‘They Lose Out on Being Kids’: The Activists Campaigning to End School Exclusions

by Francesca Newton

20 October 2020

Children on school playground
Danny Lawson/Reuters

On any given day, 40 children will be excluded from British schools. This is a conservative estimate, which doesn’t account for “off-rolling” – the process triggered by league table anxiety in which parents are quietly encouraged to remove their child from a school – but even so, it’s high.

It’s often thought that exclusion, either temporary or permanent, is an extreme reached only when pupils put themselves or others at risk. However, government data shows the most common reason for exclusion is “persistent disruptive behaviour”, a separate category to physical assault entirely – and a much more subjective one. 

Most of these 40 children will fall into certain demographics. More of them will live in the north of England than anywhere else in the country. The largest groups will be from either Gypsy, Roma and Traveller or Black Caribbean backgrounds. A disproportionate amount will qualify for free school meals and, although it’s illegal to exclude kids based on disability, a high number will have special educational needs. 

Earlier this year, Kadeem, a young Black man with a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiance Disorder, recounted his experience of exclusion to Kids of Colour. “I was on the receiving end of a series of unethical exclusions due to my disability, eventually being forcibly removed from two primary schools,” he explains. “I would spend long periods at home, where I was expected to work independently. Exclusion was seen as a strategy to manage my behaviour – a strategy that instead gave me the impression I wasn’t important or wanted.”

For the subset of those 40 children who are permanently excluded from mainstream schooling, most will enrol at a pupil referral unit, or PRU. In theory, PRUs provide special care while readying attendees to return to school – they’re usually well-resourced, with spaces like quiet rooms and a host of onsite mental health experts; in reality, however, they’re treated like sin bins. In 2011, Boris Johnson, then London mayor, demanded that young people involved in the London riots be sent to PRUs as punishment. It is demands like these that mean all those who go to PRUs are stigmatised for the rest of their lives.

The PRU to prison pipeline. 

Having worked briefly in a primary PRU, teacher Mia Davis describes them as inherently paradoxical institutions. “Often, because the teaching of these kids is so disrupted, they fall behind,” she says. “So aside from the shame associated with going to a PRU, and the lack of socialisation that entails, pupils also end up leaving school with less in their academic bank. They lose out on normal, organic social interaction and they lose out on being kids.” 

It’s not, she emphasises, that PRUs are “bad” places. Rather, it’s that the act of isolating and grouping together children with perceived “behavioural problems” naturally exacerbates them, teaching them early on that they’re incapable of playing the same role in their communities as other young people.

In this way, school exclusions prepare pupils for life in the margins. Only 7% of permanently excluded children go on to get the grades in English and Maths GCSEs that are needed for most jobs; they’re also five times more likely than their peers to go to jail – a pattern some have dubbed the “PRU-to-prison pipeline“.

Concern about this system has been growing for a while. In 2018, Zahra Bei, a London-based educator, founded a group called No More Exclusions (NME) which focuses specifically on the practice’s racial disparity and takes an abolitionist approach.

“NME came about through my exposure to an environment in which racial injustice was enacted every day and my feeling that, as an educator, I should be doing more,” she says. “I’ve never met a teacher who’s gone into the profession to harm young people but I feel like harm is done through us, by us, every day, by the policies and processes we have to enact and uphold.” 

Alongside this summer’s BLM movement, which saw interest in NME grow, the pandemic has given the issue of exclusions an added urgency. Last month, NME and its supporters wrote to Gavin Williamson to request a moratorium on exclusions for the 2020/21 school year, citing the challenge young people face in readjusting after a period of so much change. (The shift to Zoom schooling has also triggered fears – in both the UK and the US – about the extension of discriminatory disciplinary measures into pupils’ homes.)

The prediction that exclusions will increase as a result of poor government provision – in this case, provision of clear guidance – speaks to a wider neglect that’s impacted exclusion stats for far longer than the coronavirus pandemic. In the last decade, schools in the poorest areas of England have seen their funding cut by almost £1,000 per pupil

The impact of austerity. 

In her experience, Davis says, austerity and exclusions are inextricably linked. “There were a couple of kids in my mainstream school that we just couldn’t afford the support for,” she tells Novara Media. “We didn’t have a calm room, we didn’t have the right transport. Plus there was a huge team of therapists at the PRU; at my mainstream school we have one play therapist that comes in one afternoon a week, for upwards of 300 kids.” 

School exclusions can therefore be seen as a prime example of how austerity, prejudice and strict psychological discipline intersect. The combination does what it’s designed to, socially segregating the most vulnerable, while reinforcing the belief – in them and in others; that this segregation is entirely their fault. 

NME’s FAQ document myth-busts common concerns about the outcomes of abolishing exclusions. It posits the importance of giving victims of violence opportunities to heal, of interpreting behaviour as communication rather than rebellion, and of the invalidity of fear as a method of classroom control. As a whole, it presents a sensitivity to questions of education – why it’s done, and who it’s done for – that should be incorporated into any imagining of a fairer world. 

When asked if this year’s conversations on structural racism have brought NME closer to its goals, Bei is tentatively optimistic. “I wouldn’t be able to do this work if I didn’t feel hopeful,” she says. “Hope is an important part of any activism. One thing we have seen this year is an amazing amount of people organising on the ground with food banks and mutual aid and community care.” 

This community action, Bei says, is what powers bottom-up movements like NME and makes ending exclusions feel possible. “When the state fails, people come together. If that doesn’t give you hope, I don’t know what will.”

Francesca Newton is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media, she writes for the Guardian, Tribune, Huck, Open Democracy and others. She is an editor of ERA Magazine.


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