Whose fault is it that more children are being excluded from schools?
Teachers, parents, politicians and seemingly everyone else with a passing interest in children’s long-term happiness have been arguing over this one for years but now a long-awaited review of exclusions from the former schools minister Edward Timpson is shedding some carefully filtered light on the question.
For all the fuss about “off-rolling” – or schools massaging their exam results by informally easing out kids who might make them look bad – Timpson found only a small minority of schools gaming the system in this way. Damian Hinds, the education secretary, clearly wants to strip away any incentive to cheat by holding schools accountable for the exam results even of children they have kicked out. But reading between the lines of Timpson’s recommendations, the big problem isn’t unscrupulous heads fiddling the figures. It’s that something is going very wrong for vulnerable teenagers, and that’s where the question of accountability gets more awkward for ministers.
It is shocking but will not be remotely surprising to anyone who has spent time in schools that Timpson found three-quarters of permanent exclusions involved children who either had special education needs (SEND), were living in poverty, or had some other kind of difficult background (being deemed at risk of neglect by social services, say, or being in trouble with the police). Boys classed as having special needs due to emotional, behavioural or mental health problems stood out as almost four times as likely as the average child to be expelled. Timpson is unusual among Tory MPs in having grown up cheek by jowl with some of the children he is writing about; his parents fostered on a fairly heroic scale, and he will understand better than most that kids don’t often start smashing up classrooms or punching their teachers completely out of the blue. Anger expressed in the relative safety of school all too often reflects what’s going on within stressed, struggling or abusive families.
And what’s changed over the past decade for those families is that the safety net surrounding them, from adolescent mental health services or early intervention programmes for toddlers to specialist provision inside schools, has been shredded by cutbacks. Put simply, there are a lot of children out there on very short fuses for no fault of their own, often growing up in violent or unstable homes. And now they are coming into schools where the extra help they rely on to succeed is being sharply pruned back. As The Guardian reports today, some schools are now openly limiting the number of SEND children they take in, because they can’t cope on the resources they have.
Timpson skirts closest to acknowledging all this in a recommendation that while we rightly expect school leaders to make sure all children get a good education, “we must equip them with the skills and capacity to do so”. But many teachers would substitute the word “money” for the woefully vague “capacity”. One-to-one support in mainstream classrooms, or the kind of intensive help offered by alternative provision units for children who, with the best will in the world can’t stay in mainstream schools, doesn’t come cheap and nor do decent services supporting troubled families in their daily lives. Both Timpson and Hinds are right that teachers should expect to be held accountable for what happens to children in their classrooms. But if so, it’s only fair that politicians are ultimately held to account for what happens outside them, too.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist