Changing the Cycle for excluded children

25 September 2018

The beginning of a new school year is already underway but are you aware that 35 children per day will be excluded from mainstream education? Many of these won’t be recorded in official figures.

It is often the most vulnerable children who are excluded when they should instead be supported for mental health issues, learning difficulties, or unsafe and stressful home environments.

Children with learning difficulties are 7% more likely to be excluded, those with mental health issues are 10% more likely, and children who are interacting with social services are 20 times more likely to be excluded.

Once excluded they enter a cycle that sees half of them make up the prison population. They’re more likely to become unemployed and suffer severe mental health issues.

Providing for excluded children

Pupil Referral Units, known as a PRUs, for primary and secondary schooling support excluded students to return to mainstream schools by dealing with the root of behavioural issues. Most children attend for an average of 15-20 weeks.

Last week, Big Change co-founders Holly Branson and Princess Beatrice visited two PRUs who are partnered with charity, The Difference.

The Difference is supported by Big Change and have developed a specialist training programme to develop new expertise in the profession; connecting exceptional teachers to schools for excluded children and create a community of leaders to drive change throughout England’s education system, reducing the number of exclusions.

Excluded pupils Hawkswood Primary PRU

At Hawkswood Primary and Burnside Secondary PRUs, Big Change founders heard from students, parents and school staff about the experience of exclusion and the challenges in the sector. They then joined a roundtable with The Difference founder Kiran Gill, current and past students of Burnside, as well as The Difference head of curriculum Shaun Brown.

Shaun’s experience is the proof in the pudding. His work in PRUs helped him modify his practice and reducing numbers of exclusion when he returned to work in a mainstream school as the leader of inclusion. Shaun’s frontline experience has given him the passion to create a new generation of specialist leaders, committed and up-skilled to cut exclusion.

Excluded from school round table

The roundtable heard stories from teachers about children who were excluded after being targeted by drug gangs, who couldn’t stay awake in class because they had been out all night making deliveries. Other students were late for school after dealing with very difficult, adult situations in the mornings at home.

There is a lack of training to understand these causes of behaviour, with the average teacher receiving only about three hours on these issues. The Difference and their partner PRUs work to depersonalise behaviour for teachers, increasing the understanding about why bad behaviour occurs and how to address it positively.

The group also heard from past and present students of Burnside about how they fell back in love with school and were able to return to mainstream education with clear goals for their future.

Many students who have been excluded form negative associations with ‘endings’ as often they have experienced little consistency. Therefore, the PRUs turn endings into positives by constantly working towards the celebration of returning to their school. Students continue to wear their uniforms and are encouraged to talk about what success looks like for them and understand the pathway that will lead them there.

Excluded pupils at Hawkswood PRU meet Princess Beatrice

Hawkswood and Burnside PRUs exemplify the huge difference specialist teachers can make to the outcomes for an excluded child. After the visit Princess Beatrice reflected:

Some of children we met at Hawkswood were as young as six years old and have already been excluded from mainstream education, often due to mental health issues, unsafe and stressful home lives or learning difficulties for which they should instead be supported. It was incredible to see them thrive in an environment where their teachers had undertaken specialist training, both at the primary centre and the secondary centre Burnside, Waltham Forest.

But PRUs are facing a recruitment crisis with students two and a half times more likely to have an unqualified teacher.

The Difference aims to recruit specialist teachers who are established and want to be leaders in this area to take skills back to the mainstream and reduce exclusions. It’s a programme that Holly Branson says:

if supported and funded by government, the private sector and donors, help to prevent the long-term damage caused to young people (and their families) by cutting the number of school exclusions in the UK.

It’s imperative that changes are ultimately made in the mainstream because even with exceptional PRU facilities, the experience of exclusion due to trauma is traumatic in itself, leaving already vulnerable children feeling unwanted and incapable.

At Hawkswood they battle these feelings by teaching a growth mindset around the idea of ‘yet’; ‘I can’t do that – yet’, ‘I don’t understand that – yet’. This teaches pupils that failure is just a step in the learning journey.

There exists a misconception that PRUs don’t have high expectations for their pupils, but Hawkswood proves this is not the case. There is also every reason to take the learnings of the PRU environment back into regular schools.

If we don’t address the issue of school exclusion now, numbers will continue to rise year-on-year, only 1% of these excluded children will go on to achieve five GCSEs, and each will cost the country £370,000 in extra education, benefits, healthcare and criminal justice over their lifetime.

Together we can make big change.

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