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Falling through the cracks of a system that was not designed to catch you

An abolitionist lens to school exclusions: a helpful perspective for Educational Psychologists and educational professionals?

This blog post was written by one of the Trainee Educational Psychologists currently undertaking our Child, community and educational psychology (M4) course. The views expressed are those of the author, and are intended to stimulate further thinking, reflection and discussion around the topic.

Following the resurgence in global consciousness of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, a political zeitgeist followed, in which individuals and institutions began their journey to becoming more actively anti-racist. This included Educational Psychologists (EPs) re-examining the institutional racism that exists within the education system and reflecting on the role they play to combat inequalities within schools.

As the role has evolved, EPs have been described as ‘agents of change’ and are recognised to be in a position in which they can promote social justice though their work with children, young people, parents, and professionals. One such area being the prevention of school exclusions. It poses the question, are we doing enough, or do we need to actively champion the eradication of exclusions? Simply noticing the inequalities and injustices that exist cannot be equated to dismantling the source in which they are used. We need to consider whether challenging exclusions begins with refusing the idea that they are an acceptable form of practice.

In the UK, school exclusions continue to disproportionally target Black, Gypsy-Roma, Irish traveller children, those with Special Educational Needs and young people who receive free-school meals (GOV.UK). A freedom of information request sent to a sample of UK schools in 2021 by No More Exclusions (NME) yielded that half of all exclusions were recorded as being for ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’, a category which has been established to unfairly target black and working-class students and facilitate race and class-based discrimination. The above statistics exemplify that the use of exclusions and authoritarian behaviour policies continues to penalise children and young people for the difficulties they face and magnifies the inequalities they experience.

In 2019, 15-year-old ‘Child C’ was fatally stabbed in a knife attack after being mistaken for a rival gang member (CHSCP). In July 2017, he was issued with a 5-day internal exclusion for his alleged involvement in a practical joke which damaged a teacher’s property. This later escalated to a permanent exclusion in which his parents appealed without success, despite the Local Authority later determining it to be unlawful. He was subsequently placed in an Alternative Provision, which Child C’s family felt set the stage for his later murder, citing it as being an unsupportive environment with little stimulation and lack of effective safeguarding practices. An enquiry into the contextual factors surrounding his death was commissioned by City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership. This report concluded that the illegal permanent exclusion served as a ‘Pivotal catalyst’ which placed him in a setting which was unstructured and held little to no expectations of him, ultimately making him vulnerable to exploitation and harm. Child C’s story mirrors that of other children who have continued to ‘fall through the cracks’ of a system that was never designed to catch them.

Despite government rhetoric about safeguarding vulnerable children, we are aware of the negative trajectories that excluded children are more likely to fall into, one of those being child criminal exploitation. The NSPCC states that children are more likely to be exploited when ‘they’ve been excluded from school and feel like they don’t have a future’ (NSPCC). Increasingly we hear about the ‘school to prison pipeline’, which encompasses the idea that negative school outcomes (especially exclusions) lead to later experiences with the law (Graham, 2014). Figures note that 42% of people incarcerated in the UK have been permanently excluded, and the number rises to 63% when including fixed term exclusions (Commission on Young Lives). Exclusions continue to remove the right to a school life from children and young people and takes away the vital safeguard of education as a protective factor.

At a time where many schools maintain a ‘broken windows’ theory where they believe sweating the small stuff and enforcing zero tolerance policies will maintain a culture where behavioural disruption can be eliminated, we need to examine whether this approach to behaviour management is conducive to promoting positive outcomes for young people or whether it is functioning as a wider system of disciplining, surveillance and policing already marginalised young people. Often, we will see children stuck in cycles of internal exclusions and sanctions whereby punishing only seeks to maintain the behaviour rather than address unmet needs. As EPs, are we doing enough to support moving schools away from these systems, or can we find ourselves inadvertently colluding with oppressive systems and policies? Could it be helpful to reframe our thinking to an abolitionist perspective?

But what does being an abolitionist mean? Abolitionism is a socio-political movement and set of ideologies, which fight for the removal of racist and violent state institutions such as prisons and immigration centres. It seeks to radically transform society through dismantling systems which oppress and incarcerate. Through viewing exclusions through an abolitionist lens we champion radical social and structural change which is based on eradication of the exclusions system. It requires acknowledging the harmful nature of exclusions for young people and wider society, and rejecting the threat-based way in which we see behaviour within schools. Instead, we respond with non-punitive ways of dealing with harm that empower, rather than oppress. Rather than trying to reform the system to make exclusions less damaging or disproportionate, we seek for the eradication of all exclusions currently used to discipline pupils, inclusive of fixed term, permanent, internal exclusions, and practices of off-rolling.

This process is supported by community-based transformative justice, and is not only a process of ‘tearing down’, but ‘building up’ support systems within schools. EPs could play an important role in rebuilding the educational landscape around behaviour systems. Through eliminating exclusions as an option we need to think creatively about how we can effectively support schools in responding to behaviour, understanding and meeting young people’s unmet needs and implementing restorative and relational approaches. Through consultation, we can promote a perceptual conscious process which supports in dismantling deficit-based thinking and barriers that prevent true inclusion for all. Schools require education on the negative impact of exclusions on the life outcomes of the young people they educate and wider society. Recently the London borough of Southwark have taken the initiative in moving towards ending exclusions through the introduction of The School Inclusion Charter (Southwark Council). The Charter recognises the damaging effects of exclusions on a disproportionate number of children with particular characteristics and pledges to reduce the use of permanent exclusions. It will be interesting to see if other boroughs follow suit in the hope we can transform the education system into one that truly works for all and where healing can take place.

Intrigued by this article?

This blog post was written by a Trainee Educational Psychologist (TEP) during their first year of training in Child, community and educational psychology (M4). They were asked to write about an aspect of practice that resonates with them under the overall theme of ‘Social Justice in Schools and Community Contexts’. The views expressed in the article are those of the author, and are intended to stimulate further thinking, reflection and discussion around the topic. 

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