School exclusions are a choice, not a necessity.
I first met Imari as a bright, engaged student when he was an 11 year old in 2014. He was on the first ever Football Beyond Borders programme and was caught between his desire to succeed at school and wanting to fit in with the crowd.
We lost the battle with Imari. He was excluded from his local secondary school aged 13 after a fight, within 2 years he was in Feltham Young Offenders Institution. Now 18, he is ready to move on with his life but feels like he has lost 5 years saying “exclusion is what set me on a negative journey. After being excluded I felt lost. I felt no one cared about me. I always enjoyed school and learning but after exclusion, I felt there was no point in trying.”
Since Imari, I’ve begun training as an adolescent psychotherapist and now work 1 to 1 with 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls who find themselves at a similar crossroads to Imari. Beyond my direct work, Football Beyond Borders are working with 1,000 young people, many of whom are at risk of exclusion, across more than 40 schools in the capital.
I’ve seen that every single one of those boys and girls has the same dreams as any other young person. They want to succeed in school, and they want to go on to get good jobs and start families. It is just that their life experiences make it much harder for them to achieve these things.
Take Martha, whose dad was sentenced to 10 years in prison for manslaughter in the month before she was born.
Or Jacob, whose brother was stabbed and killed just as Jacob began to study for his GCSEs.
Or Billie who first watched his mum being beaten up by his drunk father aged 5 and has since endured two further cycles of alcoholic men attacking his mum, from husband to boyfriend to step-dad.
Through doing this work with FBB, I’ve learnt three big things about how our current system deals with vulnerable young people.
Firstly, I’ve learnt that permanent exclusions almost never produce good outcomes for the young person, or for society.
For the 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.
Exclusion shapes young people to believe that everyone has given up on them already. The consequences are often very poor GCSE results, sky high unemployment, lifelong mental health challenges, and a much higher chance of violence and prison.
The link between this early childhood trauma and school exclusion is clear. Traumatic experiences in childhood make it hard to trust adults, with every telling off from a teacher reminding students of something much more threatening from their past. Traumatic experiences in childhood make it hard to concentrate in class, with students focusing all their energy on staying safe from everyone around them.
Providing these young people with positive and trusting adult relationships along with a safe space to work through their experiences can transform their perspective of themselves and of the world, and ultimately their approach to school.
On the other hand, excluding students like Martha, Jacob and Billie doesn’t help them to work our their own strategies to move past their trauma. It simply reinforces their sense of rejection and fear.
That’s why permanent exclusions so rarely work.
Secondly, I’ve learnt that headteachers don’t want to exclude any young people but they often feel like they simply don’t have the resources to support their most vulnerable students.
I’ve lost count of the amount of “if only” conversations that I’ve had with headteachers. “If only we had the resource to spend a bit more time engaging with the parents”; “If only we could get them in-class support to enable them to access the curriculum”, “If only we could offer counselling to students who’ve witnessed domestic violence.”
Headteachers may sometimes be able to do some of these things through sacrificing something else, but most of the time they are left with 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. Their staff work tirelessly to keep every young person in school. But the funding for the additional support with learning, behaviour, relationships and emotional development which these young people need just isn’t there.
Thirdly, I’ve learnt that the additional resource needed to keep at risk young people in school, is vanishingly small compared to the costs of PRU places and prison places.
In 2018/19, our FBB Schools programme cost less than £1,000 per every at risk student we worked with. It provided young people with a sense of belonging, engaged them with their passions, and offered them intensive, therapeutic support to support them with working through the emotions which were impacting their challenging behaviour. Across our 37 partner schools, 95% of students identified as at risk of exclusion completed the programme.
A place in a mainstream school costs around £6,000 per student. A place in a PRU costs around £18,000 per student. A place in a Young Offenders Institute for under 18s costs around £83,000 per student.
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 less resource than educating them in a PRU, and you’ll almost certainly get better outcomes.
The Evening Standard’s launch of its exclusion pilot fund is a big step in the right direction. It will provide headteachers with the resources they need to do what everyone close to the system wants: provide additional support to keep vulnerable young people in their local school. This has to be the beginning of a wider change in the way our education system, and our society, views school exclusions.
Martha, Jacob, and Billie all completed the school year and went on to pass their GCSEs. If other big players in the system follow the Evening Standard’s example, thousands more young people will finish school and get on with achieving their dreams.