The not-so-magic roundabout of school exclusion

In Swindon there is a traffic system known as “the Magic Roundabout.” It’s really a system of five small roundabouts surrounding a larger one. It’s a bit counter-intuitive: you go anti-clockwise around the centre and the usual clockwise way around the others. There is no certainty you will arrive at your destination; many get lost within the system.

I am reminded of it when I think about the issue of school exclusions, which goes round and round, always leading back to the same spot. In January the Department for Education created its own "magic roundabout," issuing new guidance aimed at reducing legal challenges to exclusion and then withdrawing it in the face of… legal challenges.


Schools returned this week and already some children are excluded, whether they have been placed in isolation from others or excluded for a ‘fixed-term’ or permanently. Some have been without education for many months because the alternative providers are full (for a provider’s perspective, read @Jordyjax’s excellent blog on life in a Pupil Referral Unit). And, of course, there are those for whom an appropriate school has never been found because the system simply doesn’t work for children who are “challenging”…

The DfE has released school exclusion figures for 2013-14. Exclusions are still lower than they were a decade ago but three points made headlines:

  • exclusions rose for the first time in 8 years, particularly in the primary sector and involving assaults against teachers;
  • 70% of those excluded were on their school’s SEN register;
  • the exclusion rate in special schools is half the rate of mainstream schools.

Tom Bennett, behaviour adviser to the government and himself a teacher, wrote a piece in 2013 titled “Better out than in: why exclusions are often the answer.” Here’s a flavour:

“children who often get excluded frequently end up guests of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, and I don’t mean Ofsted. Perhaps the common factor isn’t the exclusion, but some other factor, such as ‘Has poor conceptual understanding of altruism or selflessness’? Perhaps the child has a habit of punching people or emptying their bags when no one is looking? Perhaps they get excluded from school, and included in prison for the same reasons?”

What is this an argument for? If the common factor in exclusion, offending and imprisonment is something to do with children’s incomplete social or moral development, as Tom implies, shouldn’t that occupy our attention more as teachers, alongside the mechanics of literacy and numeracy (not all of those who cause disruption are poor readers, far from it)? Or should we take the first exit, send them straight to prison and save time? By contrast Michael Gove, the former Secretary of State for Education who is now at the Justice Department, gave evidence to Parliament’s Justice Committee a fortnight before the exclusion figures were published and seems committed to a reduction in youth custody. Even Gove seems to have come around to a feeling that education, not prison, is the duty of the state towards its most challenging young people.

Recently I criticised Tom Bennett on Twitter for being too “blamey”, after watching his video called “Difficult parents”. This reminds me to admit to you that I was once excluded from school for starting a fight. It also reminds me to tell you that I gave some parenting sessions in a Young Offenders Institute (one that’s in the news quite often), so I have an interest. When I quit teaching I will go back to prison education. Perhaps I’ll see some familiar faces coming around.

Laura McInerney, Editor of SchoolsWeek, wrote recently in The Guardian:

“Disruptive children need to be dealt with, and schools are doing that. But when things get tough, the only solution seems to be sending them to a mythical elsewhere that has a magical answer to their woes.

The percentage of children permanently excluded is still half the level of ten years ago; but the rate at which they are excluded in the government’s “flagship” sponsored Academies and Free schools is double the rate of other schools. Given the drive towards further academisation, that suggests we’re turning around and heading back to where we started.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb is proud of greater powers given to headteachers and, when it comes to violence by pupils, teachers’ unions welcome these powers while questioning the reasons behind the violence. I think Ms McInerney’s concern, however, is that there is presently no “elsewhere” for these children to go. She points out that the average funding for a special school place is £23,000: she questions whether mainstream exclusions might be fewer if that kind of funding were available. Her idea ought to figure within the DfE’s forthcoming SEN funding consultation.

But at the moment the DfE can’t even verify that schools are spending the required £6000 on each child with SEN from their budgets so how would they get a handle on allocations of £23,000? I’m guessing Mr Bennett’s view is that there are no magical answers but sanctions have their place alongside funding – the stick and the carrot. In 2011 he wrote:

“the more consistently sanctions are applied in a known, obvious way, the LESS they have to be used”

That much is true and every one of my 30 students on the autism spectrum would tell you they prefer teachers to be consistent and classes to be well-controlled. But any clinical psychologist will tell you that children with social, emotional and mental health needs learn little or nothing from endless detentions and don’t assimilate bitter experience positively. However high we pile the experience, the bitterness will match it. Those ‘difficult parents’ that Tom Bennett speaks about are probably the proof. As Tom himself argues, the certainty of punishment is more important than the severity. On that basis, we simply shouldn’t need to make more exclusions if we are explicitly and consistently teaching these children in the areas where we think their understanding has gaps, while managing their behaviour with certainty rather than severity. And, yes, it may take more funding and more regulation. The alternative is to throw them on the magic roundabout of short-term provision where assessment is seldom timely or comprehensive and destinations are unknown. I have to acknowledge here that Pupil Referral Units were the big improvers in Ofsted’s review of 2014, along with Special Schools. But finding successful alternatives to exclusion (with the support of the DfE) would make mainstream schools the biggest improvers of all.

So what an absurdity it is that schools who try to meet their children’s needs by offering more flexibility in the curriculum than the ‘Ebacc’ allows have been told by Nicky Morgan that they will not be able to achieve an Outstanding grade from Ofsted. The best people to decide what curriculum is right for their children are Headteachers and their Governors with the support of parents: no one else.

My wife (a technology teacher) and I were lucky enough to spend a few days in the medieval Belgian city of Bruges. It’s beautifully constructed within a watery ring-road of canals. Once the most important commercial centre in the world, part of its success was the willingness of its merchants to co-operate, pooling their knowledge and spreading the risks for a share of the (enormous) profits. We can learn from them and we need to.

However, modern Belgium has struggled with education. It’s not so much an exclusion problem as a very high drop-out rate and it has taken many years to tackle this disaffection with school. Vocational education has been part of the solution and we visited the Spermalie Hotel & Tourism School, a purpose-built vocational state secondary school with 750 pupils. At a restaurant, our waitress beamed when I mentioned the school; she said they turn out some of the best chefs and hospitality staff in the country. Yet here in England, while we ban 4,000 bored and resentful pupils from our secondary schools each year, a tiny number of UTCs (vocational schools) are struggling to establish themselves despite support from the Baker-Dearing Trust. They are virtually ignored by the present government - but surely they offer a valuable alternative to the educational pinball machine of Ebacc?

The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons was released in the same month as the school exclusion figures, an irony that has sadly been lost on many. There are some chilling similarities between trends in schools and in prisons so, before you ask me to stop comparing children to prisoners, please take note of them:

  • In schools and prisons there is currently an increasing level of early violence;
  • In schools and prisons, management are currently reporting both publicly and privately a critical shortage of staff and flexibility to provide effectively for those in their care;
  • In schools and prisons, populations are predicted to increase to the end of this decade and, as the Prisons report explains, overcrowding has a cumulative impact:

“It means that a prison will not have the activity places, the support mechanisms or the rehabilitation programmes it needs for the size of its population.”

  • In schools, the effect of rising pupil numbers is the same: they cannot simply be absorbed by some extra classrooms; more pupils on the same site will put pressure on each other, there’ll be more noise, they’ll get in each other’s faces more often. So they’ll need more space for play and for calm, they’ll need to be able to get through the lunch queue in time, they’ll need somewhere to go when they’re anxious, stressed or feeling rejected.
  • In schools and prisons, we fail to identify accurately the needs of those with learning disabilities.
  • In schools and prisons there is currently a high level of dissatisfaction with the complaints process: a hard-hitting report on complaints in prisons is due out soon and Laura McInerney’s Guardian article highlighted that:

“More than half of parents who appealed against their child’s exclusion through the courts argued that this need was not adequately taken into consideration or had not been met by the school.”

So the last exit on my Magic Roundabout of Exclusion is reserved for Michael Gove (I never expected to quote him!) and his advice to the Justice Committee:

“All the dangers and warnings are there—all the red lights are flashing. These are young people who are almost certain sooner or later to come into contact with the criminal justice system. We have to think hard about what we can do.”

Barney Angliss, @AspieDeLaZouch
Follow me


  1. Love the sound of vocational schools… my 8 year old has already decided she wants to be a baker. Why not?!

    I’d love to know what exclusions are actually intended to achieve anyway. Pushing the ‘problem’ back to parents who presumably haven’t parented properly in the first place (ahem)? I’d bet a considerable amount that most children excluded don’t actually want to be at school in the first place, so isn’t it just fulfilling their wish and encouraging repeat behaviour? It’d be nice to see some of the schools caring a bit more about the children in their care, rather than brushing them out of the door as fast as they can. I know, I know, it’s all about money… or is it all about attitudes? Something can be done. So many SEN children are being excluded. It’s not right.

    1. I’ve worked with many, many young people who were excluded both at PRU and in mainstream; in my experience, most if not all of them had wanted to be at school until they felt that school didn’t want them or that they couldn’t keep up or that there was so much else going on in their life that the demands of school just weren’t helping. I agree that there is a HUGE amount of repetition in the pattern leading to exclusion and that is soul-destroying. We need to change it.

We LOVE to hear what you think... please take a minute to add your views here, so your comment is seen by all!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.