Including the Excluded

By Hannah Ahmed, University of Bristol School of Education.

“…the number of fixed-term exclusions have definitely increased. It has gone up in the last five months…zero-tolerance policies have become the bane of our lives.” (teacher)

Including the Excluded is a rapid project which aimed to co-produce knowledge on educational and emotional experiences of excluded pupils in Bristol during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As a Bristol-based schoolteacher I have seen first-hand how exclusions impact students who live and study in this city.

School exclusion rates reflect wider structural inequalities in the education system that can inadvertently impact students’ lives (Demie, 2021)[1]. ‘Zero tolerance behaviour management’ and ‘Ready to Learn’ are strict approaches to school-based misconduct adopted in most schools across Bristol. The approaches are grounded in a ‘No excuses policy’ around behaviours deemed as in violation of school culture, ethos, and wider behavioural policies. These approaches can initiate high numbers of fixed term exclusions (FTEs)[2]; especially amongst those who find it hard to obey rules.

This project incorporates young people’s voices through a collaborative approach that enables pupils and professionals to scrutinise school exclusion and experience. This co-produced project works with researchers, community research fellows, professionals, and pupils. It aims to create a space where excluded pupils and professionals’ voices are heard. The reasoning for the involvement of young people is to try to understand why the behaviours which can lead to school exclusion are occurring. We aim to share knowledge and ideas with grassroot organisations like No More Exclusions and want the data gathered to generate a resource to support excluded young people.

Who are the team:

School Exclusion Rates

School exclusion rates have been relatively high over the last few years and are steadily lowering, but not for all ethnic groups. Students from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups have been reported to be overrepresented in Bristol’s school exclusions[3]. Although Bristol’s permanent exclusion rates remain relatively low, they have one of the highest rates of FTEs of any local authority in England[4]. Gypsy/Roma, Traveller or Irish heritage, Black Caribbean and White and Black Caribbean pupils have the highest rates of dual registration (which is when pupils are registered into admission of two schools simultaneously) in England, which results in more pupils likely to experience unexplained school exits[5]. This is relevant because the rate of dual registration is higher than the rate of permanent exclusion by 1.2 per 1,000 pupils[6]. There is also a noticeable increase in the number of FTEs for Black African and Gypsy Roma pupils in 2018/19 and a 3-year increasing trend for Mixed White/Caribbean and Mixed Other in FTEs in Bristol[7].

Ready to Learn approach or zero-tolerance approach which are adopted in many schools in Bristol have been reported to protect the learning experience of the majority over the minority who may be deemed to be misbehaving. It is clear that disruption to education needs to be addressed to allow all pupils to fulfil their educational potential, however, for some pupils (often those from the aforementioned ethnic backgrounds) they are labelled as ‘troublemakers or ringleaders’[8] because of institutionally defined norms, values and beliefs rather than objectively unmanageable disruptive behaviour. These pupils may be subjected to removal from the classroom setting (sent to isolation, which is a room where they must sit for half a day or a whole day) or even school (often referred to as FTEs or permanent exclusion). Exclusions are being used as a form of behaviour management and thus not meeting the needs of every student who has the right to learn. An example of this is specified by a pupil in our research: “They tried to take my phone and I said no and they just started screaming. I just thought that’s a nerve. You’re not going to get near my phone. That’s why I kept getting excluded for not giving in my phone.” To add, a teacher interviewed mentioned: “COVID has brought around panic in a lot of people, and I don’t know what it’s like in other schools, but we’ve got masking tape on the floor and that’s my box, you don’t come into my box. So, you might get a student who will veer near the box because they want to ask you a question or something and you’ll get, no, no, no, no, you’re too close, like stay away. I think in terms of discipline there’s very much been a zero-tolerance policy. So, if a child steps into that box, they’re gone straight away, there’s just no bones about that.”

Pupils Accounts of Exclusion

Students’ experience of school exclusion undoubtedly varies. Some pupils may have appeared to be glad to be excluded from mainstream schools and prefer the Alternative Provision (AP) school over their previous schools as classrooms are much smaller with fewer pupils resulting in less ‘bullying’ and more support in terms of learning. This may illustrate a positive in exclusion as pupils can be given the ability to receive more support at AP schools. However, not all pupils are as ‘glad’ to be at APs but prefer their mainstream schooling over APs as they identify more learning takes place at mainstream schools which can be a downside to school exclusions and APs. These contrasting views could demonstrate the different perspectives on school exclusion.

Pupils in the study highlighted the importance of communication and support. Students would have preferred to be communicated with, a student mentions: “they never gave time to talk to me about what was going on. They never gave me support on what was going on… if they had given me more support then they could have helped me and stopped me.” Another pupil mentioned: “I have a friend who just left year 11 and she went to the same school as I did and they did nothing to support her and she was always getting high, drinking alcohol. She used to take alcohol to school just to get away from the pain of school and she used to hide away in the bathrooms and have breakdowns because the school never gave her support.”

‘Fairness’ was a concept which came up many times throughout our work with young people, with many of them feeling that they were treated ‘unfairly’ through this process. Pupils often described the reasoning behind their school exclusion as “petty”. The term ‘petty’ can be explained: as minor or insignificant. Some of the petty reasons pupils cited included wearing incorrect school uniform or using mobile phones in social times. Pupils also told us that exclusions were a product of poor relationships with teachers, some felt picked on or labelled, arguing that some pupils were able to exhibit the same behaviour and not be excluded. For example, one pupil told us:

“If I was in a lesson and I turn round and talk to someone they would send me straight out the lesson but if that was someone else they would say to concentrate on your lesson. For me they would send me straight into isolation and that was the problem.”

Personal Reflection

Although I may not have experience working directly with excluded pupils throughout my teaching career, I can acknowledge there needs to be stronger pastoral support teams in schools, identifying the reasoning for pupils’ ‘misbehaviour’, which can be a starting point in unravelling multiple issues. I would suggest pastoral support teams need to have better communications with teachers concerning the reasoning behind students’ behaviour as they can be complex to understand. They need to provide extra counselling, guidance, and even reconciliation of problematic issues between pupils and teachers. From my experience of teaching, I have seen that there is not a strong working relationship between pastoral teams and teaching staff where problems or issues pupils are facing are not communicated; this can lead to pupils falling through the net which is of concern to me. Schools need to work on building relationships, not walls. Not being process driven but needs driven.

Additionally, there is an unquestionable need of training for teaching staff to occur in how to deal with multiplex behavioural needs as Covid-19 has heightened pupils needs and a lot of teachers are not trained in how to deal with pupils who have multiple needs. Often, I have noticed an easier option for teachers is to send pupils out of the classroom rather than dealing with the problem. I propose the need for an understanding of the underlying factors affecting pupils’ behaviour as it can be a cry-out for help in some cases.

You can find out more about this Collaborative Fellowship on the Including the Excluded project webpage.

[1] Demie, F. (2021). The Experience of Black Caribbean Pupils in School Exclusion in England. Educational Review, 73(1), 55 – 70.

[2] Bristol City Council. (2020). Review Report – Bristol Alternative Provision.  

[3] Bristol City Council. (2020). Review Report – Bristol Alternative Provision.  

[4] No More Exclusions. (2019). This feels like prison: we need to talk about school exclusions.

[5] IntegratED. (2020). Fewer exclusions. Better alternative provision.

[6] Department for Education. (2019). Children not in school: proposed legislation.

[7] Bristol City Council. (2020). Review Report – Bristol Alternative Provision.

[8] Fenning, P., & Rose, J. (2007). Overrepresentation of African American students in exclusionary discipline: the role of school policy. Urban Education, 42(6), 536–559.