Tom Bennett

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Always someone else’s problem? No, it’s ours, thanks. And you make it harder.

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The Office of the Children’s Commissioner, yesterday

Fans of witless bureaucracy and low expectations of children were not disappointed today as the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) launched their report ‘Always someone else’s problem’. Here’s the groovy gist of what it says over 56 gripping pages:

1. Many schools exclude children illegally
2. Exclusions are beastly things anyway
3. Schools that do this should be fined and prosecuted.

I’m not kidding about that last bit. The OCC wants to get tough with naughty schools, which is deeply ironic when you think about it, which they haven’t. Now you don’t have to read it. I’ve written about the OCC before, mainly along the lines of how unlikely I would be build a commemorative shrine were it to suddenly sink into the ocean like Atlantis.

Cards on the table: they are absolutely right that this happens. In fact, rather than their cautious estimate of 2 or 3% I would say it is far more widespread than she suggests. It isn’t the data I substantially disagree with, but their conclusions. Let me clear about something else: they absolutely shouldn’t. There is little a school does that shouldn’t be absolutely transparent, and nothing that it does that should be against the law. If a school has a policy, or the governing bodies have statutory guidelines and requirements, they should be followed.

Ghost exclusions

But why do schools act in this manner? Speaking as someone who actually works in a school, rather than reads about them in the papers, I can tell you. They ghost-exclude because they’re terrified of doing it properly. Because the system has been skewed for so long against excluding at all, that they’re scared- correctly- they’ll be clobbered by Ofsted.

Inclusion has become the new orthodoxy. When I entered teaching I was mystified why so many apparently unteachable children were allowed to remain in classrooms where chaos reigned. Answer: inclusion, that contemporary, well meaning but ruinous excuse for adult responsibility. The aim was to make sure no one was marginalised. The reality was classroom after classroom ruined by a tiny minority of extreme spectrum children, whose needs exceeded the capacity of a mainstream teacher to provide. They need special provision; they got sealed in a classroom with everyone else. Everyone lost, everyone.

We have failed generations of children in this way. You want to radically improve every school in the UK? Scorch the moronic practice of inclusion at all costs, and pay for appropriate in-school internal exclusion facilities, with trained teachers, facilities and teaching materials. You’ll see exclusions wither, I promise. And pay for external provision- PRUS, specialist schools- that can cope with small groups of extreme spectrum children. To do otherwise is as sensible as shoehorning a dozen sick and a dozen well people into a lift and hoping they all get better.

The peril of no destination

‘Your value-added is f*cking unacceptable, Bennett.’

The fact that there is a section in the report titled ‘Lack of a meaningful sanction’ (against schools) suggest to me that the authors are masters of parody and irony, because no one could write that sentence and fail to apprehend that the lack of a meaningful sanction is exactly what they are advocating in schools, which means that boundaries will be entirely unenforceable. Can you guess what this looks like to a teacher? Let me assist.

It means this: when schools don’t exclude as a matter of procedure, without fear of rebuke, then children quickly realise that if they defy the class and school rules then….nothing at all will happen. Consider the classroom teacher who needs to set a short detention for, say chatting. What happens if the child doesn’t turn up? Well, the sanction tends to escalate, both in severity and up through the hierarchy. But what happens if the child doesn’t attend, or continues to tell the teacher to blow their lesson plans out their ass? It has to go somewhere. Such children (and they aren’t many, but they are a consistent minority in every school) need to be taken out of the classroom.

But what if the child still tells the teachers, and the world, to go f**k themselves? Then the child is beyond the means of the school to manage. We literally cannot control their behaviour- only they can do this. All we can do is offer incentives and deterrents to behaviour, and hope that they amend. Greater society also has this last resort- the gaol; not to be wished for, but necessary, as inevitable and indispensable as a lavatory bowl. There has to be a terminus for repeated bad behaviour, to be used as little as possible but as often as necessary. I work with many, many teachers who are told variations of ‘we don’t take children out of classrooms.’ The people who suggest this invariably don’t have to teach them. Maggie Atkinson certainly doesn’t.

A well run LSU/ PRU is a place where children can access one-to-one support, and trained staff. It should be a positive step to exclude, because it’s what the child and their peers need. Ah yes, the peers- only a teacher can tell you what the damage caused by reports like this looks like- exhausted teachers lashed by rude, often violent children, and classes torn apart by the selfish, desperate actions of a few. From the way the OCC writes, you’d think classes were stocked with nothing but avatars of kindness and altruism. They are not. They’re people, just like us.

The pointless OCC (and why do children need an expensive office to look out for their interests? What the Hell do you think we’re trying to do, turn them into nuggets and drop them in a fry basket?), if it was genuinely interested in the well being of children and not merely concerned with showing how lovely they are, would say something like this:

  • Schools to provide appropriate levels of internal provision for children based on education and socialisation, not just a holding pattern over the school runway.
  • No condemnation to be attached formally to any school that excludes whenever it needs to; not from Ofsted, not from Governors, not from the anodyne OCC
  • Exclusions to be seen as either a way for children to obtain and access appropriate services, or as an admission that the pupil is beyond the capabilities of the school to manage, or the relationship has broken down too severely. Maggie Atkinson, I’ll wager, has never had to teach a child that punched her in the face, or sexually harassed her, as many teachers do.
  • Schools to be funded appropriately for taking an excluded child. Some schools specialise in these kinds of children; if you’re good at it, encourage schools to take them for positive reasons.
  • Ofsted to ask the right questions about behaviour, such as ‘Why is this child still in a mainstream classroom,’ rather than ‘Why have they been excluded?’ Again, my challenge to many inspectors is. ‘Howe would YOU deal with this pupil?’ and I’ll stake my shirt that many of them wouldn’t have a clue.

I asked someone from the DfE what penalties exist for schools that exclude children. The answer is surprising; very little. Of course, schools lose the finance for pupils they permanently exclude. The only other penalty is the possible disapproval of the inspector, who might take a dim view of exclusion as so many of them are suckled on the dogma of yesteryear. In which case, Sir Michael Wilshaw needs to add this thread to any subsequent inspector training: inclusion not always good; exclusion not always bad.

There are a dozen things wrong with this report, and that’s before I get past the title:

  • The authors go to great lengths to include the views of children, but the only time teachers are asked their opinion is as part of a survey where they are merely asked to report quantitatively about ghost exclusions, which is a bit like asking a pineapple what their opinion is of canning factories (Christ, someone will jump on that metaphor, I know). If you’ve ever taught any naughty (sorry, troubled) kids then you might be unsurprised that when you ask them what they did wrong, they often deny it or even- vaudeville gasp- lie about it.
  • Putting targets before real improvement. I’ve heard from teachers who were told that their exclusion rates had to plummet in the next 12 months. There are two ways of achieving this: putting structures in place that mean exclusions are needed less, or just cutting the number of children excluded, with no other effort made. Can you guess which option is easier? I’ll leave that with you.
  • My main problem is that the OCC seems most upset that paperwork hasn’t been done, rather than supporting the right of children to be safe and learn in an environment that promotes their flourishing. It’s anti-education; the administrator’s gag reflex. It ignores what children need, and focuses on what form needs to be stamped.

There are schools doing incredible work in the area of exclusion and inclusion, largely because they have clear and rigorous behaviour policies that serve a greater aim: the well being of the community AND the individual, but not at the expense of the many, as most inclusion policies are; which is odd- isn’t the many composed of the sum of the few?

You’ll already know most of this, if you’ve ever taught difficult classes. Unfortunately for most of us, the panjandrums of the commentariat often haven’t. The OCC wants to paint the whole world with a rainbow, and that’s a lovely ambition. It wants to teach every child to sing their heart song; I just want to teach them, to be safe, given boundaries set with compassion, not unconditional and bottomless altruism.

I want what’s best for them, not just what they want. That’s the difference.

http://behaviourguru.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/what-is-childrens-commissioner-actually.html?q=atkinson
What is the Children’s Commissioner actually FOR?

http://behaviourguru.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/children-should-run-everything-claims.html?q=atkinson
Little bit of satire.

http://behaviourguru.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/inclusion-ruining-education-since-1978.html?q=inclusion
Inclusion, the opiate of the chattering classes

http://behaviourguru.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/when-everyones-special-no-one-is-how.html?q=inclusion
When everyone’s special, no one is.


7 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    If have a solution. Open schools dedicated to servin the kids no one else wants. The difficult pupils, the ones no one else wants, the poor, the ones who have turned to drugs, violence, the ones from broken families. Who would run such a place? Why, we have in our midst the ideal candidates. Organisations dedicated to working with the worst off, the poor and dispossesed. These organisations can open schools (I envision them being faith organisations, since they have the clearest expression of need to help the poor). Unfortunately wealthy middle class parents would be turned away from 'faith schools', because their needs is not as challenging. These middle class children would end up in bog standard schools, unable to get into the faith schools (which I understand perform highly – the perfect place for our most needy). Actually, I assume this is what is already happening.

    I'm marking controlled assessments and I'm tired.

  2. Caz says:

    Tom, as ever I am awed not only by your ability to hit the nail so squarely on the head, but by the fact that you have the guts to persist in telling it like it is. I've just left a school in which – to misquote Mr Spock – “the needs of the many were outweighed by the needs of the few or the one”; where so many kids were having their education ruined by the actions of a determined minority.

    I've long thought that what's termed “inclusion” is, in effect, “exclusion” for the majority.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. SueR says:

    I teach alongside the PRUs and other LA services that take on the excluded. We help those students – intensively, massively, tirelessly – and many turn themselves around. What's even better is that the classes they sprang from are allowed to get on and learn in peace – so for every child I see in every one of my lessons, that's about 30 others getting some education in another school too. And we may not be cheap, but wasting the teaching efforts of the many isn't either. Nor is prison, or lives dissolving in a horrible social-services-defying mess. We need to exclude when the behaviour calls for it, then we need to get going on the many things that do help turn “the troubled” into the “only averagely messed up like the rest of us”.

  4. Anonymous says:

    First of all sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, and coming from a teacher as well! I have witnessed first hand the fall out from a school of excluding a 13 year old child, who by the way came from a very good background,it can be horrendous. They were ripped away from their friends, lost all confidence, had depression, and never returned to school. The school failed in many ways, and broke many guidelines along the way. The amount of lies and cover ups that followed the exclusion by the school and the LA , was something I witnessed first hand. When challenged by the parent who studied the guidelines, they illegally extended and then moved to permanent exclusion. I have come across great teachers, but I have also witnessed first hand teachers shouting in childrens faces, some talking disrespectfully to children, and others who make kids look stupid in front of their peers. Respect is a 2 way street which unfortunately is not always given to either the child or the parent. Some parents I know are very wary of fully challenging their schools about anything, in case it harms in any way their childs education. This is the reality! We know some parents and children are not perfect, but I can assure you nor are some teachers! I would also point out it is no coincidence that the majority of exclusions happen in year 9. Why, because by then the school will have a good idea whether the child is going to help them up the league tables! It is also no coincidence that the majority excluded are SEN or black children! Also once kids are excluded and put into Prus an extremely low percentage will gain 5 or more GCSEs. Finally 70% of excluded children will end up in prison, and create more problems for society.

  5. Annie Pal says:

    It is a rare case I would guess that pupil exclusion is due to teacher error – you are right anonymous, some teachers do behave badly, but they are the minority. Exclusion in Yr 9 mostly? Yes, it is clear that many students behaviour will affect league tables, but the schools exclude to avoid the majority having their GCSE's ruined by someone generally so behind because of their behaviour they also can't access the curriculum at that level which in turn generates further deterioration in behaviour as then they know their peers thin that they are 'naughty' and 'thick'.
    Sarcsem is also born of frustration, by hard working, sharing teachers experiencing this at the chalkface, the message Tom shares is listened to by many and undeniably true. If you facts are correct anonymous then this further fuels the need for specialist envirnments that are intrinsically liked to the SEN and black communities; support is vital and needs to directed appropriately, PRU's do amazing work and as a country we need to look at their provision closely, not highlight facts that are created from multiple other social and personal factors too numerous to mention, but relevant to the journey of an excluded student ending up without GCSE's or in prison. Schools fail at times, people fail at times, Tom is highlighting the pointlessness of the OCC and how their polciies hinder progress with really disruptive kids and allows schools to consider serious paths of deception. No school excludes easily; judge the systems, not each other.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I have recently spent a great portion of my working week, in a main stream primary school managing the behaviour of one or two children with significant needs regarding behaviour; It is exhausting!!! The learning and emotional well being of the other children (& staff) often seems to take second place. If a school tries everything before permanently excluding and can show this, why fine them?? It feels like a cover up by Gov/LA's with managed moves, do these work?? Rather than making things easier with behaviour, the reality is it is harder.

  7. Anonymous says:

    YOUR child, perchance?
    Exclusions peak in Year 9 because after two and a bit years, you've finally accrued anough evidence to satisfy even the most blinkered, rosy-spectacled Appeals Panel that This Is Over. When a child, who will have been given every chance, every provision, every intervention probably since Primary, has spent the last three years disrupting the education of everyone around him, it's a relief to move him out before GCSE exam classes' chances are ruined as well. Nothing to do with KS3 league tables.

    The personal qualities and behaviours that cause a child to be permanently excluded are the same in most cases as those that land them in prison. Not the fault of the PRU.

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