The Difference – An education charity that gets it very wrong about exclusions

November 10, 2019

As you may know, I have delivered a talk at some researchED events about the evidence that permanent exclusions are necessary and, if anything, they are a bit rarer than they should be. After the national researchED conference, my attention was drawn to the charity The Difference. Their Twitter bio now says:

Bringing the best in education to those children who need it most. Training specialist leaders in Yorkshire, North West, London & South England.

However, their original emphasis seems to have been on exclusions, and their bio used to say:

Fighting to break the link between social exclusion and school exclusion. Our mission: to place excellent teachers in alternative provision schools.

In July, the NAHT made it clear The Difference are trying to reduce exclusions.

The podcast describes “exclusions” as “top of the government’s agenda” and explains that the charity gives school leaders a placement in AP with, “the ultimate aim of reducing school exclusion”. (It also claims that, “every cohort of excluded kids costs the state an extra £2.1 billion” which is around £300 000 per child, something I’d love to see the source for). It is assumed throughout that permanent exclusion is something that happens to, “the most vulnerable students”, rather than in order to protect the vulnerable, and that exclusions should be reduced.

As a school teacher, I have experienced what happens when schools try to avoid excluding – teachers and students are abused, attacked and intimidated while those in charge congratulate themselves for not excluding.  I shared what other teachers experienced in this post “What happens when schools don’t permanently exclude?”. It makes terrifying reading.

The Difference website is even clearer about what they are up to. Their one and only blogpost is an article originally from the TES entitled “How to teach challenging pupils and never exclude them” and it quotes David Whitaker, who is the director of learning at a trust that doesn’t exclude, and who supports the work of The Difference:

He recalls how at both his first placement at the Priory School in Barnsley and his first job at Kingstone School in the same South Yorkshire town that he had found his calling.

“When I had that job in Kingstone, I was teaching 30 kids in a class. You very rarely had a teaching assistant and there was no behaviour structure or system that was there to rescue you. When the door closed behind you you were on your own. You didn’t have a behaviour structure to support you.

“What I had to do is earn the respect of the class, teach really, really well. And if those kids were running around on the desks I had to get them down on my own with my personality and they needed to want to get down off the desks.”

He describes the experience as being daunting but he also believes it is where he learned what he considers is essential to managing behaviour – building up relationships with the pupils. And he worries that some of this is being lost in mainstream education.

“What happens now is that if a kid runs around on the desk there is a button you can press and someone comes and takes the kid out.  At the risk of sounding controversial I think we are at risk of deskilling.”

Incredible as it seems that anyone could suggest that it is, “deskilling” to support teachers faced with a attempted riot, I am not surprised as I had previously read a Guardian article about Whitaker; in it he described the approach he used (not at a mainstream school) to his staff being repeatedly abused:

One 11-year-old girl, Whitaker recalls, responded with a curt “Fuck off!” every single morning for a year. That particular response would be met with instant isolation, detention or expulsion in many schools – but not at [this school]…

Instead of disciplining her, teachers paid the girl more positive attention in an attempt to understand the angst she was bringing from home. Within a year, she had stopped her morning outburst and got along with school staff….

….[the school’s] teachers vow to approach every child with what they call, “unconditional positive regard” – or in Whitaker’s words they, “batter the children with kindness”. It’s in sharp contrast to the “no excuses” approach used in a growing number of schools…

At [this school], Whitaker says, it means rewarding children for the smallest things – like being kind to fellow pupils – and not punishing bad behaviour. “I could have a kid that spits in my face today and tomorrow I’ll be OK with them,” he says. And if a pupils throws over a table and swears at the teacher? “The teacher would be really nice to them, talk nicely….

Now, I realise that in AP teachers have to accept there may be more challenging behaviour than at a mainstream school  But The Difference exists to take approaches from AP and apply them in mainstream schools in order to reduce exclusions. It matters if any AP providers are tolerating abusive behaviour, refusing to punish and then mainstream SLT are meant to learn from this and apply it. As a teacher who does not want to be told to accept abuse and disruption, I am concerned about which approaches from AP The Difference may be promoting in mainstream education.

Worse though, it has been accepted that The Difference are experts. Kiran Gill, the Chief Executive of The Difference was part of the Timpson Review of Schools Exclusions and gave evidence to the Education Select Committee. She made her beliefs clear to the committee.

Thelma Walker: Would you suggest then that, if the curriculum in mainstream were inclusive and met the needs of children in mainstream, there would be fewer children in AP? Obviously, if it was more inclusive and the staff were appropriately trained, then that early intervention in mainstream would avoid the high numbers that are going into AP.

Kiran Gill: I think that is ideal. …. if we know exclusion levels were lower, then we know we can return to lower exclusion levels.

Thelma Walker: If you have senior leaders that buy into inclusivity, the holistic whole-child curriculum and positive behaviour management, then that will prevent—

Kiran Gill: Absolutely. That is our theory of change. As David said, we need to attract people and there need to be incentives. The Difference programme seeks to recruit existing mainstream teachers who are committed to becoming specialists, to upskill them in a placement in alternative provision, and also to broker them for future leadership opportunities back in the mainstream sector. It is that leadership that is an incentive.

Now, there is no reason progressives who believe that we should stop excluding should be silenced, but we need to stop treating people with this ideology as “experts” rather than campaigners. This blogpost was prompted by the fact that there was a conference run by The Difference yesterday, and there were a couple of things claimed at the conference and then shared by their Twitter account.


This was later deleted

Fuller context, to the second tweet was given by the TES:

Obviously, neither of these claims are true. (If anyone disagrees I’m happy to discuss it in the comments.) I am going to suggest that schools, policy makers and politicians simply stop listening to groups like The Difference. They are willing to spread information that I think most school leaders would dispute. This serves a clear ideological commitment to reducing exclusions. They should be free to disseminate their political opinions as an ideological campaign, but we need to move on from letting this anti-teacher, anti-discipline agenda be promoted in schools.




  1. Average life expectancy of someone who is excluded from school is 47 years – so we’re talking about shortening people’s lives if we don’t take responsibility for what we’re doing’ says

    Some people really don’t get the idea of correlation not being causation.

    People who go to university live longer than those who don’t. Therefore we should send everyone to university. Obviously.

  2. When I saw the claim (in the TES tweet) I was interested in reading the academic article the claim was based on. Several key points jumped out.
    1. The words exclusion and expulsion were not mentioned once (or any equivalent)
    2. There did seem to be some correlation between delinquency (defined as a criminal conviction) and poor health outcomes though this varied by when the individual was convicted. For two groups (students convicted between the age of 10 and 18, and 22 and 28) 16-17% of individuals had died before the age of 48
    3. The study focused solely on boys
    4. At no point is a life expectancy for any group given. In fact, as the majority of individuals of the overall group are still alive (as well as those in the subsets listed as delinquent) any life expectancy calculations are guesses at best

    • Worth saying that it hasn’t been confirmed that that was the correct article.

  3. Characteristically heavy on criticism and light on solutions. Any pearls of wisdom on what should happen to all these damaged and vulnerable children when you’ve washed your dainty little hands of them, or is that ‘someone else’s problem’?

    • You appear to be using the word “vulnerable” to describe the most dangerous young people. Isn’t it more suited to their victims?

      • I am, because – as one would hope a ‘professional’ teacher would know from their grounding in child development and psychology – it is very often their vulnerability that causes them to act in ways that you refer to as ‘dangerous’. But you’ve dodged my question.

        • You appear to have mistaken your ideology for science.

          • Another quasi-intellectual dodge.

          • And you appear once more to have dodged the question

        • Children can be ‘dangerous’, many (other) pupils and staff are injured; where this derives is relevant but using phrases like ” washed your dainty little hands of them” is less than helpful

          • May be less than helpful for you, but the children at PRUs and many PRU staff will tell you they feel that the mainstream has effectively washed their hands of them.

            • It’s about the money & a lack of a strategy.

              There’s a PRU at the bottom of the street here in Aberdeen it seems barely used, I have not seen any kids go in – they must be mainstreamed. Indeed there’s only the odd fancy car (large BMW today) driving in.

              Inclusion has meant tons of extra work for (state) schools, so I am not surprised that they are too busy to rush round and it appears, to you that they have ” effectively washed their hands of PRUs”. But again poor choice of words to describe many teachers & PSAs who are working hard and don’t get paid for going home bruised.

    • Any pearls of wisdom on what should happen to all these damaged and vulnerable children when you’ve washed your dainty little hands of them?

      The “you” in that question is doing a lot of work.

      I’ve never excluded a child in my life. I doubt Andrew has either.

      My school has. But that school is part of the state apparatus, and it doesn’t exist by itself.

      A student excluded from one school is (at least where I live) almost always able to go to another reasonably local school. They pretty much have to take him or her in (up to the age of 16), given the legal right to an education. If they behave, no issues.

      If they do not behave then they might get excluded again. At that point other schools normally won’t take them. Generally there are specific schools or training places dedicated to trying to help them, and they go to one of those.

      If they can’t last at one of those, then they generally are really quite nasty pieces of work, no matter how “damaged and vulnerable” they are.

      I’ve taught a significant number of students who have changed schools because they were either excluded or were in the process of being excluded. (Actually one of my friends from when I was at school arrived having been excluded for setting a teacher’s car on fire at his previous school.) Generally they are badly behaved, but they have learned their lesson and keep within the lines enough to finish school. The system tends to work.

  4. […] a well-established and supposedly reputable think tank. The author of this report went onto set up The Difference, a very influential charity that has done a lot to oppose schools’ right to exclude. The one […]

  5. […] Kiran Gil is the CEO of The Difference and I wrote about them here. […]

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