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We have to talk about suspensions and exclusions - again...

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

Suspensions and exclusions from schools are in the press. For those who don't spend your lives with the educational jargon, a suspension is temporary, and an exclusion is permanent. The IPPR produced a report as part of the "Who's losing learning?" coalition which was headlined "Over 1,000,000 days of learning lost after children sent home, with poorest hit hardest". The Guardian ran an article based on this report entitled "School suspensions rise sharply among disadvantaged children in England". There has been a lot of social media activity around the need to avoid suspending children from school and a lot of comment amongst those with a particular interest in special educational needs and disability (SEND) about the disproportionate numbers of those, particularly with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs, who are suspended or excluded from school.

We know that school culture and ethos play a clear role in approaches to behaviour management in schools. Yes, some schools are guilty of suspending students for minor transgressions simply because of a "zero-tolerance" policy. Some schools and staff are confrontational with individual students when de-escalation would be much more appropriate. Some schools do not recognise or make appropriate provision for behaviours associated with students with SEND. But however inclusive and caring your ethos, you cannot run a school and permit refusal to comply with reasonable instructions or behaviour that harms others. The first priority is the safety of each individual child and member of staff. However inclusive, child-focused, caring and nurturing your school is, however much de-escalation and other appropriate strategies are embedded in your professional practice, in my direct experience children and young people are displaying more unsafe and defiant behaviours since the pandemic. This is not their "fault", they are not to "blame", but the question is how this is best "dealt with" in schools?

Isolation rooms or similar are often identified as alternatives, but there are very reasonable issues about the effects on a young person's mental health of prolonged enforced isolation - I certainly have serious doubts, based on long experience, of the effectiveness of isolation and I am absolutely sure that it is not appropriate for many young people. Also, many young people just say "I am not doing that" and end up suspended anyway.

This is a "common ground" discussion. This is a community issue. This is not something that schools can solve on their own. This is something where close working between families and schools can reduce the need for suspension and ensure learning continues. But it cannot be the case that we tolerate unsafe behaviour in schools - our most vulnerable young people require us to be safe, stable, calm, orderly, predictable places.

As always, I am more than happy to engage with anyone around these issues, and to offer support to anyone seeking to help their child thrive in secondary school - just visit email or message 07767142877. I look forward to hearing from you.

James Harris

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