Sometimes schools get it wrong. It may even be that there are some schools led by nefarious headteachers who, in an effort to game league tables, seek to get rid of those students who are most likely to jeopardise their positions. It may even be the case that in a few case these students are more sinned against than sinning. But this is, I think most people would agree, a relatively rare scenario. It’s actually fairly difficult to exclude students: schools need to document the incidents that led up to the decision and then the student is given an opportunity to appeal the decision – without good evidence it’s unlikely that a chair of governors would uphold a heads’s decision to exclude. It’s probably fair to say that very few children are excluded accidentally or for trivialities. This is as it should be.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, people who work in schools do so with the best interests of young people in mind. I can’t imagine many choose a career in education with the express purpose of damning children’s life chances. And yet a narrative has emerged over recent years that suggests school leaders routinely permanently exclude their most disadvantaged students for the most trivial of reasons or simply because they can’t be bothered to do the hard work of keeping them at the school. Otherwise blameless young people are then forced into a life of criminality and violence because, not being in school, they are vulnerable to being recruited into gangs. This leads with alarming predictability to prison and an early death. (One recent claim argued that the average life expectancy of excluded children is just 47!) Head teachers who decide to exclude students are essentially sentencing them to an early grave. Only the most callous and contemptible person would ever choose to play so fast and loose with children’s lives and so a right thinking school leader will make every effort must to keep children in school regardless of their behaviour.
As I argued in my last post, it is statistically illiterate to believe that being permanently excluded causes these terrible consequences. In fact, the more plausible causal relationship is that the same behaviour and personality traits that cause students to be excluded from school also result in them being more attracted to gangs, knife crime and criminality.
Of course, this is only ever going to be true on average. It may be there there will be a number of young people who get dragged in violence and crime as a result of being excluded just as it’s perfectly possible that children who are not excluded end up joining gangs. But these eventualities are statistically less likely.
So, in order to cast some much needed light on the exclusion debate, here are four propositions I believe to be more probable than their opposites:
- Most teachers care about improving the life chances of all the young people they teach regardless of their gender, race or sexuality.
- Most headteachers only exclude children when they have exhausted all other possibilities.
- Most children who are excluded from school are excluded because their behaviour seriously undermines the smooth running of the school they attend.
- In most cases, permanently excluding students makes schools safer, calmer and better able to achieve their primary purpose of educating the young people who attend them.
It may be that one or more of these proposition is not true in a particular case, but it would, I think, be helpful to assume that each is likely to be true unless evidence to the contrary is presented.