Where to start?
Well, normally these sorts of things start with a disclaimer, so here goes: I value the safety of everyone in my school community. I would never seek to put others at risk for the sake of maintaining a ‘positive’ exclusion record. I understand that some children, in a mainstream setting, are a risk to others and that this does not mean I am ignorant or intolerant of SEND issues. I believe I can distinguish between identifying where provision needs to improve so that needs are better met and the occasional need to draw a line in the sand because some behaviours are not safe or acceptable.
Now I need to say how difficult I find exclusions.
This bit is easy because it is true. Like all headteachers (surely?) the thought of permanently excluding a child is something that I hope I don’t have to face too often in my career.
Fixed term exclusions, not so much. I’m quite comfortable issuing those. I don’t mean I dish them out like doses of Ritalin at an overly boisterous Kindergarten but, in the right circumstances, it can be totally appropriate to send a child home. It can break a cycle of sudden and escalating behaviour; it can send a message to parents that further engagement from them may be necessary; it re-establishes expectations across the school; it signifies to staff that they can trust you; it gives everyone some space that enables quality restorative reflection and time, so that strategic plans can be made going forward.
It’s also important to know when you won’t issue a fixed-term exclusion. If a child, whose behaviour escalates unless they are well managed, is not ‘well-managed’, and this results in them displaying ‘unacceptable’ behaviours…I may not exclude.
This does not mean that I’m an adult-blaming wishy-washy pupil-apologist. I know that sometimes a child’s behaviour is totally disproportionate in comparison to the adult’s behaviour that triggered it. For example, on any given day, a teacher may be rigidly following the school’s behaviour system whilst not taking into account any contextual reasons that could explain why a child is finding it difficult to manage their behaviour. As a result, when the teacher enforces a rule, the kid kicks off and throws missiles all over the place, smashing windows and calling the teacher a ******* useless ****. Now, I am not going to tell that teacher that they ‘should have known better than to use the school behaviour policy and what did they expect the child to do, so please apologise’. No, I’m going to issue a fixed-term exclusion because that is the right thing to do. The child’s behaviour was disproportionate and dangerous. I’m also going to put things in place that safeguard this from happening again…one of these things might be to support the teacher in being able to use a bit of professional nuance when managing behaviour because behaviour policies are sometimes only as good as the people using them.
This is all fine, if we’re talking about children who manage their behaviour perfectly well 99.9% of the time. But, if a child whom we know needs additional support and strategies (so that they can manage their behaviour within a mainstream setting) is put in a situation where they haven’t got the skills to survive, that’s a different story. For example, I once worked with a child who, for many reasons, found life a bit tricky. One day, this child was finding it difficult in the classroom and ended up under a table, growling. I was a relatively inexperienced teacher at the time and I didn’t really know what to do, so I tried ignoring it. Some other children, at the back of the class, saw this as an invitation to mess about. This, I thought, was unacceptable. Like an IDIOT, I told them that I already had one immature child in the room who was heading for a detention and I didn’t need any more. The girl under the table stopped growling, poked her head out from under the table and called me a ******* useless ****. She then proceeded to run at me and hit me in the crotch with a bead string. Luckily, at exactly that point, the Head walked in and calmed the whole thing down in about 0.8 seconds. The child wasn’t excluded. A decision I didn’t even think to question because it was my fault. I had humiliated her in front of her peers like the ******* useless **** I was. She remained in my class, did very well and we never spoke of that day ever again.
I have seen similar things happen throughout my career. Incidents like this occur when children – who we all know struggle – end up in situations and the adults make it impossible for them to return to normality, safely. An upset child, prone to anger, will not calm down if they are bombarded with comments related to the consequences of their actions. An adult who rigidly uses school sanctions towards a child in a heightened state of arousal is actually antagonising the situation. A child having a meltdown who is being ‘positively handled’ without any de-escalation is probably going to hurt you. In these cases, it may not be appropriate to issue a fixed-term exclusion because the adult could have acted differently.
Lessons must always be learned. The child must always know, at some point, that their response wasn’t safe/appropriate/acceptable. Restorative conversations must be had, as should better training and support for the adults who work with the child. That way, in the future, if everything that could have been done has been done, a fixed-term exclusion can be issued and more challenging conversations about ‘what next’ can be had.
So, what about the ‘what next’?
How many FEX make a PEX?
And what about negotiated transfers?
I have experienced a few negotiated transfers with limited success. When they haven’t worked I would say it was down to ineffective levels of additional support in place during the transfer. Very rarely does the change to a new school fix everything. It may put a plaster on it, but eventually, the plaster comes off and you see that the wound hasn’t healed. Timing is important. Negotiated transfers should be a phased process. If you rush it then it won’t work. Every stakeholder has to be committed to the fact that a good transfer takes time. But that creates its own set of challenges. Is the child not with any provider on the days they’re not with you? Does that mean they’re at home? Can the parents/carers manage that with their work commitments? Is it safe for the child to be at home? Who pays for any additional provision because, unless I’m mistaken, none of us have any loose change behind the staffroom sofa to pay for six weeks of alternative provision. It’s a complicated process and all too often it is the depressing prelude to a permanent exclusion.
For schools, the end of the road is the permanent exclusion. And what a depressing end to the journey. It wouldn’t be, if it guaranteed the child a place in specialist provision that helped the child better understand themselves and their behaviour. But, I don’t think it does. There isn’t the funding, or the level of specialist provision, for that. Too often it results in a child being out of education for a period of time – something which must rank as the least helpful alternative – whilst local schools argue over who definitely can’t have them. (That’s unfair, actually. I’m proud to be in a local authority that holds panels for ‘hard to place’ children and in my experience, every headteacher who sits around the table has been compassionate, supportive and committed to finding the best solution for these children.)
But deep down everyone knows that a child whose behaviour isn’t safe – not just unacceptable but genuinely and often scarily unsafe – is a damaged child who needs the very best level of care and provision. If they don’t receive this, then who knows where their behaviour might end and how it might impact on them and others? This trumps any concern I have about off-rolling and abuses of behaviour and admission policies, and, is a contributing factor as to why I find it difficult to reach that PEX decision. For I know that as soon as I make that decision my influence on that child’s life ends and this sits uncomfortably with me. I find this difficult because, by the time it’s reached that level, the excluding school has a better insight into the life of that child than anyone else. And, despite the inevitable paper trail, it is a reality that all that knowledge will fade, and eventually disappear. When that child is no longer on your books, people no longer care about your insight.
If I were to make one change in the process for permanent exclusions it would be that the excluding school would have to become an independent advocate for that child until they are no longer of school age. Because, whereas I am fine with saying that a child can no longer be educated in my school because they are not safe and they need better than what I can give them, I’m not so fine with the implied follow-through message of: and I no longer care. If we care enough to say that our setting is not appropriate for these children, we should be made to care about what happens to them when we have told them they cannot return. Closing our gates should not mean the same as turning our backs.