If we are not careful, history will repeat itself on exclusions

May 26, 2018

Back in 1997, Labour was elected on a manifesto which promised:

Teachers will be entitled to positive support from parents to promote good attendance and sound discipline. Schools suffer from unruly and disruptive pupils. Exclusion or suspension may sometimes be necessary. We will, however, pilot new pupil referral units so that schools are protected but these pupils are not lost to education or the country.

Unfortunately, once in government, ministers listened to the education establishment, and before long attitudes to discipline moved in the opposite direction. In particular, the policy of “inclusion”, which was meant to be about providing provision in mainstream schools for disabled students and students with SEN, started to be used to justify keeping badly behaved children in school and in lessons. I have a strong recollection from my second year of teaching, back in 2003, of a senior figure from the local authority coming to my school at the start of the year and explaining there would be no permanent exclusions in Coventry that year.

Without exclusions for the worst offences, all discipline was undermined. Things that should have resulted in a permanent exclusion, were dealt with by temporary exclusions or internal isolation. Things that should have resulted in a temporary exclusion or internal isolation resulted in a detention instead. Things that should have been resulted in a detention were ignored. School discipline became a national concern over the next few years, with the Tories using it as a campaign issue from 2005 onwards, a couple of television documentaries exposing what was happening, and the  government commissioning a report which sought to gloss over the problems. The opposition put forward a tougher line. In 2008 the Guardian described the Tories plans:

Under the Tories, parents would no longer have the right to an external appeal to challenge headteachers’ decision to exclude their child. They would only be able to appeal to school governors rather than local authority-run independent appeals panels, as under the present system.

The move is in response to fears that growing numbers of ill-disciplined children are being allowed back into school because parents know how to “play the system”.

The Tory leader, David Cameron, will say that teachers do not have the powers they need to keep order.

“The problem doesn’t lie with teachers – it lies with the rules and regulations which stop teachers imposing proper discipline,” he is expected to say.

“We will change this by giving teachers and heads the powers they need. We’ll make it easier to expel disruptive kids. We’ll stop forcing schools to take in violent pupils who have been kicked out of another school.”

Changes were made after the Conservatives entered government, and the rate of permanent exclusions did go up as planned and, in my experience, schools became safer.

But eventually political leadership in education became weaker than it was under Michael Gove, and the counter-revolution began just as it did under Labour. Educational commentators, politicians and most of all, education establishment figures, have started talking as if:

  1. The increase in permanent exclusions was a bad thing.
  2. Rather than being a result of deliberate government policy, it must be due to some other new development in schools.
  3. Schools needed to be told that permanent exclusion is a last resort.

And these assertions seem to go unchallenged repeatedly.

It is up to teachers to put the counter-arguments:

  1. Exclusion is a last resort. No school casually uses permanent exclusions. Nobody who doesn’t work in a school needs to tell us this is how it should be. This is not the same as it being a bad thing or showing a school doesn’t care.
  2. Permanent exclusions are necessary for the safety of children and teachers. The stories of what happens when schools don’t exclude are horrific. Anyone suggesting exclusions should be reduced, should explain exactly why more assaults, vandalism, dangerous behaviour and disruption should be tolerated. And if they are not willing to work in a dangerous environment themselves, or send their own kids into one, they should explain why they think it’s okay for teachers and okay for everyone else’s children to be put at risk.
  3. There is no mystery about increased exclusions. Schools were given more power to protect their staff and students and used it. Ideologues suggesting that the rise in exclusions is an accidental side effect of strict discipline policies, school league tables or a more academic curriculum should be called out for their transparent attempt to use this issue to advance their own preexisting ideological concerns.
  4. Attempts to reduce exclusions were a disaster here, and they have been a disaster in other countries too (e.g. Australia and the U.S.). Any attempt to limit exclusions will simply result in more tolerance for dangerous and violent behaviour.
  5. Exclusions are for the benefit of the victims, not the perpetrators. It is not meant to be therapy. Exclusions are needed because nobody should go into school wondering if they will be assaulted or abused today and knowing that the perpetrators will not be stopped.
  6. If permanent exclusions are not allowed to happen through the official channels, there is every reason to think they will happen unofficially, with schools forcing kids out in other ways, which will have fewer safeguards and be less open to scrutiny. And this is not a sign that some school leaders are morally depraved and corrupt and hate children. This is because some school leaders will do anything to protect their staff and students.

There are, of course, other issues around the fairness and appropriateness of permanent exclusions and I will return to some of those. But the basic principle that every school should be a safe school is one we should stand up for at a time when it’s under fire from those who care nothing about the victims of extreme behaviour in schools.


  1. I’ve visited two zero-tolerance secondary schools, and in both cases I had ample opportunities to talk to pupils when no member of staff was present. Their enthusiasm for their schools was almost embarrassing–almost all of them drew invidious comparisons with their anarchic primary schools where bullying was rife and lessons were dominated by attention-seekers. Surprisingly enough, kids really do want to learn.

    However, neither school had actually expelled anyone in the year I visited, nor were any pupils then under temporary exclusion. A factor that escapes almost everyone in this debate is that there’s a certain ironic truth to the belief that bad behaviour is the result of an unmet need: the need to feel that grown-ups know what they’re doing and have the cojones to do what is right. The phrase ‘behaviour management’ says it all: the profession is terrified of sounding judgmental, and prefers to think that behaviour is a technocratic issue.

  2. The teacher unions are the most guilty party here.

    Unions are supposed to stand up for their members. Every time a teacher is assaulted the unions should be asking why it was allowed to happen, and could it have been prevented.

    A whole bunch of expensive lawsuits from the unions when teachers were left in terrible positions regarding dangerous students would focus the minds of politicians tremendously.

    Instead the unions are active the other way.

  3. “I have a strong recollection from my second year of teaching, back in 2003, of a senior figure from the local authority coming to my school at the start of the year and explaining there would be no permanent exclusions in Coventry that year.”


    There was indeed a big reduction in permanent exclusions that year- from 66 to 4. Sounds from the article that the council put much more focus on its Pupil Referral Unit.

    So this looks like a council doing exactly what the bit of Labour’s manifesto you quoted (approvingly) say they should. If that’s the case, then it’s not an example of “the educational establishment” leading a cunning “counter revolution”.

    What did this chap actually say? Was it airy fairy discipline-light stuff, like you seem to imply? Or was it more along the lines of “we want to reduce permanent exclusions with work we do in our pupil referral unit”?

    • It was “there will be no exclusions this year”. The only time I heard of the PRU was in connection with a placement for a year 8 student. For violent KS4 students my school overlooked even a racist incident that left a child hospitalised.

    • Just read that article. All these years later the dishonesty of the LA makes me angry. They threw us to the wolves and lied to the press.

      • Pretty serious allegations there. Any names you can name? I think we ought to hear what they say for themselves.

        • If you think I’m lying that’s really down to you. But I’m not describing anything that was unusual at the time.

          • I don’t think you’re lying at all. I looked at the numbers for exclusions- reduction from 66 to 4 in one year very much says “too good to be true” to me, and you as teachers have my sympathy. But their PRU is trumpeted there, and I assume there was some borough wide effort put into it. It would be interesting to ask about. And from your point of view, why spare the “guilty men”, if that’s what you think they are?

            • It was 15 years ago, not only do I not recall names, I imagine those most guilty have long since moved on.

          • Fair enough.

  4. Christ almighty, that New York Post article you linked to.

    You’re happy with trusting that guy?

    • Seems consistent with other reports.

      • Stick up some other reports then. That bloke is an uber-Trump lunatic writing in a thoroughly dishonest newspaper. You think he even read the guidance in question? It’s not veryhard to see where he’s coming from. It’s like sticking up something by Nigel Farage.

        • Hey, guess what? You don’t get to decide who other people are allowed to listen to.

          • On the other hand, it’s better not to stick up serial liars to back up your points, isn’t it? Seeing you’re trying to persuade on here.

            • If people don’t believe it they are free to look for other sources.

          • Well, I’ve had a good read more broadly. This looks to be fair-minded, written by a conservative.


            He thinks there have been problems. One excellent point he makes is that initiatives which aren’t all bad can be made very bad by schools making stupid responses to them. And that’s being generous to lots of people associated with American schools at grassroots that they’re even interested in making an initiative pushed by “Obama” or “the Federal Government” work, and a media that pushes this “Obama liberalism causing mayhem” stuff.

            It looks like this stuff could work well where there’s buy-in, expertise and money. In the absence of those, I agree that it could be counter-productive. But the “education establishment” can look at that, and make improvements.

            But it would be hard to think that NY Post polemic by that loon is reflective of the broader write-ups of the policy.

  5. As a simple person, I don’t believe you can ever solve this problem. I came from construction into FE 5 years ago and i’ve been told since day one that education is an ever changing beast. After working for 46 years I think I can safely say that education has been tampered with so many times that the government and OFSTED are ‘lost.’ Education Ministers have 5years at the most to make a difference. If they don’t make changes then they appear pointless, so they have to make changes which they are generally ill equipped to do and everyone below them are ‘yes’ people (frightened of losing their job or classed as a trouble causer) So bad policies after bad policies are passed down the line. After 5 years a new minister comes along and changes it all again. So now we have a system that has been changed/amended and changed again with affect that no one really knows what to do and most teachers (I am acquainted with) just get on with whatever ridiculous policy is in vogue at the time. The latest nonsense is the new Data Protection laws that state a student, when 13, can refuse to allow a school/college to contact the parents/guardians about their progress. Meanwhile the only people that really suffer are the students whilst this political gamesmanship goes on. The answer? Take education away from politicians, create an education standards executive run by a board made up of competent educationalists, industry executives and sensible independent community leaders. Give education some common sense continuity. Just a thought 😜

  6. I’d just like to raise an issue here. If a physical assault takes place in a school, that is not simply a matter for the school. A criminal act has taken place and it is a matter for the police. Surely the police should be called in every time a teacher is assaulted.

  7. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  8. […] in May, I wrote a post, If we are not careful, history will repeat itself on exclusions, arguing that complaints about a rise in exclusions were something we had seen before, and were […]

  9. […] If we are not careful, history will repeat itself on exclusions […]

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