Tackling Exclusion

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By Christie Spurling MBE.

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

I am genuinely not anti-school, anti-teachers or anti-exams, but I do 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. I’ll begin to explain what I feel is needed over this series of three blogs.

If you have read my autobiography “Facing My Past Unlocking the Future” you will know that being excluded from school aged 14 was how my high school education ended. 

From there I ended up in a residential unit for young people who had any number of issues. I was one of the better-behaved residents. It is impossible to overstate the impact being excluded has at the time and perhaps more so in later life. I have dedicated my reformed adult life to working to support those at risk of making the same mistakes, cock ups, peer pressure driven fails. Call it whatever you want but I’ve passionately tried to be part of the solution and offer support where I can to those who need it and are willing to take it.

It wasn’t until later life that I started to realise how deep rooted my issues around exclusion were. My mum spent years battling the authorities trying to get me the support I needed. I’m not entirely convinced it would be any different today. That may not seem like such a big deal until I tell you I was excluded 30 YEARS AGO. Here are some observations that may make me a bit unpopular.

Excluding fostered and adopted children should be made much harder for schools.

When you are adopted, if it happens at an early age, it can mean you start your life with attachment disorder. In its most simple form this makes bonding and developing relationships much harder. Believe me I experienced this. If you don’t have a constant care giver and are passed from pillar to post it makes forming bonds an unbelievable challenge. Being removed from a school and placed in another school just compounds this and that feeling of rejection grows with every move. I’m not suggesting we sit and watch as pupils destroy schools. I just sometimes wonder if repeated exclusion makes the above worse and if more could be done to get to the root of the problem and offer support to those affected, and parents and carers.

Do all young people have to fit into an exam shaped hole? (this is the tricky one)

In the residential unit I was sent to in Shropshire we were taken out to Bridgnorth College where we did construction, bricklaying and similar. We spent as much time back in school doing woodwork, metalwork and lots of sport. We learnt social skills, walked up hills, chatted about life, and we had mentors who were assigned a small caseload of young people who they looked after.

I’ll tell you why this worked for me. I was in a traumatic stage of life 100 miles away from family and friends and the last thing I could relate to was passing GCSEs when chairs were whirring past my head. I was in a room full of people who did not want to work. We did english and maths as we had to, but at that crisis point in my life, my education and family all seemed hopeless and I’d stuffed up badly. What I needed was re-engaging into society, being shown I could make something of myself. Very little of that happens in the classroom when you are “troubled” no matter how good the teacher is.

Aged 14 I was packed off to the Rover garage in Ludlow. I did a weeks work experience. I absolutely loved every minute of it and can remember some of it was like yesterday.

“Spurling you can start by sweeping the workshop.”

“No way that’s boring,” I thought.

“Spurling this is how the world works. You do as I say because I’m the workshop manager and if you don’t we can go round the back of the garage for a chat.”

Grumpily and with massive attitude I did it and made sure everyone knew how annoyed I was.

Back at the school this would not have even registered with the staff, but here my attitude went down like a lead balloon. And then something clicked. The next day I went in, picked up the broom and started sweeping without being asked. This was noted by the manager and he offered to show me how to change the oil. I honestly think if I’d have been allowed to stay there and not go back to school, I could have had a long career as a mechanic.

What is the point of this little story? Surely education should be as geared towards finding a passion as it is to how well you do in an exam. When I left the school I wanted to join the Navy but didn’t have the qualifications. I sent a demo tape to a music college to become a pro drummer, but again didn’t have the qualifications. I applied to loads of garages, no joy.

Imagine an unqualified undisciplined scared hurt teenager joining the Navy, seeing the world, learning some values and character and also being under an extreme regime of discipline. I can’t think of a better place I should have been.

Here’s the thing – as an employer now I rarely look at qualifications. I look at character, tenacity, willingness to learn (by doing) not reciting. My belief is some of the most challenging pupils who constantly butt heads with Heads are screaming out for someone to unlock the entrepreneur, the money-maker, and help them be the best at what they do. I don’t believe that we should abandon exams but if it is the first thing we expect of the most disengaged and furthest from education, surely finding another way via enterprise and upskilling could tackle the issue.

It is such a hot topic at the moment, I would welcome any comments and opinions on how we can start to change this issue so young people don’t need repeated exclusions.


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