More and more children are being excluded, as the system gives up on young people – with dire consequences
If a playground had a faulty swing that was regularly injuring children, what would be the right response? Line up a row of ambulances to wait on standby or get somebody to fix the swing? When it comes to knife crime, we seem to favour the former approach. That’s why Thursday’s call from London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, to re-examine the issue of school exclusions is welcome. Knife crime has no single “swing fix”, but Khan is surely right that it’s no coincidence that so many young people involved in knife crime have been excluded.
Permanent exclusions – the polite term for expulsions – have risen by more than 50% in just three years. Certain children are far more likely to find the school gates slammed in their face: those getting special educational support are seven times more likely to be excluded; black Caribbean children and those from low-income families three times more likely. And each year, thousands more are informally pushed out, their parents encouraged to remove them to avoid the blip of a formal exclusion on their record.
Imagine how it feels to be a young person the system has effectively given up on. Just one in 100 young people in alternative provision, such as the pupil referral units that used to be nicknamed “sin bins”, go on to achieve five Cs at GCSE. One in 100. A young person might not know that stat, but they’ll feel it in the culture of low expectations that awaits them. These are children lost to the system, nobody really having to answer for what they achieve or where they end up.
There are two factors driving rising exclusion rates. Some schools are undoubtedly using formal and informal exclusion to wash their hands of young people whose GCSE results drag down their league table position. It’s hard to know the full extent of this practice, but the potential gains are big. That’s why MPs on the education committee have called for the results of all of a school’s pupils – even if they are excluded – to count towards league tables, proportionate to the amount of time they have spent being taught there.
But funding cuts have also pushed schools towards excluding more young people. Schools are struggling to afford the extra teaching assistants and other support that children with behavioural and emotional difficulties need. And mental health and educational psychology services are notoriously under-resourced. Too many headteachers are left wringing their hands over an impossible choice: banish a disruptive child who needs their help, or keep them in school without the support they need to minimise the disruption to other children’s education.
High exclusion rates are not just a cause of rising knife crime, they’re another alarm bell indicating something’s going very wrong in the way we support troubled young people. Don’t expect to see knife crime – or any type of youth crime – fall while they continue to creep up.