Behaviour in Schools Guidance Needs to go Further: Aspiring to exclusion-free classrooms

The Department of Education’s newly published guidance on behaviour and suspensions and exclusions in school comes into force in September. With persistent disruptive behaviour remaining the most common reason for permanent exclusions, according to the 2020/21 suspensions and permanent exclusions data, does the new guidance go far enough? Are children really at the heart of this work?

 Greater emphasis on support and involvement

While we welcome the new behavioural guidance’s recommendation that “schools and local authorities should work to create environments where school exclusions are not necessary because pupil behaviour does not require it”, we want to see more emphasis on supporting the child at the heart of this change.

Despite the strong rhetoric, it’s encouraging to see the guidance has a focus on calm, safe and supportive classrooms. There are also changes that we believe will support children better in their journey through school, including:

  • The importance of involving pupils in all stages of an exclusion or suspension process
  • Recognising the need to involve parents
  • Using more supportive language in the aspirations for behaviour in classrooms
  • Accounting for specific circumstances and needs of pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)
  • Acknowledging that disciplinary action and support are not mutually exclusive
  • Expecting schools to routinely collect and monitor data on pupils who are removed from school

However, we are disappointed that the guidance does not go further in recognising the value of early intervention and support for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Early intervention investment

Responding to challenging behaviours in classrooms is not easy, but these sorts of difficulties are often a sign of unmet need.  This is particularly true for those who have additional needs, have experience of trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences, all of which can have a lasting impact on a child’s mental and physical health.

Many of the children we support who have experienced school exclusion go on to be diagnosed with SEND or social, emotional and mental health needs. However, families face delays and difficulties in reaching that point. Without a diagnosis, children are often labelled as ‘naughty’ or ‘difficult’, with parents left struggling to get the support they need.

“Louie was just five years old when he was expelled from his first school. This was before we had an ADHD diagnosis and the first I knew that there were any issues was when he started to play out.” Mary-Ann mother of 10 year old Louie

Schools cannot address these issues alone. With spending per pupil falling in the last ten years (Institute for Fiscal Studies), coupled with the impact of the pandemic, there needs to be a significant investment in our schools and surrounding services to strengthen early intervention support to children at risk of exclusion and their families.

Inclusion not exclusion

Our hope is to see classrooms of the future without exclusions because each child is receiving the support they need, at the time they need it.

Southwark’s recently launched Inclusion Charter sets out an admirable ambition to keep 100% of pupils in education. It is centred on their priorities of keeping children safe and supporting them to develop with resources and partnership working to support this end.

The bottom line is that exclusions simply do not work and in our experience often exacerbate situations, with children being passed from school to school with all the extra disruption that can cause.

“By the time Jayden was 8 years old, he was onto his fifth school. For a few months everything seemed to be okay but then it started to go downhill again. By Christmas I was phoned and told he would be leaving the school – there was no discussion or warning. Jayden ended up out of school for a year.” Maria, Mother of 11 year old Jayden

Yet, some schools are already making the shift to a trauma informed approach, focusing more on why the behaviour is occurring and supporting the child rather than suspending or excluding.

“If you exclude a child you are sending them on a certain path. The message they hear is ‘You can’t manage me because I’m too terrible’ so that’s what they decide to be. The approach we take is very much a trauma informed approach and we all work together to understand and support that child. For example, if a little boy has hit someone, rather than send him into the corridor to sit on his own with a reflection sheet, we will sit with him and ask him why he feels angry. It’s a process and we will talk about how he’s feeling but also get a point where he can tell us what he would have done differently and what resolution looks like for him. It may take more time but it works.” Assistant Head for Inclusion

The success of this approach was recently recognised by the Commission for Young Lives report, which advocates for “a trauma-responsive, inclusive, community-led continuous education system” as a right for every child and the only way to create the best possible learning environment for all.

Transforming life chances

By working closely with parents, schools and other services surrounding children, we can have a positive impact and reduce the risk of exclusion.

Creating classrooms where exclusions are no longer necessary may not be simple, but we believe wholeheartedly that the reframing of assessing, understanding and responding to a child’s behaviour has the potential to have a profound effect on their future life chances. Yet, this cannot be achieved without appropriate investment.

“It would be much easier to exclude than to do all the work that we are doing, but the children are worth the effort.  We really need these young people to know that we are not scared of their pain, and when trauma is expressed as anger, we can deal with it. Because if we can’t, how can we expect them to?” – Assistant Head for Inclusion

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