At a time when the devastating long-term effect of excluding children is finally achieving the prominence it deserves, Jake Curtis, our Director of Programmes and Operations, considers the debate around the recently published Timpson Report.
Do the Report’s recommendations go far enough? And if exclusion is such a problem, why do we not prevent schools from being able to utilise this blunt instrument that has been proved to lead to such dreadful results? When – if ever – can it be the right approach?
Next week we will resume the podcasts we have been sharing in collaboration with some of our young visitors.
The Future: The Good things in the Timpson Report
Jamie’s Farm prides itself on being an ‘inclusive environment’. We aim to be a place where young people from all backgrounds are given every opportunity to thrive, and we try everything to make it so.
This principle runs throughout the recently produced Timpson Report: a welcome change in emphasis from the message previously coming from central government.
I am delighted by its suggestion that schools should be rewarded and recognised by Ofsted when they have succeeded in their inclusivity. Like any other organisation, schools end up having to follow the accountability mechanisms that govern them. It is vital that schools should be recognised in an Ofsted Report for putting the effort – and money – into alternative interventions or approaches that will give every opportunity for the young person to flourish.
It is also great news that, through this report, Alternative Provision is beginning to get the kind of support from policy makers that is needed. If we are saying that occasionally, mainstream school is not quite working for a particular young person, then it is vital that the destinations where they go next are given the kind of attention and funding that will allow them to prosper in an alternative setting. It is highly likely that the child may have been excluded because of what may have been going on for them at home. Alternative Provision, therefore, needs to be full of the highest quality staff, in environments that the pupils want to come to every morning, otherwise they will feel dumped and worthless – exactly the kind of feelings that make them susceptible to gang exploitation on the road to the criminal justice system. New charities like The Difference, who will be holding a week of their first Summer Institute at Jamie’s Farm, Lewes, this July, will offer some of the extra energy and innovation needed in this sector.
Finally, I am very pleased that the Report suggests Local Authorities have a more important role to play in overseeing exclusions. A success story in this regard is Bristol, where council involvement has led permanent exclusion rates to diminish hugely over the last few years. By getting school leaders together across a geographic area and agreeing a common approach to supporting each other’s work with challenging behaviour, the risks of undue competition between schools can be limited and educators can collectively avoid children falling between those responsible for them.
It goes to the heart of what an inclusive agenda is all about: if ever we try to wash our hands of children, it does not lead them to simply go away, but it can often make the challenges they are struggling with become even more pronounced. This will lead to many more problems for them and for us in the longer-term. These children remain the responsibility of all of us working in this system and we must keep thinking about what they need to thrive.
The Context: How we at Jamie’s Farm experience exclusion
One of our four primary aims at Jamie’s Farm is to reduce exclusions. It is the main motivation behind many JF staff deciding to join the charity, and is the core reason behind most of our key supporters pledging us vital funds. All the evidence suggests the consequences of exclusion are terrible – both for the individual involved and society at large. Children who have been temporarily or permanently excluded go on to make up the majority of the prison population. Furthermore, it is estimated that if just one in ten of these young people, sentenced to go to prison, could be turned around before getting to this stage, public services would save an estimated £100 million annually. We also work with children who have already been excluded. The ill effects of the process and the challenges of educating them outside of mainstream are clear as soon as they arrive.
This leads to the statistic that – while numerically is the lowest – is the one we are most proud to achieve: in the last academic year, 58% of those young people at risk of exclusion when they come to us were no longer at risk six months on from a Jamie’s Farm intervention. These were kids on the train tracks heading towards a very difficult life; we helped get them onto a different set of tracks.
I have had the pleasure of living and working alongside hundreds of pupils who are on the verge of being, or are already, excluded from school. I have the opportunity to see them – when they are with us – as functional, happy, caring young people; individuals who can contribute to their community, will look after other people and animals, and have a level of self-esteem and self-respect that allows them to feel optimistic about their vision for the future and make decisions that will help them achieve that vision.
Given this is the case, surely there shouldn’t be any doubt in my mind – school leaders’ hands should be bound. Exclusion is an evil. Exclusion should be banned.
But I feel differently.
As the equivalent of a Chair of Governors of a fantastic secondary school in South Bristol serving an area that hasn’t been given the regeneration opportunities it deserves, I understand that sometimes – painfully, tragically – exclusion is the right decision. I have been in rooms with school leaders and teachers, parents and children, who are all devastated at the decision that was being taken. And all understanding that, at that moment, this was the right course of action.
So how do I square this circle? It was on my way back from such a meeting in school, when I first began to question myself hard. I had just been accepting the decision to permanently exclude a pupil from school, despite knowing the risks for that young person beyond, before heading back to work alongside another group of kids from a different school, with the specific aim of stopping them from ending up in that position. Did that not stink of hypocrisy?
When it’s wrong…
Firstly, I would say that there are times when permanent exclusion, or its more tolerated but often just as pernicious, step-brother – “off-rolling” – are used when it is completely inappropriate, and is much more about the Headteacher’s future than his or her pupils.
In recent years, there has been a general recognition that ‘inclusion’ has slipped down the list of priorities for many school leaders. The pressure to achieve very strong academic results weighs very heavily on their shoulders. Even in the most deprived communities – with high levels of special needs, adverse childhood experiences and additional languages amongst the cohort of pupils – when attainment levels drop, no quarter is given for Headteachers and Principals who are not able to ensure their children make sufficient progress academically.
The level of accountability that school leaders face in this area cannot fail to affect the decisions they make. Even if there are very sound explanations for why a certain pupil was unlikely to achieve the level of progress expected (based on sometimes spuriously collected baseline data), that pupil will ‘count against’ them when the final numbers are published. There is often no time for an inspector to fully understand the explanations of why the expected progress for a certain child – going through a bereavement, or domestic violence, or sexual abuse – is impossible. Even if it is a huge success to just keep that child in the structure and support of a school during utter turmoil and upheaval in the world outside, there is a number that towers over any other concern: if the school’s GCSE results represent a positive picture, then the Headteacher or Principal can breathe again for another year; if it is negative, no matter the circumstances, they may be looking for a job in the morning. The lot of a Principal is tough; Premier League Managers are often shown greater leeway.
And so, if those Principals make a decision to exclude a child based on these reasons rather than any others, it may be understandable. However, it is still wrong. And the toll on the excluded child can be vast.
When it’s necessary
Every school or academy has a Behaviour Policy. These documents set out the expectations that all pupils must live up to, and the best ones include some expectations for parents and teachers too. They’re most effective when they’re clear and simple. As we often find here on the farm, when expectations are clear, children live up to them. They generally know what it means to be kind and supportive, and with the right modelling and scaffolding, can be expected to live up to these values.
While the best schools we work with have these clear expectations, often with clear consequences attached, they are also able to reinforce positive behaviours by offering multiple ‘fresh starts’ and building on every occasion when children make the right choices. However, as with any ‘contract’, essentially a Behaviour Policy is just a piece of paper. It has no intrinsic value or weight. For it to be respected, and for expectations to be lived up to, occasionally it must be clear to everyone how things will be enacted when things go too far.
The final decision – in effect to call an end to the contract and ask someone to leave the school community – is the toughest decision that a Principal will make; but for the good of the whole community, sometimes, occasionally, everyone needs to know that these set of expectations have meaning, carry weight, and will be followed through. It must be reserved for the most serious of cases; however, if others in the community saw that the expectations were being flouted, continuously, with no clear outcome, then even the clearest and most powerful Behaviour Contract in the world wouldn’t be worth the paper it is written on.
It can also be good for the young person. At a recent conference I met a Headteacher who was advocating for the value of exclusions in the last resort at a debate on whether schools should be able to do it at all. He spoke about his brother who had been excluded. The brother – having got himself back on track – went on to say that it was the best thing that could have happened to him. He had excellent support afterwards, which was crucial, but for him, the clarity of knowing that rules would be followed and that adults meant what they said was important. As much as anything else, it meant he – as well as everyone else – could trust the people around him, and the system as a whole. Flexibility is crucial when working with young people with significant needs and barriers; however, at some point, a line must be kept to for the line to have meaning.
It is a shame that it has taken the tragic circumstances of some of the social problems that directly stem from increased and more casual excluding of children for change to come. However, the Timpson Report is to be thoroughly welcomed for focussing minds on what the school system must do to keep the ill effects of exclusion to an absolute minimum. School leaders being rewarded for pursuing an inclusive agenda is vital. It empowers them to invest in interventions that may well provide the magic, missing ingredient to enable a vulnerable young person to thrive.
We are not ideologues who believe kids will never be excluded, whatever they have done. Sadly, even at Jamie’s Farm, with the greatest of effort and with so many things counting in our favour, it may not be the right time for certain young people to flourish. This is the same even in the best schools.
However, how and why we exclude is crucial. As is what happens beyond. As we always say to a child when they leave the farm – even under very difficult circumstances – they would be welcome back again, with a renewed commitment from all sides for them to thrive. We do not forget the good that remains in all children, excluded or not. The education system at large must not do so too.
Written by Jake Curtis
Director of Programmes & Operations