Published on
25 October 2019

Our CEO, Javed Khan, talks about the impact of school exclusions on vulnerable children. 

Children make mistakes. It’s at the heart of what it means to be young. You experiment, you push boundaries and if you feel scared or unsafe you may well act out. But for vulnerable children, whose families live in poverty or who experience domestic abuse, addiction or mental health problems, their behaviour may well be even more challenging.

The question for those responsible for children’s wellbeing – for schools, for police, for social services and for charities – is how do we respond, especially when pushed to the limits.

Barnardo’s has always believed in children – all children – no matter who they are or what they’ve been through. We believe that being a child means you always deserve a second chance, and that with the right support you can overcome anything. But sadly, too many vulnerable children today are being written off – primarily because they’re being excluded from school.

Figures released in August 2019 show that figures for permanent school exclusion rose again last year, a 70 per cent increase since 2012 while figures for temporary school exclusions rose by 54 per cent in the same period. These are significant increases. And let’s be clear – behind each of these numbers is likely to be a vulnerable child, whose future is being put at risk.

It’s important to note that this goes further than formal exclusions – the kind that show up in the official figures. There is also the practise of “off rolling”.

Research from the Education Policy Institute has found one in 10 secondary school pupils were removed from the school roll without explanation. Sixty-one thousand pupils who sat their GCSEs in 2017 had experienced an “unexplained exit” during their secondary school career. So what is going on?

To be clear, we can’t just blame teachers for this. As a former Maths teacher I know how hard it can be to meet the needs of children facing serious challenges – especially when their behaviour makes it hard for other children to learn.

Teachers go into the profession because they believe in children’s potential and they want to give all their pupils the best possible chance to learn and to prepare for a successful future.

But the reality is they are being stretched to the limit – and expected to be teacher, counsellor, social worker, and anti-social behaviour police all in one. The result is that as a society we are failing many thousands of young people.

We have a broken education system which incentivises an approach that prioritises exam results at the cost of giving some of the most vulnerable children the second chance they so desperately need. Driven to meet targets and rise in the league tables, schools are encouraged to prioritise some pupils’ education at the expense of others’. 

And we can’t ignore the fact that this increase in exclusions has happened during the same period as the diversification in the education system – away from local authority control and towards academies. It’s clear that some multi academy trusts (including those in disadvantaged parts of the country) – have very high rates of exclusions and off-rolling.

This problem isn’t new. Almost a decade ago Barnardo’s warned in its report “Not present and Not Correct” that poor children and those with special educational needs were more likely to be excluded and that this was linked to anti-social behaviour and crime.

But since then the challenges facing vulnerable children and families have only grown and become more complicated. Child poverty is rising, children’s mental health conditions have reached epidemic proportions and of course serious youth violence, including knife crime, has reached a new peak.

We know that exclusion too often leads to what I call a "poverty of hope" – reducing a child’s chance of gaining good qualifications and entering the workplace. With Alternative Provision regarded as a recruiting ground for criminal gangs, it’s no surprise children taught there are vulnerable to involvement in drugs and violent crime. 

So what do we do about it? In the Queen’s Speech the Government promised to "ensure that all young people have access to excellent education, unlocking their full potential and preparing them for the world of work”. 

This ambition is welcome – but it can’t be achieved without reforming exclusions policy.

National Government must provide leadership, because, after all, school education is a universal right. Ministers must make clear that exclusions should be a last resort, encouraging, incentivising and resourcing schools to do all they can for every pupil. And for pupils who are outside the mainstream, alternative education provision must be full time, high quality, and this too must be properly resourced. 

If the Government is serious about tackling some of the most serious challenges in our society, it cannot ignore the role of the education system. But there is something else at play too.

It’s time to challenge a culture that says it’s ok for "problem" children to be excluded, for young people who are struggling to be written off, and left unseen and unheard.

The cost of inaction is clear – from drugs, gangs and knife crime today to a lifetime of poor health, joblessness and involvement in the criminal justice system.

Societies are judged by how they treat their most vulnerable citizens. And the education system should be judged on how it supports pupils furthest from achieving the positive future we all dream of for our children.

This piece originally appeared on the Telegraph website.