Tackling Exclusion: Part 2

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By Christie Spurling MBE.

I realise this blog breaks rules by being longer than normal. Please bear with me as it is such a key subject that I felt deserved a bit more unpacking than usual.


This is the second in a three part series. Read part 1 here.

It feels like every time you switch on the news or open a paper you read that school exclusions are high up the list of stories. I believe exclusion is at a tipping point.

I am genuinely not anti-school, anti-teachers or anti-exams, but I believe that the way we focus so narrowly on exams and league tables and not the needs of individual pupils goes some way to explaining some of the issues we are facing. It doesn’t need another task force or report.

In this second part of my blog looking at the above issue I want to move away from what I would call the ‘actual act of a pupil being excluded’ and look at some strategies that are employed to try and manage challenging behaviour on site.

Internal Exclusion/Isolation

We had these rooms when I was in school and they still exist today. From my recent educational work they haven’t really changed in either concept or content.

There are common reasons pupils can find themselves in an isolation room – repeated failure to follow instructions in a lesson, being rude to a teacher, constant disruption, or not sticking to the terms of you being on report. They are also used when pupils turn up with a haircut that is too short or the wrong uniform (both of these things are slightly different as the pupil may do it deliberately or not.)

I must start by admitting that ,when I was in secondary school, as soon as I worked out what I needed to do to be sent to exclusion, I became rather skilled at arriving in a lesson, sitting down and promptly being asked to leave. I worked out the exact threshold my behaviour needed to be to be removed but not permanently excluded. Usually being disruptive and stopping others from learning. I wouldn’t have jumped straight in and thrown a chair across a room as I would know this would have serious ramifications.

What I’m trying to say is this: If you hate being in a room with lots of other people and find it hard to fit into a lesson socially and educationally, then being sent out and put into a smaller room with one teacher and a small group of similar pupils (who like you hate school) is better than the alternative.

Is being sent out that bad? I would argue not. What I also became skilled at was managing my own timetable according to what lesson I enjoyed. I was fully engaged in lessons like music, sport and making stuff like woodwork. Science, maths and other subjects that required me to pay more attention and retain facts was a real struggle because I was a creative person. So for me, in the classes I disliked, the threat of being sent to isolation was an answer to my prayers.

As I mentioned in the first blog if I had been really pushed in the subject areas that I excelled in (music and creative subjects) and not been threatened with the punishment of not being allowed to do what I enjoyed, things may have been different. If I did well and behaved myself, being able to take part in sport, music and other creative lessons could have been used as a way of controlling my behaviour.

I believe we all learn and take in information differently, but the current education system is only really geared up to people who can consume data, retain data and then answer questions on said data. If I ever needed to learn to do something new outside of school I would work it out by trial and error.

It’s the same for me now. If I buy a new TV I genuinely would only think to pick up the instruction manual as an absolute last resort. My wife, on the other hand, would pick the instructions up straight away and read how to set it up. If you translate that into a learning context and asked me to learn and recite Shakespeare, or a complex problem, I would thrive in learning with musical instruments, rhyme and other creative outlets. My wife would most likely stick her head in a book, read it and be able to retain the information, be tested on it, and excel.

I believe one of the reason pupils are so challenging in lessons and disengaged is that their differing learning styles are not being met or challenged.

Point: I firmly believe that a large percentage of those pupils I have supported in lessons and delivered small group work to, are struggling for the reason highlighted above.

Solution Streams

I think, when you reach high school from year 8 or 9 the way that classes are structured into sets should be changed into streams. This is what I mean based on the existing curriculum, but not ability.

Let me explain….

All pupils must do English, Maths and Science. I don’t see the government ever dropping its stance on this.

Could it work if schools streamed pupils as follows?

Creative/Media /Music

A career path working for media companies e.g. the BBC.

Proposed Career Trajectory:

  • Low End: Runner Studio
  • Mid End: Production Assistant
  • High End: Series Producer

You are streamed with others of mixed ability. You spend Yr 8 doing work experience shadowing low end, Yr 9 shadowing mid end and Yr 10 the high end.

Ask the employer to commit to run an apprenticeship for the student throughout this process. You are then setting them a tangible aim and they have shadowed people in their dream role so can apply the learning to the context, and the company benefits by having an engaged, experienced employee ready to go.

If you targeted this model at the most disengaged pupils, in my opinion, you would quickly reduce exclusion and disengagement in educational streams. 

  • Sciences – apply the same process as above to someone who wants to eventually be a GP.
  • Sport – apply the same process to someone who wants to be a Personal Trainer.
  • Business/IT/ Entrepreneurial – apply the same process to someone who wants to set up their own company.

I believe that the most disengaged pupils often subconsciously put themselves at the lowest benchmark. They can also compare their aspirations to those in their family. 

I have always loved cars. Basically anything to do with cars and you would (and still do) have my full attention. I did my work experience (aged 16) at a garage in the town I lived in, whilst in residential education due to exclusion from mainstream. I wasn’t asked about my career plans, I wasn’t asked about my predicted grades. Rumour has it we got 10% on our maths paper for writing our name right, so I was known in the garage as the lad from the naughty school up the road. But I was accepted and by the end of the week felt like one of the team.

Some of the most broken disengaged young people I have worked with are crying out for a sense of purpose. To find their niche or their place in the world.

I ask people who I interview for work questions about their character and determination. A lot of the disengaged young people I have met have these attributes in bucket loads.

Can we channel this type of behaviour in other ways that I have suggested above? Are there other avenues to walk down for disengaged young people so their achievements aren’t based on a lowest possible benchmark?

We are thinking of doing an N-Gage conference later in the year on this subject. Get in touch if you are interested in this topic and would like to be involved in some way.

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1 reply added

  1. Annie Johnson July 30, 2019

    Love this so much.Brings back all my frustrations as an infant teacher in the eighties when the( to me) dreaded SATS were first introduced. Christie if someone like you had been allowed to reenvision education then from the primary stages up, I might never have felt the need to leave the claasroom.Totally with you

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