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Are Exclusions Fair? Part 3: The Perpetrators

November 3, 2018

I have written a number of posts recently about permanent exclusions and the movement against them. These two posts sum up the issue.

I wrote about the ideology behind some of this.

I also wrote about what happens when schools don’t permanently exclude:

There have been a few recurring arguments that permanent exclusions, as they currently happen, are unfair. I wrote posts addressing whether they are unfair because of SEND or because of racism.

Here I will address the argument that permanent exclusions are bad for those who are excluded, and, therefore, unfair on them.

A lot of the arguments on this issue refer back to the posts above on the progressive narrative on behaviour. According to this ideology, children cannot be held responsible for their behaviour. Therefore, one cannot appeal to desert, or justice, to justify a behaviour sanction. I wrote about this here:

In the permanent exclusion debate, the belief that children have no responsibility for their actions, and require only a modification of behaviour, leads to a complete elimination of the distinction between perpetrators and victims. In reality, when a child is permanently excluded, there exists both a human being who has chosen to harm others, and there are the harmed. In my experience, permanent exclusions rarely happen without violence or intimidation, without other children, or possibly school staff, having been hurt, violated, intimidated, endangered or scared. This is not always clear from the exclusion figures, as those who repeatedly offend are usually excluded for “persistent disruptive behaviour”. While teachers know that in practice this means a child who is completely out of control and usually violent, the non-teachers and politicians who oppose exclusions often seem to think it means asking for a pen or looking out of the window too many times.

As a result it is common in discussions of permanent exclusions for the victims to not be mentioned at all. People talk as if there is nothing more to the issue than the perpetrator and the school and no other child is affected. Often, this narrative is so pervasive that words you would expect to apply to the victims of extreme behaviour, like “vulnerable” are applied instead to the perpetrator. The issue is then discussed as if it was a matter of finding the best therapeutic intervention for this “vulnerable” child. Often, when I raise the issue of the victim of the offence that led to exclusions, I am told that the perpetrator is also a victim. No doubt my deliberate use of the word “perpetrator” here will be considered deeply offensive to those poor, vulnerable children, who may have sexually assaulted a peer, threatened a teacher with rape, or set fire to a building. But this is a key point, when we talk about the fairness of permanent exclusions, we are not talking about finding a therapy for the vulnerable; we are talking about both protecting, and providing some justice, for their innocent, and genuinely vulnerable, victims. That is not to say we can’t consider the interests of the perpetrator at all, just that the victims should come first. Schools can be dangerous places – on average a rape is reported every day in a school in the UK – and no headteacher should be told that the rights of those who would harm others means that they cannot act to keep their schools safe.

This is not to say that we cannot consider the interests of the perpetrators at all, only that it is unfair if that is the priority. Even when we do consider this, we should be very, very careful. The conventional narrative is that allowing a student with extreme behaviour to stay in school is in their best interest and excluding them would be bad for them. Common sense tells us that allowing a child to get away with extreme behaviour will not actually be good for them. While children change, and change a lot during adolescence, they do normally come to see what is accepted as what is permitted. Those who are spared a deserved exclusion rarely reform as a result of that mercy. Opponents of permanent exclusions would give the impression that poor behaviour can be changed through “interventions” and that there are people out there who can change even the most extreme behaviour, just so long as those perpetrators remain in their mainstream school. This is not my experience as a teacher, or that of most classroom teachers I speak to in mainstream secondary schools, but usually it is those who provide the interventions, not those who teach, who are given the opportunity to share their experience. So to balance the tales of compassionate specialists turning round the most violent children by talking about their feelings, here are a couple of tales of what is more normal in my experience. Here is a blogpost by Headteacher Stuart Lock about a badly behaved boy who was kept in school, and left school believing his behaviour had no consequences, only to find out this wasn’t the case in the adult world. Here is a post by me describing the behaviour of a girl whose worst offences never resulted in exclusions. Neither of these sets of experiences are typically considered in the debate over permanent exclusions.

Of course, one would expect there to be some empirical evidence which would show whether permanent exclusion is better than tolerating extreme behaviour, and allow us to see whether it is the anecdotes of teachers or the anecdotes of the anti-exclusion lobby that are more typical. There isn’t. To my knowledge, nobody has ever, or ever would, be given ethical permission to run an RCT comparing permanent exclusions with the alternatives. I should mention that many people in the anti-exclusion lobby seek to conceal this. They will compare outcomes for those kids who were permanently excluded (usually the most out of control, most dangerous and most criminal young people) and those who weren’t (i.e. those who schools felt they could turn round). Inevitably, the outcomes for the former are worse than for the latter. This is not surprising, but you will find that it is often claimed that this shows that exclusion is harmful, as if the exclusion caused the outcome, rather than the extreme behaviour of the child caused both the exclusions and the outcome. At times it is even claimed that permanent exclusions cause criminal behaviour, rather than that criminal behaviour lead to permanent exclusions. This sort of claim should be challenged, but often it is accepted uncritically by the media.

In the absence of any useful data about the effects of permanent exclusions, we have little choice but to rely on school leaders to make sensible judgements about their own schools. Currently, however, they are under fire from politicians and from the education establishment whose sympathies are overwhelmingly with the permanently excluded, and not with their victims, or with teachers or school leaders. I wish I could say that this trend is being successfully resisted, but so far, those of us who want schools to be safe are being drowned out by those who think they can “save” the badly behaved by keeping them where they can have an endless supply of new victims.

 

 

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One comment

  1. Although I haven’t any personal experience of this (I volunteered in a primary school where there was no real trouble in the class I worked with – now applying for PGCE courses) it alarms me to hear that many schools have policies of refusing to exclude, or involve police, when “looked after” children are involved. I understand there are often noble intentions of not wanting already disadvantaged children to get caught in a spiral of low achievement and possible criminality; but how is teaching them that their actions have no consequences supposed to prevent this?



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