In 2018/19, 7894 children were ‘permanently excluded’ from school in England and Wales. According to the recent Timpson Report, 78% of permanent exclusions issued were to pupils who either had special education needs, were classified as in need or were eligible for free school meals. Young people from Gypsy/Roma, Black Caribbean and Mixed White Caribbean backgrounds were considerably more likely to be excluded than other groups. These trends are stubbornly consistent over time. We are excluding children (and families) who are already more likely to be marginalised and discriminated against by society. The official figures are a significant under-estimate as they do not account for the many young people who are yearly subject to ‘off-rolling’ and other forms of illegal, hidden exclusion.
Psychological distress is consistently higher among children who have have experienced exclusion when compared with their non-excluded peers. There is a bi-directional association between psychological distress and exclusion. Psychological reasons for this are clear. The need for ‘belongingness’ is a fundamental human motivation and social exclusion may be the most common and important cause of anxiety and depression. Exclusion ostracises the children in society most in need of help. This can be hugely problematic as being ostracised is a deeply wounding experience that has long term consequences.
There is a strong relationship between school exclusion and youth violence. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) report that of 15-17 year olds in young offender institutions (prison), 88% of young men and 74% of young women had been excluded from school at some point. In sum, alongside other causal factors, exclusion exerts a strong influence on the mental health and life outcomes of thousands of children.
There are many in England who perceive that school exclusion is a self-evident, essential facet of our education system. Yet in Scotland, a cultural shift has taken place in recent years. Viewing ‘behaviour as a form of communication’ is centred in education policy edict and exclusions have drastically reduced. In many European nations, such as Italy, Finland and Portugal, school exclusion does not exist as a legislative mechanism. In these nations, ‘Alternative Provision’, schools where excluded children are often sent once excluded and segregated from their peers, are not present. Fully integrated schooling is taken-for-granted.
The exceptionally high levels of exclusions do not occur because English children are inherently more ‘challenging’, out-of-control or dangerous than those elsewhere. Evidence at home and internationally, comparing the behaviour of English children to others, debunks this pernicious myth. Exclusions are high as a consequence of systemic factors such as ‘market competition’ which leads some schools to prioritise their needs over student needs. Inflexible curricula and rigid success criteria based solely around academic exams forces teachers into a straight jacket that makes inclusion extremely difficult. ‘Accountability measures’, policed by Ofsted, prompt schools to treat young people as commodities. A growth in punitive behaviour policies has also triggered an increase in sanctions, segregation and ostracisation for children who struggle to comply.
Young people and families are in the midst of a global pandemic. The social, economic and psychological consequences will hit the most vulnerable hardest. The situation will push some families to breaking point and this will impinge upon young peoples’ capacity to self-regulate and cope with the demands of school. Psychologists for Social Change join the Department for Education’s mental health ambassador, the Runnymede Trust and others support in support of No More Exclusions’ moratorium on school exclusion. Excluding children in the present context will lead to significant long term damage. We strongly urge the government to recognise the long term damage of exclusions, and embrace the need for a different approach to school exclusions, especially given the exceptional circumstances. We must stop treating our most marginalised children as collateral damage, look beyond our borders for inspiration and work together to develop a more inclusive education system.