different events; sometimes one-offs that break specific red-line rules; others were an accumulation of misdemeanours such that we reached the end of the line. I know where they’ve all gone and I’m happy to know that most of them are doing OK where they are now. We’ve also admitted a small number of students who have previously been excluded from other schools or were on the brink. We’ve given them a second chance and the fact is, aside from a few wobbles, you’d never know who they are. Two students have come via managed moves where we’ve discussed an integration plan with another school with a trial period; both are doing really well.
There are three options for students when they are permanently excluded or close it: The Pupil Referral Unit, transfer to another school or Alternative Provision at one of the various college-based placements for KS4 students. In Islington, all the schools – including maintained schools and academies – support the Securing Education Board. I am in the middle of my two-term stint as a Headteacher representative on this board and it has been fascinating. Every month we meet to discuss the placement of students in difficult circumstances; schools make referrals and the cases are discussed. The board includes representatives from Children’s Social Care, the PRU, CAMHS, Targeted Youth Support, Pupil Services, School Improvement, Alternative Provision, the Ed. Psych service – and schools.
I’m always impressed by how much is known around the SEB table about some of the more challenging young people in our community. The discussions recognise the challenges schools and families face and we seek to find placements that balance those challenges with the needs of the child. The PRU places a key role; they’re expert at handling students who find it hard to function at school. Ideally, they’d take students just prior to a permanent exclusion. The difficulty there is that there are limited places. We’ve just lost one source of alternative KS3 provision in the borough because the school that ran it closed it down: financially unviable and too much of an Ofsted risk to the main school! The quality and resourcing of the Alternative Provision is the biggest weakness in the whole framework; it’s quite common for students to be excluded from their AP placement, leading them to the PRU; it’s not easy to maintain the boundaries in some AP environments; they typically give students more independence and freedom and, too often, they find that difficult. Students on AP have the greatest chance of becoming NEET post-16. No easy answers there. A bigger PRU? Maybe – but the financial model isn’t great.
As I’ve documented elsewhere, as part of our drive to raise standards of behaviour in my school, we’ve created an internal buffer zone between inclusion and exclusion – the Behaviour Support Centre. But, even with this, seeking to raise standards inevitably pushes more students to the edges. As a true community school, we can’t actually say ‘take it or leave it’ unless we’re part of the next phase of that ‘leave it’ process. I think all schools should be compelled to operate in the same way; sadly, that’s not currently the case. In the rush to academise the school system and focus on shiny new schools, not enough thought has been given to the need for all schools to shoulder wider responsibilities; it shouldn’t be possible to opt out when we’re all serving the same community. At least, that’s what we should be doing. ‘Not my problem’ isn’t an acceptable position.