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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.

I’m a supporter of free schools and truly admire the work that Mark Lehain is doing in Bedford. However, I’ve never been able to understand why so many of those with a centre-right worldview see the ‘anti-exclusions argument’ as an assault on school standards and traditionalist education.  I’m referring to his reply last week to my last column on this site.

We Conservatives have always been tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime but, for some reason, many of us turn a blind eye to this sentiment when talking about exclusions. Avoiding exclusions as much as possible ensures that more of our children benefit from the high standards in our schools that Mark rightfully champions.

First, exclusion rates. Yes, exclusions are not higher now than they were a decade ago, but this misses the wider picture. Whilst exclusions did once drop, they have been increasing steadily since 2012/13, and this trend is concerning. The latest figures show that the number of children being permanently excluded from schools has risen by 67 per cent since 2014.

It’s all very well arguing for less tolerant schools and more exclusions, but even if you subscribe to this way of thinking, we still need widespread and good-quality provision for children who don’t fit that mould. This is not the case. We have a postcode lottery of alternative provision. There is not one outstanding alternative provision place in the entire North East of England and if you’re looking for a placement post-16 anywhere, you can pretty much forget it.

Second, prison. Mark argues that underlying issues, not exclusions, are the cause of imprisonment in later life, but it doesn’t matter whether the chicken or the egg came first. Since these behavioural issues start at a young age, we need early intervention to tackle them before they escalate to something even more serious. Schools are often the only place these young people are engaged with who have the ability to turn their lives around.

For example, the Reach Academy in Feltham has 46 per cent of its pupils on pupil premium and a higher-than-average number of pupils with EHC plans. It also has a Progress 8 score of 1.11, placing it 15th nationally. This demonstrates what can be achieved when schools support disadvantaged pupils who, as the statistics demonstrate, are more prone to school exclusion.

There are lots of compassionate reasons why we should be doing more of this, but it’s also important to acknowledge that the taxpayer ends up forking out an estimated £370,000 per excluded child in lifetime costs.For those economic conservatives, there is a huge cost benefit to intervening early.

Our committee would like to see more support for schools to enable them to do this. We have made the case for improved teacher training, closer working partnerships with PRUs, and qualified staff for learning support units.

Third, SEND. Rough estimates suggest that 922 students with SEND are excluded, either permanently or temporarily, every school day. This vulnerable group of children accounts for around half of permanent exclusions even though they make up only 14 per cent of our classrooms. Some may not see this as a problem, but our committee does. The well-intended Children’s Act is not working. We have been left with a system that is unfair, facing a constant battle for resources, and undermining parents who are forced to wade through a treacle of bureaucracy.

It is wrong to say that students “are excluded for one of the main reasons they end up given the SEN label, their behaviour”. Social, emotional and mental health concerns are a legitimate SEND and, in many cases, are caused by a childhood trauma or a disruptive home environment. Belittling these children’s hardships to simple “behaviour” issues is too simplistic. For these pupils, school may be their only chance to experience the structure and support systems they so desperately need in their lives.

Fourth, off-rolling. There may well be rules in place that ban the practice of informally excluding children from school; however, these rules are not being enforced. As mentioned before, more than 19,000 pupils in year 10 in 2016 did not progress to year 11 in the same school in 2017.

If only half are going into other state schools as Mark highlights, where do the rest end up? Whatever the answer to this question, the point is that their original school should not be able to just wash their hands of students they aren’t keen on, particularly during crucial exam years. Sometimes, a move might be entirely reasonable and in the best interests of the child but, if this is the case, why does it need to be done behind closed doors? Ofsted would not have 300 schools under investigation for this very issue if they did not share our committee’s cause for concern.

Now for one thing we can agree on – school standards. On this ground, education is a success for us Conservatives and we are right to celebrate it. We have 1.9 million more children in good and outstanding schools compared to 2010, the results gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has shrunk by 10 per cent since 2011, and England has risen to joint-eighth in the world’s primary-level reading league table.

The problem with the great education debate is that it always ricochets between the binary traditionalists and progressives. I, as a self-proclaimed ‘Bakerite’ (a supporter of Lord Baker’s vocational and technical education vision), count myself as neither of these. My primary motivation is skills and technical education, but I am still able to appreciate the need for high standards and the pursuit of knowledge.

I’d also like to point out that I have never said there should be no exclusions. Of course, in certain circumstances, it is a necessary course of action to ensure the safety of teachers and other students. However, this should only used as a last resort.

During the 1980s, many Conservatives, myself included, believed in Thatcher’s trickle-down economics. The idea was that if you built up economic capital, everything else would come right – that society would benefit, too. With hindsight, I’ve come to understand that this was not correct. Economic and social capital need to be built hand-in-hand to construct a prosperous society.

Educational traditionalists make exactly the same mistake when talking about our schools –  if we focus on academic rigour and high standards alone, everything else will fall into place. But, we need to build up social capital in our schools too. If we do not, we are denying those most in need of accessing the high quality education our Conservative Government has worked so hard to achieve. If we get it right, then we ensure that everyone, whatever their background, can climb the ladder of opportunity and achieve the jobs, security and prosperity waiting at the top.

69 comments for: Robert Halfon: Thatcherism was wrong. We need to build social as well as economic capital. Including in our schools.

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