Fighting school exclusions
May 23, 2013 — Comment
Written by Marc Lorenzi
Marc Lorenzi explains the work of the Communities Empowerment Network, which helps excluded pupils.
Education is in the spotlight. It’s future, in the hands of Education Secretary Gove, is under review. Though the press has widely reported Gove’s assault on the national curriculum, less space has been given to the effects of austerity measures in terms of exclusion policies. Excluded pupils now receive scant support to re-enter education. Spending cuts have decimated agencies that help excluded pupils and their families in finding a new school place. Meanwhile, a spending review has deemed exclusion appeals panels – the last recourse a child has in challenging exclusion – unnecessary.
It is left to independent organisations pick up the pieces for discarded pupils – the majority of whom are from poor, marginalised and/or BME communities.
Race, class and exclusion
A common perception in the community is that things are still as bad as they were fifty years ago. Frequently, when a black child has been excluded parents feel as if it’s a case of history repeating itself with very little having changed with the exception of the language of exclusion becoming more polite. Data from the Department for Education (DfE) indicates that Travellers (Irish and Roma) are the most disproportionately excluded group. Young men of African heritage (Black Caribbean and Black African) follow closely behind, then British Pakistani, Bangladeshi and white working class boys.
The latest national figures (DfE, 2010) indicate that Black Caribbean pupils are three times more likely to be permanently excluded than the school population as a whole. If the pupil is a boy then the permanent exclusion rate is 3.5 times higher than that for girls and they are most likely to receive a permanent exclusion in years 9 and 10 at the age of 13 and 14. Children who are eligible for free school meals are around three times more likely to receive either a permanent or fixed period exclusion than children who are not eligible for free school meals. If the pupil has Special Educational Needs (either with or without a statement) they increase their chances of being permanently excluded by over eight times compared to those pupils with no Special Educational Needs (DfE, 2010).
Although there is no quantative data available on young men of Somali and British Somali heritage (grouped collectively as Black African) this group is considered extremely vulnerable to exclusion and other forms of educational disaffection.
Obstacles to education
There are a number of challenges excluded pupils face with reintegration:
- Often pupils find it difficult settling back into a culture that has rejected them;
- Sometimes the experience of exclusion can be so demoralising and harmful for a pupil that they can lose the motivation and appetite for education and also lose sight of aims and ambitions;
- Some pupils have negative experiences in Pupil Referral Units that can lead to further feelings of worthlessness and a ‘what’s the point?’ attitude;
- It is not uncommon for some pupils to feel that they have been labelled by schools and that some members of staff are on their back;
- Some pupils feel strongly that the system is against them and that, regardless of how hard they work, they will not be allowed to succeed.
Lobbying and evidence
On 14 October 2011 we met the Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, and her team as part of an evidence gathering exercise for the School Exclusions Inquiry, which was the first ever inquiry launched by a Children’s Commissioner for England under the power of the Children Act 2004, and was also a response to the summer riots, which involved so many young people. We gathered over thirty parents to present their experiences to the Commissioner. Overwhelmingly, parents said that they felt overpowered by their children’s schools and had no voice, often felt their children were unfairly treated and victimised and that they had no one to turn to for independent support and advice.
At each of Dianne Abbott’s ‘London Schools and the Black Child’ conferences (the UK’s largest gathering of black parents concerned with their children’s education), where we ran parent advocacy workshops each year, the overwhelming concern by parents was the level of exclusion and victimisation that their children were experiencing in school and the lack of independent parent-oriented support available.
CEN gave evidence for a report, No Excuses – a review of educational exclusion (September 2011), of the Centre for Social Justice:
we have found that there is a need to recognise and address the challenges presented both to and by some parents. A significant minority are either unable or unwilling to engage with their child’s education due for example to low self-esteem, linguistic barriers, a negative educational experiences themselves, problems at home, poor mental or physical health, or working full-time (particularly in respect of single parents and those living in poverty). The impact of a negative educational experience on the part of some parents cannot be underestimated, particularly when this coincides with them only receiving negative feedback from their child’s school.
The far-reaching School Exclusions Inquiry was published in March 2012 and recommended that pupils should no longer be expelled or suspended for ‘minor infringements’ because it damaged their education and pushed them into a life of crime; children should only be sent home for safety reasons or to prevent disruption to other pupils. The Children’s Commissioner called for a ‘very strong presumption against’ permanently barring primary school pupils and demanded an all-out ban on expulsions for those aged 7 or under – even for serious offences.
The CEN tries to listen, hear, then act upon parents’ concerns.
The challenge of austerity
The cuts have affected vulnerable families and children at every juncture with the capacity of agencies across sectors seriously reduced. And, in some cases, significantly reduced.
Since the Coalition government’s comprehensive spending review, many frontline local authority exclusion services have been axed and more and more schools are moving further away from any accountability within the local education authority. As a result, parents are less aware of their rights and the educational entitlement of their children. This, as Maggie Atkinson pointed out, can allow schools to unwittingly behave in ways that are not in line with the DfE’s guidance on exclusions.
This is compounded by the fact that the independent appeal panel, the body which previously heard challenges to school exclusions, has just been axed. Provisions in the Education Act 2011 now see the appeal panel replaced with a ‘review panel’, affecting the majority of schools in England. The move simultaneously strips the panel of its power to reinstate pupils whom it finds to have been wrongly excluded from school, and is a further blow to a process, which already shows worrying patterns of inequality.
Cast into crime
There is strong statistical evidence linking school exclusion with entering the criminal justice system. Up to two-thirds of excluded pupils become known to the police and a third end up in court because of involvement in petty crime, vandalism and abuse of alcohol or other drugs.
Many parents face complex and challenging problems with their children’s education, particularly when their child is facing difficulties at school from unmet special education needs, bullying, disengagement and behavioural issues as well as permanent/fixed-term exclusions. Parents, particularly those on low income and/or single parents, whether working or unemployed, have a myriad of complex needs such as poor health, inadequate housing, difficult relationships, isolation, unemployment, financial difficulties and lack of family support. There may also be parallel negative experiences of school which are transmitted to their children. All these often result in a breakdown of effective communication between parent and child, and parent and school, which contributes, ultimately, to the failure of the child in school either through disengagement, academic underachievement or exclusion which has so often been shown to lead to delinquency, crime and imprisonment and future unemployability.
For more information about CEN, download an information leaflet here
Marc Lorenzi is an advocate for the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN). Contact CEN's advocacy team on 020 7733 0297 for free advice, support and representation.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.