Jason Thurley, headteacher at Beacon academy, near Grimsby, leans across the table explaining why yet another of his pupils was excluded before joining the school. “He’d brought in a £1 potato gun. It was at the bottom of his bag and so he goes up to his form tutor and says, ‘I don’t want to get into trouble with this, sir, can you take it?’ And he gets permanently excluded. The school said ‘we have a zero-tolerance policy on firearms’.”
Thurley laughs in disbelief. The same boy is now a year 10 sports leader who helps organise cross-country championships. He’s just one of dozens of pupils who joined the school after being booted out of another one.
Of the current year 11s, 51% began their secondary education elsewhere. In year 10, it’s 58%. Where are they all coming from?
Almost one-fifth of the year 10s were “managed moves”, meaning their school excluded them or was about to and had asked other heads to take them in. The rest arrived from pupil referral units, moved into the area, or, like the head boy, had previously been home educated. One pupil arrived after trying to burn down an art block. Another was rejected by three schools before Beacon took him.
Taking as many vulnerable pupils as possible – and never excluding them – is core to Thurley’s mission in this deprived coastal corner of north-east Lincolnshire. His stance reflects the values of the sponsor, the Wellspring academy trust.
Since the trust was formed in 2013 not one student has been permanently excluded at any of its 20 schools – although 10 of those schools are primaries, which tend to have low exclusion rates anyway. Beacon is the only secondary, with the capacity for 750 pupils, but just 342 on its roll. The trust also has six alternative provision and three special educational needs schools, and bills itself as promoting inclusion and compassionate leadership as its central philosophy.
The trust summarises this approach as “positive regard”, and last September rebranded one school as the Positive Regard Teaching school. The school trains staff, led by the Springwell special academy in Barnsley, and has delivered specialist behaviour support packages to 84 schools across 15 local authorities. The training focuses on development trauma and attachment difficulties.
Pupils enjoying lessons at Beacon academy. Photograph: John Robertson/The Guardian
For Thurley, it means never giving up on the pupil. “You have your lines, but you persevere. So you say, look, sorry, you can’t fight, and you talk about it, and in some cases that might be a short fixed-term exclusion. Then they come back and you’ve moved on. And then there’s another bump in the road. Then we move on. In the end we get there.” I ask if the same would apply if, say, a student was found with a knife? He considers, having taken in pupils excluded for the same. “I would look to keep them in the school.”
It’s a far cry from the strict behaviour policies and high exclusion rates of some academy chains, such as Outwood Grange academies trust and Delta academies trust, which have attracted controversy over exclusions. Mark Wilson, chief executive of Wellspring, says these trusts are in a “different bracket”.
Now the government is cracking down on exclusions amid concerns about “off-rolling” – removing students to boost results. Last week a survey published by Ofsted reported that one in four teachers had witnessed apparent off-rolling. And the Department for Education (DfE) announced that schools would be held accountable for the results of pupils they exclude, a recommendation from the long-awaited exclusions review by Edward Timpson, who warns that “it cannot be right to have a system where some schools could stand to improve their performance and finances through exclusion”. The report reveals that eight out of 10 expelled pupils in England come from vulnerable backgrounds.
Jo Indian, head of key stage 2-3 at Phoenix Park.
Beacon academy can provide hope in this effort to encourage heads to be more inclusive. Ofsted judged it good three months ago, despite a -0.22 progress score and only 4% of pupils entering the EBacc, against a local average of 33%.
One parent was so anxious about her child’s behaviour during the inspection that she rang Thurley to ask, “do you want me to keep him off?” – an offer he refused. The parent later said she’d sent Ofsted a 1,000-character review praising the school, and would have written more except for the word limit.
Parental endorsements such as this perhaps explain why many of Wellspring’s academies have strong Ofsted grades. Of the 13 schools inspected, two are outstanding, seven are good, and only one requires improvement – although the report still praised the school’s leadership. This may be food for thought for trusts that defend tough behaviour policies as the way to raise standards.
Inspectors seem to be listening, too. Wilson says Beacon’s lead inspector accepts Thurley’s view that the academy is, in effect, “on-rolling” pupils – in other words, the school is single-handedly ensuring pupils are on the roll somewhere good. “There are a number of youngsters who wouldn’t be in education were it not for Beacon academy,” he says.
Jason Thurley, head of Beacon academy. Photograph: John Robertson/The Guardian
Yet Beacon’s highly inclusive approach is a hard road, as the school is judged by the criteria applying to mainstream education – and has the same funding, receiving £4,600 per pupil. By contrast, Phoenix Park alternative provision academy, a specialist provider in Grimsby also run by the Wellspring trust, receives £18,000 per pupil.
Jo Indian, head of key stage 2-3 at Phoenix Park, and Dave Mills, its executive vice-principal, both left mainstream education because of the pressures. “Mainstream teachers don’t have the luxury of being able to focus on pupils’ needs because of the accountability measures,” says Indian – alternative provider such as Phoenix aren’t judged on progress scores or Ebacc entries.
Back at Beacon, Thurley says as a mainstream school, he will struggle to keep taking so many “managed moves” from other schools. And he does not entirely welcome the DfE’s pledge to make schools accountable for excluded pupils, fearing his staff’s hard work might not be recognised. “Where children have come here from other schools and done well, why give other schools the results?” he asks.
While there are clearly significant challenges ahead, for now, the Wellspring trust is dedicating itself to spreading the word. It is developing a master’s degree in compassionate leadership with Leeds Beckett University, which will include exclusion ethics. Three more alternative provision schools are opening shortly and Wilson is planning secondaries too. Any new schools will “replicate the inclusive ethos at Beacon”, he promises.
So will stricter academy trusts be converted? Perhaps inspectors aren’t the only ones watching.
• This article was amended on 14 May 2019. In a previous version a quote from Mark Wilson was wrongly attributed to Jason Thurley. This was an editing error.