Tom Bennett

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Newsnight, and the Dark Arts of Exclusion

Did you see Newsnight? DID YOU SEE NEWSNIGHT on Monday? It had a feature about Academies, and how they are linked to the DARK ARTS. Not, as you suspect, a reference to the Hogwarts curricular black hole into which new staff would annually tumble (sorry, that was DEFENCE against the Dark Arts), but a way to describe how academies seem to exclude a lot more strudents than LEA controlled state schools, with the implication that there’s monkey business afoot.
The presenter said that, ‘The most vulnerable pupils’ are at risk of being managed out of the system, sacrificed for the league tables. It’s funny that when people outside of education say the phrase ‘vulnerable’ they often seem to mean the kids who write C*NT on the corridor walls and spit on each other. Vulnerable. Yeah, that’s what I think when I see them. They’re vulnerable. What bizarre dimension are these people from? When I hear non-teachers use words like that I feel a bit awkward, like when someone you think is nice uses a racial slur, or like when a child says, ‘Is fire hot because it’s angry?’ and you go ‘Aww, they don’t get it, but it’s sweet.’
It’s a great story: we have a favoured government initiative; we have a desperate need for that initiative to appear successful; and we have evidence that in order to obtain this evidence, such schools are prepared to sacrifice children on the altar of self-advancement. The BASTARDS.
But the whole piece was as empty as the inside of an atom, completely without substance. It was one of the oddest, and least informed pieces I have ever seen on Dame Newsnight. Let me be clear, I have no pro-academy axe to grind; they have advantages and disadvantages, like any initiative. They are neither the solution nor the cause of education’s ills. But this was Hogwarts-wash.
‘When shall we three meet again?’ ‘Depends on the grading’
Here are the home truths about this situation; this is what really goes on in schools, not the partial perspective of the dilettante:
1. Schools hate to exclude pupils permanently. Why? Because it makes them look terrible. One of their success criteria, expressed through the medium of Ofsted, is how low their exclusion rates are. This is based on the idea that a school with high exclusion rates must have really bad behaviour OR be really bad at dealing with behaviour. Of course, this is the exact opposite of the truth. A school might have high exclusion rates because it has really difficult children in its locus, and in order for the school to function, there might be a high number of exclusions;  imagine an area of high crime- you’d expect more arrests, more sentencing, etc. It isn’t pretty, but that’s the way the world is.
Except that’s not the way some people see it. High exclusions bad, they bah, which means you’re a bad school. So the most obvious things that schools now do to improve their AAA rating with Ofsted is…they don’t exclude. It’s as simple as that. If excluding kids gets them into hot water with the LEA or Ofsted, then exclude they jolly well won’t. If this sounds brainless, it’s because it is. It is not unlike tutting that crime rates are awfully high…so let’s get those bloody figures down by not arresting people. Crime rate down, job done! Oh dear, someone appears to have stolen my car. Doctor doctor, it hurts every time I do this; well, don’t do it then.
2. Permanently excluding is nearly impossible. Do you know how much paperwork has to occur before a child can be permanently excluded? LET ME TELL YOU IT IS A LOT. It is nearly impossible to exclude a child. Let me assure you that if a child is anywhere near being permanently excluded it is usually not because they have been misunderstood by a system that didn’t care. You have to tell a LOT of teachers to go fuck themselves to even get close. We are not talking about angels with dirty faces. You have to bring a whole drawer of knives in to start building up a charge sheet that will get you more than a few days out. Believe me.
3. If you can’t permanently exclude, what can you do? Well, you could temporarily exclude them. Much safer, and much easier to give them a few days in the ‘internal exclusion unit’ or whatever you call your isolation panopticon. Basically it means another room, out of regular classes, or perhaps a separate part of the school building. It’s part punishment, part rehabilitation, as they usually receive more one-to-one supervision and coaching.
4. What if you have a kid who hasn’t quite hit the permanent exclusion mark yet, but looks likely to get there? The ‘managed move.’ This is the Dark Art being criticised. It is VERY common in many schools- and I am setting my phasers to the whole state sector here-  as a way of nudging the process along- rather than a family and school fighting each other in the courts, or facing an exclusion on their record, the parent is persuaded that the child isn’t doing well at school, and might be better off having a fresh start somewhere else. It isn’t an admission of failure, it’s an admission that things aren’t working. If you want to attach blame to that one, I’d start with the one pissing about in every lesson and telling their Head of Year to go f*ck themselves. I know, it sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
Now, academies are in an interesting position. They don’t have to report to Ofsted for chocolate buttons so much. They’re freer to do as they please. SO OF COURSE THE’RE GOING TO EXCLUDE MORE THAN OTHER STATE SCHOOLS. I certainly would, if I had a school that wasn’t judged by such things, and the pupils deserved it.
‘No come to me wid them aagiment deh. Chah!’
Because what’s at stake here is something more fundamental than just ‘are academies in league with Goody Gove’- what are exclusions for? And the answer is, to assist behaviour in schools. If a child has exhausted classroom behaviour management, and routinely exhausts the senior staff repertoire of tricks to avoid further mayhem, then the school must- MUST- reserve the right to say to the child, OK; we’ve tried everything we can. This isn’t working. Your behaviour is disrupting not just your education, but the education of scores of other children. You want to know what the single biggest problem in schools is these days? The thing that prevents your child from learning the most? Let me tell you: 70% of the teacher’s time is taken with 5% of the kids, because they muck about and cause trouble for everyone. Not content are they with sitting relatively still and getting on with work in a pleasant way. Oh, no, they were born for greater things; like storming out of rooms, ruining lessons, and bullying smaller kids. If someone stole something valuable form me, I’d call them a thief. When a kid does it in a classroom, by depriving others of education, they’re called troubled, or vulnerable.
 Give me a break. How vulnerable do you have to be to tell a teacher they’re a dickhead? To punch a kid in the classroom because you’re in a bad mood? To screw up a worksheet, throw it at the teacher and say, ‘You’re a cunt- and a shit teacher.’? Make no mistake- this is what classrooms are like for many. These are the children who get permanently excluded.
We had a lovely example on the Newsnight clip-  a charmer called Chloe and her mother Donna. You’d like Chloe. We first see her, playing with her Christmas present. A Kindle? No. 
A Stripper’s pole. In her BEDROOM. 
I AM NOT F*CKING WITH YOU HERE SHE HAD A STRIPPERS POLE. She described how a teacher DARED to try to confiscate her phone (which is their right to have and use in the classroom, as defined by the Geneva Convention), so she assaulted the teacher in the classroom. ‘But it weren’t that bad, because she didn’t fall over,’ she opined, wise as Socrates. This, it seems, was the girl we were supposed to feel sorry for. She attacked a teacher. And there was pressure to exclude her. I am NOT shitting you here. I would have excluded her twice, and then watched the reruns on More4.
Burn her!
One problem that Newsnight emphasised is that Chloe had been identified as having Special Educational Needs (SEN). Which sounds serious, as if she had a disability of some kind. But being identified as SEN only rarely involves being diagnosed as suffering from some legitimate problem. In most cases it means the child has been observed as behaving badly regularly, and then labelling them as having Emotional And Behavioural Difficulties. Which is to say, it’s a description of their behaviours rather than a metaphysically existent entity like a limp or a cataract. So to describe some one like her as vulnerable because they have a problem is the greatest piece of ontological sleight-of-hand possible, similar to the claim that people are obsess because they have a fat gland, or possess a gene that makes them talk during the quiet bits in films. It isn’t a condition; it’s character.
There are plenty of people willing to make this kind of argument in education, and unfortunately Newsnight just got on the bus. I don’t blame the parents of these children making excuses for their children. Actually, I do, but it’s their job description. It’s unforgivable that trained professionals often make the same philosophically bankrupt claims to determinacy. Vulnerable my righteous ass.
You see, it’s not that an exclusion is a desirable outcome- it isn’t, it’s a bad end to a mess. But it is the best bad end. If you don’t exclude, if you don’t have some terminal sanction, then what’s to stop a pupil just entirely ignoring all detentions, sanctions and deterrents? Deterrents don’t deter without some kind of teeth. Deterrents need to be uncomfortable; they need to make you uncomfortable. Once children see that misbehaviour won’t lead to consequences, then the meaner ones will reason, quickly and correctly, that there is nothing- NOTHING a school can do to them. So not having the option to exclude trickles backward into every classroom, and the charmless children can do as they please. The only ones that suffer are…well, everyone else. The kids who want to learn. The teachers. Everyone else.
There are a tiny minority of kids like this- whom exclusions are aimed at. But there they are. Prisons aren’t pretty either, but we need to have them. You don’t solve crime by banning prison. And with just a fraction of children experiencing the ultimate deterrent, the other children will realise that there are consequences in school, and life, and learn a valuable lesson. That schools are there for their benefit, not just as a holding pen where they can exercise their whims. That they are springboards for human ambition. Not everyone can see that.