Today sees the publication of the Timpson Review on School Exclusion. It was undertaken by Edward Timpson, a former Conservative MP and Education Minister. The upshot is that it wants schools to be penalised for excluding disruptive pupils – for instance by changing the funding arrangements and being marked down in their Ofsted reports. It is written in a predictably tortuous style. It proposes changes that will “recognise those who use exclusion appropriately” by “recognising schools in supporting all children, including those with additional needs, to remain positively engaged in mainstream in the context of a well-managed school.”

The Times this morning reports:

“Fewer pupils should be excluded from school, according to the education secretary, who said that a fall in the numbers would be the measure of success of a reformed system.

“Damian Hinds said that he would begin implementing the 30 recommendations made by Edward Timpson in his report into school exclusions, published in full today. They include measures to make sure that schools take into their academic rankings the exam results of pupils they exclude.”

There has been cross party pressure to discourage exclusions. Last month, Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech to the National Education Union and complained that “the increase in exclusions is being driven in part by austerity”. Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP and Chairman of the Education Select Committee, has written for this site, criticising schools for excluding pupils too readily.

According to the Timpson Review, there were 7,700 pupils expelled from schools in England in 2016-17. That is an average of 40 a day. We are meant to regard that as a high number – but there are over eight million pupils in Britain. So that is below 0.1 per cent. We read that “over 17,000 mainstream schools (85 per cent of all mainstream schools in England) issued no permanent exclusions in 2016/17”. There is an implication that they are to be commended. This seems to me a rather loaded way of looking at it. Did all those schools really manage effectively without any exclusions? The number of exclusions is up 40 per cent on three years ago – although it is lower than ten years ago. But why is is assumed that more pupils than necessary are being excluded now, rather than that some who should have been excluded three years ago were wrongly left in mainstream education?

One criteria that Ofsted seems to be pushing is that exclusion is wrong as it is “primarily in the interests of the school rather than in the best interests of the pupil”. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? If a pupil is persistently disruptive then it is in nobody interests for the situation to continue. I’m not sure whether it makes sense to argue about whether it’s “primarily” helping the disruptive pupil to be taken out of school to be given specialist help, or the rest of the class who then have a chance to learn something.

John Bald has written on this site:

“The point, though, is that the perpetrators of school violence and disruption inflict even more harm on the education of other pupils, and to the morale of teachers, than they do on themselves. School staff, from headteachers to assistants, have the right to work in safety, and children have the right to go to school, work and learn, without having their education disrupted – more often, wrecked – by other pupils.”

A return to “progressive” and “inclusive” education would mean a collapse in discipline and make schools frightening places where the bullies are in control. That is the system that Michael Gove moved away from when he gave head teachers much greater authority – including far greater power to exclude pupils. It is applying the Conservative principle to “trust the people”. There is accountability. If a school fails then it has a forced takeover as a “sponsored academy” with a new head and governing body. But it is only fair that heads should be given the power to succeed.

I visited a school in Shepherd’s Bush called Burlington Danes which had been in a terrible state but was rapidly turned round by a new head called Sally Coates. On her first day she held an Inset day and went through with the teachers her approach. On her second day as head, the first day of term came the shock and awe of a mass exclusion of 70 children – those with the worst behaviour based on their records. She told an assembly for each year group how they were expected to behave in future and told those being excluded to stay behind. She gave each of them a letter and said they weren’t to come back to school until she had had an appointment with their parents. Often the parents had been unaware of what had been happening and these meetings were often long and difficult but practically all the children were quickly allowed back by half term.

This is not to say that everything is fine at present. Timpson covers the practice of “off rolling”. This is an arrangement whereby a school gets rid of a pupil, not through exclusion, but by asking the child’s parents to move him or her to another school, in order to avoid exclusion. Of course this just means that the disruption is switched from a classroom in one school to a classroom in another. The problem isn’t solved. The causes of the bad behaviour are not properly investigated or addressed. But is it not blindingly obvious that punishing schools for undertaking exclusions will make “off-rolling” more likely? A school can virtuously claim to have zero exclusions – which will officially be true as it has relied on this dodge instead.

Another huge challenge at present is when pupils are excluded. They are put into Pupil Referral Units or “Alternative Provision” schools. But then often, after a couple of terms, they are put back in a mainstream school – (which has to accept them and is different from the one that excluded them). Often the same problems occur and the pupil is excluded again. Sometimes these Units fail to provide proper specialist help – those pupils with quite different problems are put in together. There might be those who have had some breakdown after experiencing bullying, mixed in with those excluded for bullying. It is not as if the money is not being spent. Class sizes are low. But greater innovation is needed. Greater priority should be given in the free schools programme to those offering excellence in alternative provision.

Under David Cameron, the Conservatives brought in bold and successful social reforms. The transformation of our schools stands out. Under Theresa May, radicalism has vanished, but at least the achievements have not been generally been lost. What is particularly dispiriting about the announcement from Hinds is that he is threatening the hard won improvement in educational standards. Head teachers who wish to maintain order are to be undermined. Instead they are to be told to once again put progressive ideology first. We will wait to find out what approach the next Prime Minister takes…