Schools Must Be Able to Exclude Young People

So the First Minister has gone. While I don’t think the last eight years have been much good for Education in Scotland, there is no doubt that there are many other things that she can look back on with some satisfaction and pride. Among these things is The Promise, which was the Scottish Government’s response to the Independent Care Review which reported in February 2020 and which had as its mission the need to ‘make sure every care experienced child and young person is safe, loved and respected’.

No one, surely, can argue with this, not just because that’s every child’s right but also because care experienced children have, statistically, much worse life outcomes than other children; even the most pragmatic right-winger has to see that improving long term opportunities and destinations for kids who have gone through the care system can only be a good thing: factors like educational attainment, potential criminality, drug and alcohol addiction, career opportunities need urgent consideration. All of us, I think would agree that young Scots who have been in care deserve a far more equal playing field.

However, as with the entire issue of closing the poverty-related attainment gap, of which care-experienced children are an important part, and on which, as I fear history will recall, the First Minister placed such importance personally, there are ways of going about this. And it does look now as if schools are going to be compelled to uphold one recommendation from The Promise Scotland, which is that care-experienced children should not be excluded from schools. 

Now, sadly, care-experienced children are currently more likely to be excluded from school. In session 2020-21 – the last year for which figures are available, the exclusion figure for all children with Additional Support Needs was 25.5 exclusions per 1,000 pupils, almost five times the rate for children without  Additional Support Needs. What constitutes an ASN is a wide and varied field, including neurodivergent conditions, physical disabilities and problems with your learning environment or family circumstances. It would be indefensible to say that children across the broad ASN spectrum are not entirely deserving of everything that Scottish Education can provide for them. Head Teachers do not like excluding young people from their schools – indeed, of the 8,323 exclusions in 2020-21, only one was a permanent exclusion – i.e. one in which the Local Authority had to find a new school for the relevant child. All the others were temporary: this is a measure of the humanity and kindness of our teaching profession. 

The real problem with school exclusions is what happens to young people when they are excluded, which is mainly nothing at all. They go home; their ‘punishment’ as it were involves them – very often – sleeping in, playing with their phones, being out on the streets, watching things on Tik-Tok (I don’t even know what that is, really). In other words, if we are interested in the education of a young person, we exclude them knowing that the exclusion is not going to be a positive educational experience, because, over time, the provision for excluded children, and indeed for ASN children in general, has diminished just as the number of ASN children and young people has ballooned. The Government’s ‘Presumption of Mainstreaming’ policy, again introduced with the best possible intentions in the interests of ‘inclusion’, often leaves Scottish teachers reeling with the range of needs their classes include. Some of these kids have issues with their mental health and well-being that can make them very badly behaved, violent and aggressive. For others, their support needs simply mean that they require a lot of individual specialised help. Sometimes this can be provided by Learning Assistants, and sometimes they do a great job, but mainly this policy has led to large classes of young people having such varied needs that even the most sympathetic and skilled teachers can find it difficult to move on with learning in an ordered and useful way. In order to maximise the educational opportunities for ASN children, we need to ensure that we have the budget and training input for such specialised care, and more of that than is currently the case has to take place outside the mainstream classroom. 

In part, this is to ensure that we do our best educationally for every young person in Scotland – that should be our aspiration and is indeed a legal requirement. Currently, every time a teacher has to spend five minutes on dealing with a low-level disciplinary issue, very often every child who’s not involved wastes five minutes of their learning time. There are kids not going to school because they are scared of other kids; there are hundreds of teachers off with stress-related illness; we can’t even fill all our teaching training places.

Against this background, two big things have happened – teachers have had a sizeable pay increase, which I think is thoroughly deserved – but I would have liked to have heard a great deal more from the unions about the conditions that teachers work in – I wonder how many teachers would have sacrificed a bit of their new money for a more peaceful classroom? 

The second is an SNP leadership contest in which almost nothing has been said about Education – the Constitution, GRR, the NHS, equal marriage, the Free Kirk: these have been the headline issues. There is a silent crisis going on in Scotland, fuelled by well-meaning but badly thought out policy-making, which is taking its toll on our teachers and our young people, and it’s happening in Scottish schools. Schools must continue to be able to exclude young people.


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