The use of exclusions in English schools often violates the ‘moral rights’ of children.
And schools need extra support if they’re to implement ‘wide, systemic reform’ to ensure children are not ‘disproportionately harmed’ when removed from classrooms.
That’s according to a new study by Dr John Tillson, Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Education at Liverpool Hope University, and Laura Oxley, a PhD research student in the Department of Education at the University of York.
They argue school exclusions in the UK need to move from being a routine occurrence to a measure of absolute ‘last resort’.
Their paper, published in the journal Theory and Research in Education, suggests exclusions deprive children of access to adequate education while also potentially putting them in mental and physical harm’s way.
Exclusions are also often an ineffective deterrent to bad behaviour and using removal from classrooms as a punishment can exacerbate feelings of rejection and isolation.
Dr Tillson and Ms Oxley instead want to see the blanket use of exclusions replaced with a ‘restorative, collaborative’ approach to tackling problem behaviours in classrooms.
Speaking about the research, Dr Tillson says exclusion as a ‘non-punitive preventative’ measure may sometimes be justified to protect others in the school community, but adds: “There are actually very few situations in which exclusions can be morally defended as the only option available.
“It is often thought that you’ve got broadly protective, developmental and just-desert based reasons to penalise through exclusion.
“Some people believe that by punishing you serve a developmental good, that it teaches students that they should behave better. But it just doesn’t seem to be true.
“And it seems especially not to be true when it comes to school exclusion, which comes at the end of a long line of punitive treatment which has shown itself to have failed.
“It doesn’t seem to make sense as an educative vehicle. It’s not an effective lesson.”
Ms Oxley adds: “How does excluding someone from the school community help them learn the values of that community?
“It doesn’t foster belonging. It creates rejection and resentment - exacerbating behaviours. The child may feel, ‘You’ve rejected me, so I will reject you’.
“If a student makes an academic mistake, they typically receive lots of support to help them correct that mistake. Whereas when a child makes a behavioural mistake often the immediate response is that the child should be punished.”
Temporary and permanent exclusions - both external and ‘internal’, where the child is isolated from peers but still on school premises - have been increasing markedly in the UK since 2013 - and the UK has a school exclusion rate that is ten times greater than that of any other country in Europe.
The new study considers exclusion from the point of view of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the UK signed in 1990.
Questioning the notion of exclusion as a punishment, Dr Tillson explains: “Two of the weighty interests identified in the Convention are an interest in educational opportunities, and an interest in being safe and free from harm.
“You might think that punishment can sometimes protect those things.
“If a child poses some kind of a threat to another person it might seem entirely reasonable to remove that threat.
“But that threat has to be removed at proportional costs. You can’t impose excessive harms on someone through exclusion to remove only a small threat.
“And in the absence of good educational opportunities for people who are excluded or who are in alternative provision, it’s even less okay to exclude them, because you do more harm to them.
“Think about the adequacy of a child’s education. If keeping a child in school gives them access to adequate education and doesn’t diminish anyone else’s education below a threshold of adequacy, we may not have a reason to remove them, even though removing them would improve everyone else’s education.
“It’s about schools being mindful of disproportionate harm.”
There’s also the question of how responsible a child truly is for their behaviours, according to Dr Tillson, who also wants to see an end to the stigmatisation of exclusions, which arises when the threat of being sent home is wielded as a weapon.
So why are exclusion rates soaring in England?
Dr Tillson says performance reviews are a big factor, creating a ‘perverse incentive’ to expel lower performing students to improve league table rankings.
Meanwhile Ms Oxley says: “There needs to be a shift in culture in terms of how schools and headteachers think about exclusion.
“It needs to be something used in exceptional circumstances, rather than something that’s just part of behavioural policy.
“A big problem is that a lot of schools feel they don’t have another option. They ask, ‘What else can we do? This child has hit another child, this child is disrupting every class they’re in? All the other schools are excluding - we need to behave in the same way.’”
Reform to exclusion is also not about undermining the safety of teachers.
Ms Oxley states: “If there’s a threat to a teacher, and that teacher is at risk of being harmed, then excluding the child to ensure the teacher’s safety is something that may need to be considered.
“But when you look at what exclusions are commonly used for, the most common reason, for a number of years, is due to persistently disruptive behaviour - which doesn’t suggest that the child’s behaviour is actually causing an immediate danger to others, as persistent disruption is something that is built up over time.
“It may be causing a disruption to the education of others, but there are other alternative education provisions that can provide education for that child in a different environment, rather than excluding them from education completely.”
Harms caused by exclusion are myriad, according to Dr Tillson and Ms Oxley.
Internal isolations are described as a lesser form of ‘solitary confinement’ and ‘social deprivation’ with obvious ramifications for the child’s mental health.
Ms Oxley says: “We have to ask, what is the aim of that punishment? What is the child supposed to learn from that experience, and is there another way for the child to be taught this lesson that’s more effective?
“Some schools show good practice with their use of internal isolations and use the time to undertake restorative work. This is far more constructive than having a child sit on their own, completing worksheets.”
Children externally excluded often run the risk of being groomed into gangs or being recruited into county lines drug running, says Dr Tillson.
When it comes to real change, he acknowledges that only Government led directives will give the schools the funding and resources needed to implement alternatives to exclusion.
But he adds: “Exclusion isn’t the only way we can tell a school community that a child's actions were wrong.
“If there’s a restorative conversation had with that child, then the rest of the students see the response and see the child’s behaviour is not being ignored.
“Headteachers and boards of governors can reconsider what the legitimate functions of exclusion are and whether or not they think a particular case does meet the threshold of not visiting disproportionate harm on an individual when they’re not fully responsible for their actions.
“More resources could be poured into schools to improve the education opportunities for those in internal exclusion, or to have a higher staff to student ratio, or more dedicated staff who can think about developing strategies with particular groups of students who have trouble controlling their behaviour.
“Schools don’t have these resources right now. It could take years.
“But in terms of assessing priorities and decision making frameworks, it’s something that could almost happen overnight.”
The Covid-19 pandemic could also mean there’s never been a more important time to assess school exclusions.
Ms Oxley states: “We’ve been through a national trauma. Lives have been thrown upside down. Children may have experienced bereavements.
“There will be children who will act out their anxieties through their behaviour when they return to school. And it could result in exclusions among children who might not have been at risk of being excluded before the pandemic.
“Again, we have to ask what we actually gain from exclusions? If a child is anxious about going to school and you send them home in response to that, it’s not solving the problem.
“They’re still going to be anxious about going to school.”
* The research was funded by the Center for Ethics and Education, and is part of a wider ‘Pedagogies of Punishment’ project led by Dr Tillson and Dr Winston C Thompson, of The Ohio State University, USA.