No More Empty Chairs. A thought piece by Jack Reynolds

In this most difficult of academic years, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Dolly Parton.Her song ‘The Grass is Blue’ set out an innovative approach to coping with heartbreak by creating a world in which the opposite of everything is true:Since you said it's overTold me good-byeI just can't make it one day without youUnless I pretend that the opposite's trueRivers flow backwardsValleys are highMountains are levelTruth is a lieI'm perfectly fineAnd I don't miss youThe sky is greenAnd the grass is blueAlthough a retreat into fantasy is tempting for anyone witnessing the ways in which Covid has ravaged our poorest communities, this isn’t why I’ve been thinking about Dolly during my school sessions this year. In fact, it’s worse than that. I’ve been thinking of Dolly because I’ve started to fear that this crazy world of opposites has become the reality for the most vulnerable students in our school system. As IPPR have set out, these vulnerable students are those young people who require a social worker to support them, either through a Child in Need Plan or a Child Protection Plan. These are young people trying to balance learning whilst “coping with their own and their families’ mental ill health…and at the extreme facing domestic violence, serious mental health problems, family addiction and neglect, sexual or psychological abuse.” These are the young people who are likely to have had the hardest time during lockdown, and found it most difficult to successfully engage with learning at home.In this world of opposites shaped by Covid three inconsistencies particularly stand out:

  1. The young people most in need of the consistent, supportive adult relationships provided by school are those same young people who are least likely to finish this academic year in school because of school exclusion
  2. Schools receive no additional funding to support their most vulnerable students to stay in school, despite the strong evidence (from the Department for Education’s own review) linking involvement with social services with struggling at school
  3. The government invests five times more per student to support them in alternative provision than in keeping them in mainstream, despite academic attainment in alternative provision being dramatically worse than in mainstream

All this means that in this upside-down, back-to-front, Dolly world of education funding, those young people who need the most support get the least; those students who should be spending the least time at home spend the most time there; and the government spends the most money on student places in institutions which get the worst outcomes.We are launching our No More Empty Chairs campaign to bring an end to this baffling world of opposites, where our most vulnerable young people get the least. Any kind of fair education system has to begin by ensuring those who have suffered the most receive the most support to ensure they thrive in school. Schools need a Vulnerability Premium in order to make this possible. That’s why the No More Empty Chairs campaign is following the IPPR and The Difference’s call for schools to receive funding specifically targeted at ensuring their most vulnerable students can thrive in mainstream school.Even before Covid, young people involved with social services were the most likely to underperform at school. Despite the powerful sense that the collective experience of lockdown had created a new resolve to support the most vulnerable in our society, things have only got worse for our vulnerable young people. The factors which already made it hard for them to succeed in school – mental ill health, poverty and hunger, violence and chaos at home – have increased sharply due to Covid while they are also likely to be spending far more time in difficult homes due to repeated local and year group lockdowns. But no additional support or funding has been put in place to support them with these challenges.This is not about ‘good’ headteachers or ‘bad’ headteachers, or ‘outstanding’ schools or ‘special measures’ schools. It’s not even really about ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour policies versus ‘trauma-informed’ relationships policies (though this does matter too). Through my role at Football Beyond Borders, I’ve worked with around 100 schools, both mainstream and alternative provision, across the full spectrum of OFSTED ratings and with very different approaches to behaviour management. Regardless of the type of school, the pattern is always similar. Headteachers, attempting to balance big demands and squeezed budgets, are left with impossible choices and few options. They know that exclusions are unlikely to result in better outcomes for that individual student. They understand the link between childhood trauma and challenging behaviour. But the funding for the additional support with learning, behaviour, relationships and emotional development which these young people need just isn’t there.But we know it doesn’t have to be this way.It isn’t about saving money. School exclusions are one of the few areas of public policy where you can get better outcomes for less money. Focus resources on keeping a young person in school. It will require far less resource than educating them in a Pupil Referral Unit, and you’ll almost certainly get better outcomes.In 2017-18, net per pupil spending in mainstream schools was £5,778. In the same year, net per pupil spending in Pupil Referral Units was £32,386.It doesn’t achieve better outcomes. For the excluded young person, there is a powerful and immediate sense of everyone giving up on them. They are shown that they don’t belong in their local school and that no one expects them to succeed. And at PRUs and Alternative Provision schools, regardless of how good these schools are, an excluded young person is immediately surrounded by peers who also feel like everyone has given up on them.While direct comparison is unfair given the different student profiles in 2018/19, there are striking differences in GCSE attainment between mainstream and alternative provision. Just 4.5% of students educated in alternative provision achieved a pass in English and Maths compared to 65.7% of students educated in mainstream school.And it isn’t as if there aren’t examples of doing it differently elsewhere in the world.In the latest available figures there were 7,900 permanent exclusions in England (2017-18) compared to just three in Scotland (2018-19). So we aren’t asking for much with this campaign. We don’t need rivers to flow backwards or grass to turn blue. We are just asking for an education system which provides our headteachers with the resources to support our most vulnerable students to thrive in mainstream school. After what these young people experienced during Covid, it feels like the bare minimum of what we should do for them.Words by Jack Reynolds, Co-Founder & Director. .

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