“Yes we know it happens. ‘They’ choose the children who get the best results and ‘they’ find ways to lose the others. But that’s just the way it is. They are being pragmatic. It’s not something that can change and nobody will sign up to this. Besides schools are allowed to select in some ways.” – Executive Director of a national school improvement body 2016
This was the response I got just 18 months ago when I was looking at an approach to get all school improvement bodies to make the following commitment:
”As a school improvement body we will never suggest that changing the cohort is a valid tool for school improvement”.
It was at the time of ‘Surgeon, Architect, Soldier, Philosopher, Accountant” debate on school leadership from the same people who identified ‘student quality’ as part of a lexicon for school improvement. Note no. 4 ‘student quality.’
You would think that getting agreement would not be tricky. School improvement means surely improving the outcomes of the school for every child – with the given cohort. Our best system leaders talk of moral purpose and supporting all children and young people. So, changing the cohort to improve ‘pupil quality’ – by taking over the best primary schools into your MAT as feeders but rejecting those that need support; by making school less desirable for poor families with uniform prices and donations; by suggesting we ‘don’t do dyslexia’ and signposting families of SEND learners to the school ‘down the road’ – is, not pragmatic or a reasonable response to an accountability framework. It is not school improvement. It is cheating. And indeed many school leaders I spoke to agreed.
And yet I couldn’t get one school improvement body or system leader to make this public commitment. And I tried pretty hard. To be clear that is not to say that they didn’t agree, or that they were in themselves excluding inappropriately – but none of them would make a public commitment to addressing the issue.
Where are we now?
It has been nearly 2 years since I wrote Is Inclusion Over and it has become even more clear that we are in a perilous state. As one who sits between the education and charity sectors, with experience of delivering development programmes overseas, I recognise that whilst the issues may be different in each sector the similarities in organisational development and system change are striking. Here are my top comparisons between exclusion in schools and ‘aid for sex’:
1. They are both bigger issues than anyone has acknowledged
Aid agencies were never immune to issues of abuse and exploitation. No organisations are. To pretend otherwise is always foolish and to deny the scale is to ignore the evidence.
But the challenge in aid, as in education, was that evidence came from multiple sources. It was never a one-off dossier on the desk; it was the gradual linking together of multiple reports – data and anecdote – that unleashed the current headlines.
And this is true in education too. It is not just the rise in ‘legal’ exclusions. It is the unexplained offrolling, it is concerns about illegal schools and some aspects of home schooling, it is the Children Missing in Education numbers; and the multiple stories from parents of SEND learners (‘the school down the road has staff trained in autism’). Alone each of these is serious. Together they speak to a much bigger issue of ‘exclusive practice’ in education.
2. Most people are doing the right thing
Most aid workers do a remarkable job in difficult circumstances and manage not to suggest that their aid is reliant on sex.
Across the country teachers and school leaders are doing amazing work supporting all the children and young people in their community, despite the pressures of the accountability framework and continuing cuts in resources.
There are two key issues for those who support and practice inclusion – both in developing solutions and in reporting exclusive practice: 1) what is it that great inclusive school leaders and teachers are doing, and how do we help them to do more of it? And 2) how can we help teachers and parents who witness non-inclusive practice feel empowered to tackle this?
3. Both abuse and exclusion impact on the most vulnerable
Evidence suggests that the young people most at risk of any form of exclusion are those who are already amongst the most vulnerable. Like those in need of aid these are very likely to be those families with least social and financial capital; least options and least pathways to address abuses of power.
4. And that impact is significant
Lest anyone make the claim that this ‘isn’t as serious’ as ‘Haiti’ – firstly arguments around ‘relative damage’ are generally a poor form of argument. But secondly that those who are already ‘at risk’ are being denied full access to the public funded service that could help mitigate the damage of adverse childhood experiences is serious. We know the likely ongoing damage this can cause. End of.
5. The process for change is similar
From a few lone voices; to joining the dots on evidence; to an avalanche of interest encouraging more stories and investigations. We can see a pattern in the Haiti coverage that is familiar to those of us who have been involved in the ‘inclusion’ debate for some years.
In education we are now at the ‘something must be done’ stage – mixed with a little the ‘someone else’s problem’ denial (it’s them not me). We need to move quite quickly to the owning it together and some sensible solutions stage (preferably missing out the hysterical blaming stage – although I fear that until the many are stood on a burning platform that change will not happen).
But let’s take care with the baby and bathwater; as already stated – many are not excluding. Some may be, but not deliberately and others may be trying to be inclusive and not quite getting it right for every child. Others may find that their efforts are at odds with the systems that surround, and judge, them. And so, we must seek to highlight the good, and not demonise those who are not yet on the same page. To suggest that all is toxic runs the risk of damaging the great work that is happening and serves as yet another stick to beat schools with.
Perpetual naysayers will of course need more pressure.
6. The role of the regulators and funders matters
In terms of Haiti the Charity Commission and DFID as regulators and funder matter here. They have both without doubt politicised too much – and there is a significant question on whether the Charity Commission actually has the resources it needs as a supportive regulator – but both Charity Commission and DFID have:
- acknowledged the problem
- made a call for more evidence
- make some recommendations for immediate solutions.
They have also said that abuse and exploitation is wrong (see point 7).
In education DfE is both the regulator and funder. It has announced (tucked into the social mobility action plan) a review of rising exclusions.
“We will also carry out an externally-led review into school exclusion, to support schools to use exclusion appropriately and ensure permanent exclusion is a last resort. This will also look at why some groups of children are more likely to be excluded from school, including Children in Need, children from certain ethnic groups and children with SEND.”
We await news of how, when and what happens on the issue of formal exclusions
But on exclusive practice more generally – on the subject of improving the quality of pupils as a route to school improvement there has been little to note. As both regulator and funder there has been little suggestion from Department of Education on where parents can go to if they feel a school’s practices make it clear their child might not be welcome (e.g. zero tolerance behaviour policies etc.) Indeed OFSTED, DfE and the National School Commissioner have all at some point said that this is not their issue to address.
There are some small seeds of change – both the Social Mobility Report mentioned above and some strong words from Amanda Spielman in the HMCI’s Annual Report but these responses feel too small to address the scale of the issue.
So as the Charity Commission actively writes to charities telling them to get their policies on abuse in order and reminds charities of their duty to report bad practice, where is DfE’s equivalent on inclusion?
7. The role of the regulators and funders matters (part 2)
DFID is at no point suggesting that a little bit of sex for aid is good.
DfE does suggest that some exclusive practice is ok. Just saying.
8. Training matters
The response from DFID, aid agencies and others has included more training for staff. Lest anyone suggest that the only training needed is just ‘don’t abuse people’ (duh) cultural shift and change in practice needs more than this. Training includes consideration of power dynamics, code of conduct, managing staff operating with autonomy and supporting whistleblowing etc.
Similarly, we need to see this in education. Beyond ‘SEND awareness’ training we need to get back to first principles of why inclusion matters to all. From Salamanca to the purpose of education to practical approaches to support schools to include and celebrate diversity. And yes, this training does include evidenced approaches to behaviour and understanding the processes for when exclusion does become necessary. And yes, sometimes exclusion from one school into appropriate alternative provision will be the right answer.
We need to provide effective support to schools to adopt inclusive approaches to school improvement. This was one of my core reasons for setting up Whole School SEND and while we are not there yet that Strategic School Improvement Fund bids are starting to prioritise outcomes for learners with SEND and SEND Reviews are becoming common place is the start of practical change.
9. Whistleblowing – speak out people
The Executive Director quote wasn’t alone in her advice. I was told time and again that the boat shouldn’t be rocked. I have heard whispers in huddles time and time again of the schools that are doing this but any suggestion that this should be flagged was rejected.
Now in part this needs to be solved by creating a place for people to go. Where is the ‘helpline’ for parents, staff and others who want to highlight exclusive practice? It is not easy to raise a concern if there is no process for doing so.
And again – let’s be clear – people were whispering in huddles because they were concerned. They wanted a solution. And some great leaders – like the ones who stepped up to own inclusive SEND Reviews make, and continue to make, positive steps.
But it is also about moral leadership. Our system leaders need to own this as a collective issue. Not one that ‘those schools do’ but one that our collective system supports and celebrates – the media, DfE, National Schools Commissioner all praise the ‘grade 9’ and A* results and the schools at the top of the tables. But I would argue that the first leader to step up and to take some responsibility for failing children through exclusive practice is the real leader in the system. And they shouldn’t get the same response that Oxfam did – it takes a degree of courage to step up, admit failings and then to be part of the solution.
10. Celebrate those that do it well and those willing to change
And this is back to where we started.
Oxfam like other agencies introduced a code of conduct statement that all workers have to sign up to. It seems obvious. Maybe it is – but it makes behaviour that goes against that code so much easier to challenge.
It also starts setting a culture that this is unacceptable. Abuse flourishes where it is left unchallenged. Where it becomes ‘normal’. Where the charming laugh it off and belittle its impact.
Similarly, exclusion hides behind platitudes of ‘moral purpose’; behind the blame of the accountability framework; behind the claim that school leaders are just being pragmatic.
So what next?
So, on a personal level – having seen so much great practice, but also having heard from teachers, leaders, parents, young people and researchers that divided provision is a growing reality – my move back to campaigning is one that matters much to me. Every Child Should is born of a focus on what Every Child is entitled to and my ongoing consultancy work continues to be in the space between charities and education. But, also, as a parent of two children with significant needs these are my children that some school leaders feel are not of sufficient ‘quality.’ So while I think we can add the inclusion debate to the list of things I have been advised not to talk about I think that, like colleagues in the aid sector, being quiet is no longer an option.
And I know I am not alone in this. I have been heartened by the growing number and range of voices; both in public and the great advocates I know are working in politics, the civil service, charities and schools. And to hear growing parent and young person voice matters.
There are many next steps. Perhaps the most positive is to continue – through models like Whole School SEND – to celebrate those who value inclusion and to ask any teacher, leader or school if they could make the following Drawn In Pledge. And if they want to but cannot then maybe that will start to show us where our problems lie.