Beyond exclusion: supporting children who struggle in school

In this article, I take an in-depth look at what Alternative Provision can bring to children who are out of school or not in full-time attendance. Reproduced by kind permission of Education Today,
Beyond exclusion: supporting children who struggle in school

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Reproduced by kind permission of Education Today.

On GCSE results day in August 2018, a new map appeared on the London Underground Northern line. It was part of a protest by a group of students called 'Education not Exclusion'. It showed what happens to children who are excluded from school. 

Education not Exclusion Underground map

The group also produced posters that said: "Every day, 35 students (a full classroom) are permanently excluded from school. Only one percent of them will go on to get the five good GCSEs they need to succeed. It is the most disadvantaged children who are disproportionately punished by the system. We deserve better."

Why are children excluded and what happens to them?

Exclusion does not necessarily mean being at home all the time. It can include: 

  • Attending part-time
  • Being in another setting for part of the school week
  • Being in a separate part of the school from the rest of the class
  • Being on a reduced timetable
  • Being offered a 'managed move' over to another setting 
  • Being off-rolled, defined by Ofsted as 'removing a child from the school roll when it is in the best interests of the school rather than the best interests of the pupil.'

I recently reviewed a book entitled 'Excluded from School: Complex Discourse and Psychological Perspectives'. Written by practising psychologists for senior leaders, teachers, teaching assistants and pastoral staff, it looks at why and how we segregate some of our most vulnerable young people. The most common reason given was persistent disruptive behaviour.

Especially good about this book are the five case studies where the authors interview many of those involved in the exclusion process. It shows not just the perspectives of the child and their family, but also teachers, senior leaders at the excluding school, family agencies, social services and the setting that accepted the child post-exclusion. 

Lessons to be learned

In some areas of the UK, the exclusion rate for Black Caribbeans is five times higher than that of their white classmates. In 2022, the National Association for Special Educational Needs (Nasen) analysed government figures for suspensions and exclusions and reported that pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) had suspension rates of over 600 per 10,000 pupils, compared to 144 for pupils with no SEND.

It seems that those most in need of an education and the chance to be part of a group are the ones we are most likely to cast out and leave to fend for themselves. Schools are too big for some children and they get lost in the system. 

One mother commented: "I know it's difficult to manage a large school, it's difficult to hone in on an individual...But that's no good to the child, is it? The fact that they are in a large school, and people haven't got time - it is not good enough." 

Schools try to support families but are not trained or equipped to do so. A headteacher who had to exclude a child noted: "We're getting better at it but I do feel a lot of it is reactive and just containment as opposed to spotting the problem earlier on and putting in the right people at the right time to deal with it." 

The authors noted that: "All the schools mention family circumstances as a factor in the pupil's difficulties but none go on to say how they either took account of these circumstances in dealing with the pupil or how they took active steps to support the family."  

Home education: a choice or last resort?

It is not just children suspended or expelled who are out of school. There are many other reasons why children might not be attending. According to government census data, there were an estimated 92,000 children in home education in England on census day in Autumn 2023. Some children reported improved mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and were reluctant to return to school, especially if they had experienced bullying there. 

While home education used to be seen as a middle class choice, increasingly it is used by children with autism or poor mental health. Often, they are waiting for an assessment or on a waiting list for specialist provision. These children have their own acronym - EOTAS - Educated Other Than At School. 

The Children's Commissioner says: "Children with special educational needs and those from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to be home educated. My research found that many children who were home educated had a bad experience of the school system...Parents told my office that they often opted for home education as a last resort." 

Researching what home educated pupils need

Nisai Virtual Academy works with pupils with additional needs at home. Adam is one example. For years he struggled to leave his bedroom and still struggles to leave the house. He has severe anxiety so he never logs into live lessons but opts to watch the recordings instead. Last year, he passed English and Maths GCSEs with the Nisai Virtual Academy and is now studying GCSE History. 

Nisai is the first online education provider to win a government innovation grant - a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Staffordshire University. This starts in September and will run for 30 months. A researcher will analyse their online learning over the last four years and develop new services in partnership with families and commissioners. 

Paul Keenleyside, Executive Director at Nisai Education Trust, says: "We want to find out what has worked best for our learners, where we deliver value for money and how the sector can develop new ways of using hybrid learning to meet individual needs. As an online provider, we offer continuity of education to young people at difficult times in their lives, integrating online learning with face to face mentoring and work with other providers." 

What Alternative Provision can offer

Schools cater for large numbers and have rules and routines that apply to everyone. This may be part of the problem, says Dr Chris Fielding, a former mainstream primary headteacher. He is now Academy Lead at the Forwards Centre in Bolton. 

Chris says: "We choose what they do, how long they do it for and how much of it they have to get done. We choose how they move around the building, how they get their dinner how they are spoken to and by whom. We choose where they play, what they play and for how long. It is too easy to lay the responsibility for challenging behaviour in school on the child and their family. We have an obligation to consider our own impact and to do everything we can to understand their needs." 

Alternative Provision can be more flexible. It can start from where the learner is and adjust timetables and expectations accordingly. Usually, staff don't just work on the curriculum: they also focus on behaviour. They try to uncover the causes of a child's responses and help them with self-regulation. Instead of a narrow Knowledge Curriculum, they can incorporate art, music, drama, links with the community, vocational areas, work experience and try to develop the whole person. When it works well, the child feels that they have a team behind them and they leave with the skills and confidence needed for their adult life. 

Could arts be the answer?

Last year's entries for the Education Today Awards showed that some schools still value arts activities. We heard about partnerships with local artists, museums and theatre. A specialist autism provider linked up with Stikings, a company that offers 'accessible and adapted circus arts instruction', while another AP provider was a sculpture workshop. 

James Steventon is Director of Fermynwoods Contemporary Art. He started a partnership 15 years ago with The CE Academy, an AP setting in Northamptonshire. They bring together artists and non-traditional arts audiences, focusing on rural and disadvantaged communities. While they can provide drawing, painting and printmaking, they have a more ambitious approach.

James explains: "What we have found is that what we colloquially call the weird stuff can be quite powerful. So, we've done things with robotics and inflatable sculptures, and on one occasion, filmed sculptures floating 90,000ft above the earth's atmosphere."

This provision is all about widening horizons. "The students have found both our artists and the ways they work fascinating," adds James. "They have rarely met individuals who have trodden their own path yet are successful. To be an artist is to be an outsider, and we have watched how young people who have been excluded find it easier to establish a rapport with our artists." 

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