Archive for March, 2020


Do schools permanently exclude too often?

March 15, 2020

There’s been a narrative seen in the media in the last few years suggesting that there is a problem with the level of permanent exclusions.

This strikes me as a typical example:

Particularly common is the suggestion that a head with a low level of exclusions has something to teach us (in this case we have every reason to disagree) and the idea that it is reasonable to comment on the level of exclusions without commenting on the level of unacceptable behaviour in schools. There are some things we can say about the level of exclusions without looking at behaviour. We have heard a lot about rising exclusions recently and you can easily find people complaining that something they personally dislike, like an academic curriculum or schools actually enforcing rules, is causing exclusions to increase. The latest figures show a general rise in permanent exclusions since 2012 when Michael Gove abolished the right to appeal, but this is a rise from a level which was already a historic low, and is still lower than 2006/7.

And if we look even further back, we see just how low permanent exclusions were before the rise.

The latest exclusion figures show that the number of permanent exclusions in the 21000 state schools 2017/18 was 7905. This is less than 1 in every 1000 pupils, i.e. 0.10%. The rate of permanent exclusions in primary schools was 0.03 per cent. The rate of permanent exclusions in secondary schools was 0.20 per cent. As well as having a much lower rate of exclusions, primary schools are smaller, so an individual primary school will exclude far less often than a secondary school. On average, a secondary school excludes 2 students a year, whereas, on average, a primary school will exclude a student once in a period of almost 14 years. Strangely this is overlooked by the anti-exclusion lobby, and we see some primary heads praised for avoiding exclusions as if it was an achievement, rather than normal for primaries.

The primary/secondary difference also largely explains statistics like this from the Guardian.

Overall, 85% of all mainstream schools did not expel a single child in 2016-7, while 47 individual secondary schools (0.2% of all schools) expelled more than 10 pupils in the same year.

We would expect the vast majority of schools to be primary schools expelling nobody in a given year, and permanent exclusions to be concentrated in secondary schools.

We also often hear claims that permanent exclusions are given for less serious misbehaviour. Often this is a result of confusing permanent and fixed term exclusions, but where it isn’t, it’s based on implausible and unverified anecdotes or on an interpretation of the way permanent exclusions are categorised.

Those who wish to reduce or prevent exclusions, point to the fact that the largest category “Persistent disruptive behaviour” is very vague, and, perhaps by focusing on the word “disruptive” rather than the word “persistent”, interpret it to cover less serious, or easily preventable, offences.

Examples of this:

The ambiguity here is not really cleared up by the guidance on exclusions, which specifies only that the category of “persistent disruptive behaviour” refers to:

• Challenging behaviour
• Disobedience
• Persistent violation of school rules

Like so much of the debate about exclusions, I find a real disconnect between my experience as a teacher which is that exclusions are infrequent and always for something that schools cannot tolerate without endangering children’s safety and learning, and claims like the above. In my experience, “persistent disruptive behaviour” is not less serious than the other reasons for exclusions, it is just more persistent. Children I’ve encountered who have been excluded for this are usually out of control, and often will have repeatedly committed the offences described in the supposedly more serious categories.

While there is some evidence, to be discussed in a later blogpost, that teachers do not think schools are too quick to exclude, we would struggle to find direct evidence of whether permanent exclusions are used sparingly and only for the most serious behaviour. However, what we can do is look at the scale of the worst behaviour in schools, and ask whether it can sufficiently account for the number of permanent exclusions that take place. Of course, it could be argued that schools are permanently excluding for trivial offences while tolerating extreme offences, but such a claim would, at the very least, be implausible enough to require very strong evidence. If the number of exclusions is low compared with the amount of extreme behaviour taking place, it is unlikely that schools are too quick to exclude, and if the behaviours in the “more serious” categories for exclusions are far more common than the exclusion figures would suggest, it is unlikely that the “less serious” categories such as “other” or “persistent disruptive behaviour” (which between the account for the majority of permanent exclusions) are being used for trivial offences.

These are the numbers of permanent exclusions, by type, from 2017/2018.

Permanent exclusions
Physical assault against a pupil 1,037
Physical assault against an adult 845
Verbal abuse/ threatening behaviour against a pupil 338
Verbal abuse/ threatening behaviour against an adult 652
Bullying 32
Racist abuse 13
Sexual misconduct 100
Drug and alcohol related 643
Damage 77
Theft 40
Persistent disruptive behaviour 2,686
Other 1,442
Total 7,905

Judging the level of bad behaviour in schools is hard to do accurately. Almost any source will be either an estimate or a partial picture. Fortunately, we don’t need to be very precise to see how low the above figures are. Teacher Tapp surveys teachers by using a large sample weighted to be representative. They asked teachers about their experience of physical and verbal abuse in the last year.

There are 453400 (Full Time Equivalent) teachers in state schools. This means the best estimate we have of teachers experiencing physical abuse from pupils in a year is 95000. The best estimate of teachers experiencing verbal abuse from pupils would be 249000. Both terms are defined by the respondents, and obviously any sample will not be perfect, but this is enough to give some idea of the gap between the permanent exclusion figures and the likely number of incidents serious enough for teachers to consider them to be verbal or physical abuse. Permanent exclusions for physical assault against an adult, and verbal abuse/threatening behaviour against an adult are 845 and 652 respectively for the last year on record, out of 7905 permanent exclusions in total. The mismatch between these figures and those derived from a representative sample of teachers, make a mockery of the idea that schools are quick to permanently exclude, and the idea that we can assume without evidence, or on the basis of vague categories, that permanent exclusions include lots of trivial offences.

Another source of evidence is that in recent years journalists have reported on Freedom of Information requests to police forces about crimes reported at schools. These figures are likely to be incomplete as not all police forces respond, and some will include crimes by adults in schools, and figures from Scotland and Wales. We can also assume that many incidents (I’d say from experience the vast majority of incidents) in schools that, technically, can be considered criminal are not reported to the police. However, if all we are looking for is whether permanent exclusions reflect the frequency of serious incidents in schools, it is worth noting how they compare with what incidents in schools are reported to the police.

Comparing these with the exclusion figures, we again get the clear impression that both the total number of exclusions, and the exclusions for the “most serious” offences (if one wishes to claim that the “persistent disruptive behaviour” and “other” categories are made up of less serious offences) are far lower than expected. We have a situation where the threshold for permanently excluding for a single offence appears higher than the threshold for reporting the single offence to the police as a crime.

The view that permanent exclusions are currently high, seems completely dependent on ignoring the realities of behaviour in schools. When you consider what teachers say they experience, and what is reported to the police, we should be asking why the rate of permanent exclusions is so low, and what can be done to make schools safer.




Behaviour is not all about relationships

March 1, 2020

It doesn’t take long in a discussion about behaviour for somebody who should know better to claim that the key to good behaviour is good relationships. It’s true that a bad relationship could undermine you with a class. It’s true that sometimes a good relationship with some of the dominant personalities will have a really positive effect on a class. It’s true that it’s better to have good relationships than bad with your students. However, we should not confuse cause and effect. It’s much easier to have a good relationship with a well behaved class. It’s easy to con yourself that the good behaviour you get from a class is because the class like you, but it’s far more likely that the class like you when your lessons are safe and orderly and you are not having to constantly tell them off. In my experience, if you visit schools with strict and effective behaviour management, you also see really good relationships between staff and students. This is because relationships thrive where staff and students are happy and flourishing, and that happens best where there are boundaries and students are safe. The opposite of this is the school where good behaviour occurs mainly when students have been “won over”; where strangers and new staff may be treated with contempt and life is hell for the teacher who isn’t liked.

Most of the teachers with the strongest relationships with students have earned them the right way: through firm discipline and commitment to their students’ well-being. In an environment where winning over students is a prerequisite for an absence of abuse and defiance, there will be some adults who have prioritised these relationships above establishing the right expectations. In tough schools I have encountered teachers who have “good relationships” who earned them by never confronting a student. I have sat observing in lessons where the teacher had the most friendly and respectful conversations with even the most difficult students, but never said a word as the students subjected each other to abuse and harassment. Appeasement is a key strategy to surviving in a school where behaviour is based on relationships; rather than relationships allowed to develop due to good behaviour. Because relationships are a two way street, and students can choose who they like, schools where good behaviour is conditional on relationships, shift power to those students who want it. Those students can make it clear to teachers: “If you want an easy life, don’t get in my way”. At best this just means a lowering of academic standards, but often it means the departure of adult authority from the classroom. While this may be empowering for the ringleaders, it leaves most children unprotected from the mob, as staff fear the bullies among the children as much as their peers do.

Another aspect of schools where only good relationships will prompt good behaviour, is the effect on new staff. Typically, it takes a long time to establish yourself. These schools are not a nice place to start teaching, and even experienced teachers will find themselves treated badly when they move schools. Students will have a perception of who they need to obey and who they don’t. Supply teachers will be driven out; new staff will frequently go under, and classes will boast of the teachers they reduced to tears. Worse still, students will learn to coordinate their disruption. New staff are the obvious target, but sometimes a particular part of the curriculum will become known as the one to disrupt. Sometimes staff will be targeted for their gender, sexuality or ethnicity. There are schools where good behaviour depends on good relationships, but you almost certainly won’t have that good relationship if you teach French; if you speak with an accent, or you happen to follow the wrong religion. 

Finally, let’s accept that teachers are all different. Some are more introverted than others. Some like football and crude jokes; others like opera and subtle wit. Not everybody likes small talk. The culture of having to win over students turns teachers into superficial people, more interested in playing to the crowd than imparting something profound. Halfway between a politician and a game show host, the teacher with the most winning personality may “succeed” despite poor subject knowledge and little skill at imparting knowledge. They may even have the tricks of the demagogue: knowing how to manipulate individuals and how to lead a mob. Any teacher who is introverted; any teacher who is on the autistic spectrum; any teacher who cares more about their subject than being liked, is not welcome in the school where good behaviour depends on relationships. And it’s worse still for the misfits among the students. Expectations vary rapidly between classrooms as boundaries shift according to relationships. There’s no chance to learn good habits and follow routines; every lesson will be about navigating the social relationships between the teacher and the class. Instead of learning the useful skill of cooperating with people you don’t like; instead students are encouraged only to learn where the class has tacitly decided the teacher is “fun” enough for them. You wouldn’t want to be an autistic child in a school where the only rule is, “Don’t get on the wrong side of the mob”. Ironically, SEND students are frequently used as an excuse to justify the fuzzy boundaries and relationships first approach to discipline. You don’t have to be a teacher for five minutes to see how often these are the kids who are failed most in these schools.  

Behaviour is not about relationships. Good relationships with your students are worth having whether it will help behaviour or not. Good relationships are, however, no substitute for an orderly and secure environment where every teacher, and every student, can flourish.

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