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Can exclusion be the diversion from, not the track to, prison?

A portrait of a young man wearing a blue hoodie with the hood up, and wireless headphones round his neck.

This blog, written by Pamela Dow, Catch22’s Chief Reform Officer, was originally published in TES.

The “School to Prison Line” tube poster campaign on GCSE results day this year was compelling. All the elements of a successful awareness campaign were present: unarguable and shocking statistics (four times more likely to be in prison if you have been excluded from school), an inclusive hashtag (who could be against #EducationNotExclusion?), and urgency (the number of children permanently excluded from state primary, secondary and special schools in England increased by about 1,000 between 2016 and 2017). While the campaign acknowledged multiple factors in explaining the problem, its villains were clear in the form of “gaming” headteachers, austerity and stringent behaviour policies in mainstream schools.

Created by the Education Not Exclusion student group

While I commend the campaign for informing an important public debate I also believe it could have been framed in another way. Instead of a single line with stops including “Sent out of class”, “Temporary exclusion”, “Prison” and “Reoffending”, the fictional track could have had multiple branches such as:

  • “Consistently disrupted lessons to distract from struggle to read”;
  • “Spent a term working one to one on reading in local pupil referral unit”; and
  • “Rejoined year group and got part in school play”.

Or even:

  • “Struggled with the transition from Year 6 in a school of 400 pupils to Year 7 in a school of 2,000”;
  • “Took a knife into school”; and
  • “Found new friends, inspiring teachers, and a reason to obey the rules in a smaller school”.

In the same month as the Tube posters appeared, the Centre for Social Justice published “Providing the Alternative“. The report is a superb analysis of the systemic challenges and recommendations of how to address them through more local integration, early intervention and support for excellent teachers.

There is a correlation between exclusion and prison but it doesn’t need to be causal if schools offering “alternative provision” are positive alternatives. Catch22 educates young people in schools, colleges, community centres, pupil referral units and young offender units, including a multi academy trust and Include, our own network of registered schools.

Our schools depend on local partnerships as they require a level of resource that basic school funding and the Pupil Premium will never satisfy. Most of the kids, and their families, have multiple needs and are being supported by a range of welfare services. Local CAMHS, social work, and youth offending teams should think creatively about working from within alternative provision schools some of the time, to avoid the wasted resource of missed appointments and duplicate bureaucracy.  Employers with a stake in an area’s future should consider the huge social impact of recruiting and training young people who will benefit most from the chance to make a decent living. Our Include school in Norwich has established a local network of headteachers, employers, and volunteers, alongside local MP Chloe Smith, to ensure its pupils are supported beyond the classroom and for the future.

Catch22’s schools aren’t all perfect, of course, and alternative provision across the country needs attention and investment at local and national level. Too many of the schools for children most in need have needs of their own: for better buildings and facilities, stronger governance and leadership.

None of this is to argue against doing more to prevent pupils from behaving in such a way that they stop their classmates learning and their teachers teaching in the first place. Newly qualified teachers consistently report weak emphasis on behaviour strategies in their training and a lack of confidence in using discipline effectively in their first years in the job. Teacher surveys often highlight the inability to spot and respond to SEND before they manifest as disruptive or violent behaviour.

Mainstream schools who refer pupils with fixed term exclusions also have to be ready to support their return. Catch22 is currently incubating The Difference, a programme to raise the status and expertise of those who teach in alternative provision, through a new generation of school leaders who are specialists in SEND, mental health and reducing school exclusion.

The response to the “school to prison” problem isn’t to stop fixed term or permanent exclusions or to lower expectations of behaviour, or reduce classroom or corridor discipline. A better response is a twin focus on supporting mainstream schools and teachers to keep all pupils learning, while also improving the capacity and quality of alternatives.

– Pamela Dow, Chief Reform Officer