Away from the manifesto speculation, today marks National Children’s Day in the UK. A day established by the UN General Assembly in 1954 to recognise children’s role in society and our future, as well as to remind ourselves we have a responsibility to help them to grow into happy, healthy adults. But how many children never get this help? Indeed, how many are simply deemed too difficult to help, ending up excluded from the system that’s meant to support them?
If we’re honest, there has probably never been a time when school exclusions were fair. Since statistics were first collected during the 1990s, black Caribbean pupils have been disproportionally subjected to permanent exclusion from school, and this continues to be the case to this day. In fact, it has now been a decade since the then Department for Education and Skills published a priority review of the exclusion of black pupils which acknowledged that the numbers could not be explained by warning signs such as a previous history of temporary exclusions or poor attendance, special educational needs, socio-economic status, or a prior criminal record. These exclusions were still too high after accounting for these factors. The review went so far as to admit a compelling case for the existence of institutional racism in schools.
So, have things improved? The latest statistics don’t make for good reading. They confirm that black Caribbean boys remain four times as likely to be excluded as white British boys, and black Caribbean girls are twice as likely to be excluded as their white British counterparts. Boys from Gypsy/Roma or Irish Traveller backgrounds face a similarly raised risk of exclusion, and those with mixed white and black Caribbean heritage are only slightly better off at three times as likely. The consequences of exclusion are bleak and long term – heightened risks of unemployment, criminal offending and ill health.
We also know special educational needs are a predictor of how likely a child will be excluded from school. England educates a high proportion of its children in mainstream schools by international standards, but for children on the borderline between mainstream and specialist education, exclusion can be a common rite of passage. In the latest year, more than half of permanent exclusions were of children with special needs; there were over three thousand exclusions of children receiving support from their school, and/or specialist services. Children with milder needs are seven times as likely as others to be excluded, and those with severe needs four times as likely. This was largely driven by children with social, emotional and mental health needs who are a staggering nineteen times more likely to be excluded than children without special needs. There are undoubtedly reasons why certain types of special need are associated with challenging – and sometimes extremely challenging – behaviour, but that is not a justification for applying punitive processes. It should not require a child to be formally excluded from school to get the support they need.
As well as ethnic factors and SEN, rates of exclusion are elevated for children from deprived backgrounds, those with family problems, mental health and social communication difficulties, low IQ or experiences of bullying. Indeed, children who are in care or are known to social services are two to three times as likely to be excluded as those who are not, and those who are eligible for free school meals due to low income have four times the risk of other children. Under the circumstances, it’s high time we stopped exclusions from singling out the vulnerable for unfavourable treatment.
A final twist comes from exclusions that occur suspiciously close to the beginning or end of compulsory schooling. Each year a small number of very young children are permanently excluded; one should wonder what steps were taken prior to the exclusion of 110 six-year-olds, 90 five-year-olds and 30 children aged four or younger excluded in the latest year We should be asking what counts as the ‘last straw’ in the case of a five-year-old. At the other end of the scale, Education Datalab recently found that a cluster of over 6,000 pupils leave the rolls of mainstream schools in the autumn and spring of their GCSE year. Not all will be formal exclusions, but the timing – just before the cut-off date for including pupils’ results in the school performance tables – raises very difficult questions.
Perhaps, however, the most unsettling thing about the catalogue of concerns related to school exclusions is that they have hardly changed over decades. That’s why this National Children’s Day, we should all be asking why nothing has been done about the routine “casting off” of some of the most vulnerable and marginalised children in our society.