“Exclusion makes you feel stress in your body…” “You are disappointed because you know what you have done”. “You feel bad and your parent is mad”.
These were just some of the feelings that children, many of whom had been excluded in primary school, shared with Anne Longfield CBE when she visited Chance UK as part of her work as Chair of the Commission for Young Lives. At Chance UK we are determined that no child should be excluded at primary school and are delighted that Anne came to hear from parents and children directly and that the Commission aims to make recommendations to improve the current system of support for children and young people.
Although school exclusion has been the subject of various reviews – the focus has always been largely on secondary schools because of the greater number of exclusions. However, in the Autumn Term of 2019 (the last pre COVID stats) there were nearly 30,000 fixed term exclusions in primary schools, whilst permanent exclusions increased by 20% in primary schools compared to 3% in secondary schools.
So, there is an urgent need to tackle the issue of exclusions at primary school, especially because every day at Chance UK we see the negative impact on life chances. Every exclusion matters because it changes a child’s life. We have urged the Commission for Young Lives to support our call for change to prevent the exclusion of children at this very young age.
And it’s not just the children who are affected. Parents at our meeting spoke passionately about their frustration and anger with the current system – the lack of information about what was happening and what their children’s rights were. Unofficial and official exclusions were felt to be used too quickly and without sufficient support being given in advance.
Parents shared their fears about leaving their children in provision they felt was not right for their needs, where they were the youngest there or the only ones in their year group. They were also deeply concerned that racism and stereotyping played a role in the exclusion of boys and young men who were Black or of mixed heritage. The data shows that there is a disproportionate number of exclusions of Black Caribbean boys as well as Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) children, children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) and those eligible for free school meals (FSM). Addressing these concerns is vital if the school system is to keep the confidence of parents and be able to meet the needs of all children in an inclusive way.
Throughout our meeting, what stood out was how young and small – the children were. One parent shared that their child was excluded 17 times between April and December – he was just five years old. There has to be a better way.
Older children shared with us that more support would have been helpful in tackling the reasons behind exclusion. For example – a child excluded as a result of a fight in the lunch hall felt it would have been helpful to have had support in resolving conflict between him and the other young people.
It was also clear that there were often deeply fractured relationships between home and school, with parents feeling blamed or that their views were not being taken into account. Schools and parents should have a shared interest – supporting the child. At Chance UK, we see that when parents and schools work together in partnership – particularly at this young age – it is enormously helpful. A previous Ofsted report which looked specifically at the exclusion of children in the 4 to 7 age range highlights this, saying: “Relationships with parents were pivotal in preventing or reducing exclusions”.
And exclusion simply doesn’t work. Whether fixed term or permanent, they don’t resolve the underlying challenges children face and in fact frequently exacerbate them. Many parents said the more their children were let down by the system the worse things became for them. Rejection, exclusion and isolation only compounded difficulties. One parent said “the more they failed him, the worse his behaviour became. It became so bad, he began cutting himself”.
A larger scale study by Exeter University highlighted this vicious circle concluding that children with psychological distress and mental-health problems are more likely to be excluded in the first place but exclusion also predicted increased levels of psychological distress three years later. This study and many others also highlight that there may be underlying causes of the “persistent disruptive behaviour” – one of the main reasons cited for educational exclusion. We believe that better identification of Social, Emotional, Mental Health needs or special educational needs (SEN) and securing the right support services is vital for children as part of an early intervention approach.
Ultimately, the Government need to commit to preventing exclusions at primary school –this is achievable and will prevent lifelong harm to children at such an early and formative stage in their school life. Instead of simply passing children onto another institution or another classroom, we believe that children should receive the right support at the right time. With adequate support for schools, teachers, children and families this will ultimately benefit everyone, including society as a whole.
Blog by Geethika Jayatilaka, Chief Executive