What’s the alternative to exclusion?

Geethika Jayatilaka
Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Louie was just five years old when he was expelled from his first school.

Geethika Jayatilaka is chief executive of Chance UK. Picture: Chance UK
Geethika Jayatilaka is chief executive of Chance UK. Picture: Chance UK

This was before he had an ADHD diagnosis and although another school place was found for him, over the next year he was excluded many times for his behaviour. His mum told me: “It was so stressful; I’d dread hearing the words ‘can we just have a moment’.”

At Chance UK we see children - some as young as five - being suspended and excluded multiple times during their primary school years. So, we welcome the Commission on Young Lives report calling for an end to primary school exclusions. Although primary school exclusions are considerably smaller in number than at secondary school – exclusion at such a young age can have an incredibly negative impact on children. And, in the last full term before the pandemic, permanent exclusions rose by 20 per cent in primary schools, compared to three per cent in secondary schools.

Of the children Chance UK worked with last year through our mentoring and family support service, one in seven children had experienced either a suspension or permanent exclusion at primary school.

So, what can schools do instead of permanently excluding pupils? Quite rightly the Commission’s report acknowledges that these are not easy or quick fixes and will require fundamental system changes to the provision of support in our schools. Schools will not, and should not, be expected to do this on their own and they will also need significant investment. One school which is very committed to reducing exclusions shared with us, ‘It would be much easier to exclude than to do all the work that the school is doing, but the children are worth the effort’.

Underlying many of the difficulties children have is the need for their social and emotional skills to develop more fully. These help them to keep calm, control impulses and remember instructions. Interventions in and out of the classroom which support the development of these skills can make a significant difference. Providing specialist support through teams of youth workers and family professionals based in schools, will enable better and quicker access to support services and should be welcomed.

Recently, the team at Chance UK worked with Carl, a nine-year-old child who had high mental health needs and expressed suicidal ideation. Carl was at risk of exclusion from school due to violent behaviour. He has also been diagnosed with Autism. Strong multi agency working has helped to keep support for the family co-ordinated. The mentoring programme has supported the development of Carl’s social and emotional skills and he is now able to identify and talk about his emotions - his school also offers him time away from class if he needs time to reflect. Since restarting school in the September term, Carl now receives lots of certificates and stickers from school for his positive behaviours.

Another school in Lambeth we work with has reduced exclusions through a whole school approach. By understanding how psychological and neurological development impacts behaviour, the school has successfully shifted their ways of working. By implementing a Restorative Response they focus on individuals taking responsibility for their actions and

finding ways to move forwards. The schools’ Learning Mentor plays a crucial role in supporting children with behaviour. If a behaviour incident occurs between a pupil and a teacher, the Learning Mentor will step in to take over the class while the pupil and teacher take some time away to discuss what happened. This simple change has had a significant impact, as previously, a child would spend time away from the class and teacher, not allowing those involved to discuss and repair the relationship, reaching a resolution together.

Every day we see how changes like these can make a real difference to a child’s time at school. That’s why exclusions don’t work because they don’t address the underlying reasons for the difficulties a child may have in class. Now we need the proper support and investment so that children are not simply passed onto a new school with all the stress and disruption that that can cause.

Geethika Jayatilaka is chief executive of Chance UK – a charity providing early intervention support to children aged five to 13 and their families to help them develop social and emotional skills.

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