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School exclusions are harming young people and exacerbating their mental health issues, writes Asha Patel

Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)1 published in September 2017 made grim reading. They found that at least one in two pupils permanently excluded from schools had a mental health issue, and only one in a hundred children who had been permanently excluded from mainstream schools went on to achieve five good GCSE grades which is the passport to employment.

The IPPR report argued that child poverty is increasing, the number of children in insecure accommodation is rising as is the incidence of mental ill health, and the number of children in need of a social services assessment more than doubled from 2010 to 2016 to more than 170,000 children. The report also found that:

  • excluded pupils are four times more likely to grow up in poverty, twice as likely to be living in care, and seven times more likely to have SEN as other children
  • boys are much more likely to be asked to leave their school, with three boys permanently excluded for every girl
  • black pupils from Caribbean backgrounds are still significantly over-represented in pupil referral units, though most pupils (70 per cent) are white British
    of the 85,975 people in UK prison, the IPPR estimates 54,164 were excluded when at school.

Isolated and marginalised

Removing individuals with the greatest social, economic, academic and emotional needs from their learning, and separating them from their peers, does little to combat disruptive behaviours. The sense of social isolation has a bad effect on the child who feels singled out; they become defensive and feel traumatised and are further excluded. Children need to be part of at least one community. In fact, exclusions tend to reinforce feelings of separation from the school community, creating a cycle of disengagement. This results in challenging behaviour which too often leads right back to school exclusions2.

We now know that mental health difficulties can be a cause of those disruptive behaviours which often lead to school exclusion3 but rather than being provided with targeted psychological interventions, young people are effectively being punished for experiencing poor mental health. In addition, these young people – who often need academic support – are getting less teaching than children who learn easily.

Why are exclusions so popular?


The punitive approach to addressing behaviour that challenges us has been at the forefront of conduct management in schools for many years. There has been little evidence to show that it works yet the numbers of exclusions continue to rise. Why are we so wedded to a system which cuts our most vulnerable and troubled young people off from the support they need?

Perhaps exclusions are on the increase because schools are trying to deal with more children than ever who have social emotional and behavioural issues. In other words, perhaps “broken Britain” is responsible and there is not enough money in the system to provide the care and guidance these young people need if they are to stay in mainstream settings.

Schools need more mental health support. There is welcome news that “Teach First” is to offer some teachers two-year on-the-job training combined with a master’s degree to create mental health specialists. Children who are excluded are not having the social exchanges that other children have and this is likely to increase their sense of isolation and have a negative impact on their social skills.

Changing the perspective

Researchers report that where staff show a more compassionate approach and try to look at what is happening in the classroom from a young person's point of view, pupils have higher levels of respect for their teachers, are increasingly connected to school and have lower rates of disaffection and subsequent exclusions. 

Not only do exclusions not make things better, they can make them worse. Children may be set work to do without supervision or explanation. Pupils eligible for free school meals are four times more likely to be excluded and if they are excluded, they may not be getting fed. If children are stuck at home, perhaps in an abusive situation or left unsupervised, there is a danger that they will be out on the streets and more vulnerable than ever. Schools have a duty of care but often children who are excluded are left to fend for themselves.

We often think that bad behaviour followed by punishment is a fine example of cause of effect and will prove to be a corrective, but is this the lesson they are learning? It is more likely that they learn that they don't fit in, that they don't have a place, and that days are long and boring when there is no stimulation or interaction. What is certain is that they are not learning anything that will help with their academic progress or with working towards qualifications.

What would change look like?

Suppose schools were to decide there should be no detentions and no exclusions, what would they have to put in place? Perhaps talking therapies, anger management groups, restorative justice programmes, nurture groups, targeted projects with parents and families, personalised timetables, mentoring, placements, a focus on wellbeing and self-esteem, counselling, and art, music or sports therapies. Perhaps they might even try to have a more wholehearted attempt to identify a child's talents in the widest sense, instead of trying to pigeonhole them into an increasingly narrow curriculum. This is a richer offering than exclusions where we take away the little that a child has and risk leaving them with a more solitary and isolated lifestyle.

Communication is vital. Young people who are excluded are generally not good communicators. Perhaps they have speech and language problems or an inability to use words to convey their meaning or their feelings. This is why so many of them resort to displays of physical aggression. Schools need to help them to maintain the skills they have, to set their own goals and to be the best version of themselves they can possibly be.  

Whatever schools decide to do, there must be consensus across the board. There will always be staff who are wedded to the punitive approach, who think that these interventions are “soft on crime” and that young people will take advantage. Without a desire for change there is a danger that schools will be stuck in a reactive cycle where no-one takes responsibility and no-one looks for a solution.

We live in a world where there are facilities to help people of all ages to increase their physical strength and improve their level of fitness but we do not spare a thought for those who need help to develop their resilience or their coping strategies. Statistics show that young people who have been excluded from school are more likely to leave with fewer qualifications and fewer opportunities for training and employment, and are more likely to commit crimes, get caught and end up with a custodial sentence. This is expensive for society and so wasteful. There should be a better way but it will require a shift in thinking.

Further information

Dr Asha Patel is CEO of the community interest company Innovating Minds, a consultancy offering psychological support in education, training and employment to foster emotional wellbeing and resiliency:

www.innovatingmindscic.com

Footnote
s

1: www.ippr.org/news-and-media/press-releases/half-of-expelled-pupils-suffer-mental-health-issues-in-burningly-injust-system-think-tank-finds (accessed February 2018).

2: Howarth, C., School exclusion: when pupils do not feel part of the school community, (2006) Journal of School Leadership.

3: Lewinsohn, P. M. et al., Adolescent psychopathology: I. Prevalence and incidence of depression and other DSM-III—R disorders in high school students., (1993) Journal of abnormal psychology, 102(1), 133.


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