“In the first nine months of school, Jayden was suspended 17 times…. There wasn’t any suggestion that the school would look into if he had additional needs (we later found out he had ADHD and several other conditions) he was just labelled a ‘difficult child.”
These are the words of just one of the parents we have supported over the last few years at Chance UK but the experiences of children like Jayden are unfortunately all too common. A fact recognised by this week’s Ofsted report which highlighted that there are nearly 1.5 million pupils currently identified as having SEND, an increase of almost 77,000 in the last year. And those are just the children that are known. We know that many more are left undiagnosed for years, with behavioural issues in class being considered “bad behaviour” and all too often leading to suspensions and permanent exclusions.
Every year 1,000 children aged 5-11 are permanently excluded from school, and a further 60,000 are suspended (pre-Covid figures). While exclusion rates fell during the pandemic as schools locked down, we are now seeing the number of children excluded rising again. We know that exclusion disproportionately affects children from particular ethnic backgrounds, children living in low-income families and children with Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND).
So, it was with this in mind that we brought together professionals from across sectors to discuss the challenges and what needs to change if we are to reduce primary school exclusions. From senior school leaders to charities to council leaders, the discussions were lively and full of thoughts and ideas.
It’s no surprise that most agreed that schools need significantly more funding generally, and specifically because a nurturing/trauma informed approach needs a higher level of resourcing.
The impact is that without adequate funding, children with a different kind of learning need are missing out: “a lot of children are quietly suffering because there isn’t enough money to go around and of course you have to target it in the places where the repercussions of not having it are worse.”
Many reflected that general staffing levels in schools are challenging, and are getting worse due to the impact of the cost of living. But discussion also focused on the start of a teacher’s career and the need to embed more training around trauma, attachment, SEND, conduct disorder, child development and psychology.
And as the Ofsted report highlighted this week, the long delays in identifying children who have additional needs is leaving children with no interim support with many left undiagnosed for years, which is why early intervention is so important.
“It’s about early intervention, it’s about spotting behaviour needs early, and thinking about what the child needs. Keeping them with their peers, not marginalising them, not ‘othering’ them as soon as possible, while looking to meet their needs.”
In terms of what schools could do themselves, there was strong agreement that the behaviour policy at a school can make a real difference. It can provide clarity for school staff and parents/carers, and done well it should focus on the priority of getting the child back into learning, not about punishment, shame or retribution. One school is now holding children that would have been excluded and believe they’re making a difference because their approach is embedded across school with staff invested.
Another area that was much discussed was the need for better communication and support for parents and carers, as well as for the child. We need to listen to parents, and understand what else the family is going through. This has become all the more important as we see mental health needs rising amongst adults and we see many of the families we work with at Chance UK experiencing this.
“I can’t justify paying for access to adult mental health support for parents out of our school budget because it doesn’t come under our remit but I know that the thing that will make that child feel better, is if their mum feels better.”
And finally returning to Ofsted, there was also much discussion and agreement that frameworks and measures must change so that as well as focusing on attainment and attendance, wellbeing is also recognised as crucial to a child’s success at school.
The energy and passion in our discussions speaks to the deep rooted need for change and the support there could be for a system which works for everyone – teachers, schools, parents and children. I look forward to working towards that, in collaboration with others across sectors, in 2023 and beyond.
Geethika Jayatilaka, CEO