Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
An average of 40 children are permanently excluded from our schools every single day. This has risen by 40 per cent over the past three years to a staggering total of 7,720 a year. Children with special educational needs account for around half of all permanent and temporary exclusions.
What’s worse, many more exclusions are happening under the radar. Back in June 2018, Ofsted identified 300 schools for ‘off-rolling’ – the practice of unofficially excluding their pupils. Between 2016 and 2017, over 19,000 pupils disappeared from the books and did not progress from year 10 to 11 in the same state-funded secondary school.
Our schools are more than just places of education; they are beacons of our communities. For many children, school is the only place with the promise of a hot meal and the stability that they are missing at home. Without the care and supervision of our schools, all of these children are infinitely more vulnerable.
With a postcode lottery of alternative provision for those who have been excluded, is it any wonder that many of our most vulnerable children end up on the streets being recruited or targeted by atrocious gangs? Post-16, there is barely any alternative provision, at all. How can we expect children, who were unable to cope in mainstream secondary schools, to rock up in a college of 15,000 students and settle in ‘just fine’?
Many excluded children end up being home-schooled or in unregistered provision. Once a child falls off the radar, there is no way of making sure that they are being looked after and educated as they should be.
Vulnerable children should be in safe, appropriate provision, not on our streets.
We know that pupils who are excluded from school are twice as likely to carry a knife, and 63 per cent of prisoners report having been excluded from schools in their youth. It is, therefore, unsurprising to read of Ofsted’s latest research on the rise in knife crime overflowing into our classrooms.
Gangs are targeting excluded pupils and exploiting schools’ behavioural policies to force their hands on exclusions. They are arming our children and encouraging them to take weapons to school to trigger their exclusion.
Zero-Tolerance Behavioural Policies
The Education Select Committee which I chaired we looked at how zero-tolerance behavioural policies may lead to a rise in exclusions in our report, Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions. Exclusion should always be a last resort. However, there is a difficult balance to be stuck between ensuring that our schools remain a safe place for staff and pupils, as well as being an inclusive and supportive environment for those students who need it most.
On this basis, we concluded that it is reasonable for schools to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to drugs and weapons; however, a school culture that is intolerant of minor infractions of school policies on haircuts or uniform will create an environment where pupils are punished needlessly and those who are most vulnerable are pushed out. There should be greater flexibility and a degree of discretion when implementing behavioural policies to ensure that, as far as possible, all students get the support they need to stay safe and reach their potential.
That being said, there is more that our education system can do to protect pupils without compromising the safety of our schools. Aside from improving the quality of alternative provision when mainstream education is not a suitable option, schools must face this gang endemic head on. We should be educating our students about the dangers they face and working alongside local authorities, charities, and youth organisations on a collaborative approach to provide wrap-around care and interventions when students are in danger.
Queen Mary University of London has found that our children are most at risk of being knifed during ‘stabbing hour’ – as they make their way home after the school bell chimes at the end of the day. This is heartbreaking. Knife crime is an issue that surrounds and threatens our schools, but it does not stem from them.
With gangs on our streets and knives in our schools, this is too big a societal issue to look at purely through the lens of our education system. We need joined up thinking across government, across organisations and across our communities to mend our broken society.