By Alice Bacon, Chief Director of the School Exclusion Project and pupil barrister at 3PB from Autumn 2015.
Michael Gove, appearing before the Justice Committee on 15 July 2015, finally vocalised the connection between young people being “let down by the education system” and then falling into the hands of the criminal justice system. At last, our justice secretary has pinpointed permanent exclusion as one of the principle triggers to be concerned about in the context of criminality.
The HM Chief Inspector of Prisons report for 2014-2015 was also released this week. Again, the overt link between permanent exclusion and detention is made.
Eighty five per cent of boys in this report explained that they had been excluded from school before they came into detention, 73% said they had truanted from school at some time, and 41% were 14 or younger when they last attended school. These figures are both devastating and unsurprising.
Coupled with this, the Bradley report (2009) confirmed that as many as 90% of the whole prison population had one or more of the five identified psychiatric disorders.
The prevalence of mental health and intellectual/learning disabilities is high in the population of those we represent facing permanent exclusion. Over half of our cases this year have involved students with statements of special educational needs (Statement of SEN) or an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHC Plan). This is before we come to those students with as yet unmet special educational needs and those with undiagnosed or misunderstood mental health conditions. It would not be surprising if the data on mental health and special educational needs found in the prison population matches exactly that of the permanently excluded students.
We cannot ignore the link between mental health and school exclusion. We cannot ignore the link between school exclusion and entrance into the criminal justice system.
The statutory school exclusion guidance does go some way to urge head teachers to recognise mental health problems in their students before taking the decision to permanently exclude them. I remain of the view that the clauses set out below from the guidance remain, nevertheless, limited in scope and practical use.
Briefly asking teachers to ‘consider mental health’, as mitigation for poor behaviour, is insufficient to tackle the problem and actually help the student at risk of permanent exclusion. Though mention is made of a ‘multi-agency assessment’ nothing is said about what this entails, and at what stage it ought to be undertaken in the exclusion process. The clauses read as follows:
- Whilst an exclusion may still be an appropriate sanction, head teachers should take account of any contributing factors that are identified after an incident of poor behaviour has occurred. For example, where it comes to light that a pupil has suffered bereavement, has mental health issues or has been subject to bullying.
- Early intervention to address underlying causes of disruptive behaviour should include an assessment of whether appropriate provision is in place to support any SEN or disability that a pupil may have. Head teachers should also consider the use of a multi-agency assessment for pupils who demonstrate persistent disruptive behaviour. Such assessments may pick up unidentified special educational needs but the scope of the assessment could go further, for example, by seeking to identify mental health or family problems.
Similarly, within the criminal justice system, mitigation is often put forward during sentencing that the defendant has a mental health condition; this submission is seen almost as trite, and isn’t always treated with the appropriate level of gravitas or understanding in that it might have a significant impact on people’s ability to make decisions (i.e. mens rea of the offence).
Within both the criminal justice and education systems, nevertheless, there have been attempts to improve the care of young people with mental health problems, perceived as exhibiting poor behaviour, who are facing school exclusion or time behind bars. Judges and magistrates have the ability to order hours to be taken under the new Rehabilitation Activity Requirements (RARs, which were introduced by the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014). The probation service subsequently specifies a range of activities for that defendant, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, anger management or counselling. There is call for this to be widened further, such as through play therapy and sport therapy for young people.
What lessons, therefore, can we in the education and exclusion world learn from those working in the criminal justice system? Are there effective strategies used by prison teams for young people which can be reconfigured and used in schools to provide structured support for the student who isn’t coping? Could we perhaps use RARs in school for at-risk students as a mandatory step to take before exclusion?
Obviously there is a distinction between the severity of behaviour and difficulties faced by those in the prison population compared to those misbehaving or struggling in school. Nevertheless, there are many new and effective approaches in the CJS that require exploration, which could be applied in the education field.
One suggestion is to knuckle down on the multi-disciplinary approach, such as that seen in custody-based Team Around the Child plans (TAC plans). Laura Janes, legal co-director and consultant solicitor of The Howard League for Penal Reform, explained at a Doughty Street seminar recently that the TAC brings together relevant professionals (including psychologists) who have frequent contact with the young person. The team facilitates open and positive engagement at regular meetings, which treat the young person’s needs holistically. Laura stated that this multi-disciplinary coordination enhances the consistency of support (both psychological and behavioural) available to the young person. In her experience, young people who are under the TAC plan tend to respond well, with recognisable improvements to mental wellbeing and behaviour.
Laura also shared our worry and stated that young people are “already ostracised via exclusion” before they even reach the criminal justice stage. She could count on one hand the children and young people she’d helped throughout her time at Howard League who had not been excluded from school.
What more can then be done to halt this treadmill from exclusion to detention?
There are, of course, resource implications in reforming the exclusion process. With cuts already to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) over the past few years, the resources available for young service users have shrunk. This has the consequence of preventing educators from having the tools around them to help students who are struggling.
The recent Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) survey of 850 education professionals found nine out of 10 schools or colleges have had to provide greater support to pupils with mental health problems over the last two years. (See: http://www.cypnow.co.uk/cyp/news/1150549/camhs-cuts-blamed-for-rise-in-pupils-with-mental-health-problems#sthash.QGHyFzeb.dpuf)
This survey flagged up the need for teachers to have better training on dealing with the mental health of their students, with only 9% of teachers feeling adequately equipped to identify the signs of mental health deterioration. This cannot continue. Mental health itself requires de-stigmatisation too; where better then to start than early in the education system.
Do we then push for better training for teachers during teacher training? Of course. Should we reform school exclusion guidance so it effectively signposts head teachers to consult with local mental health services for students? Yes.
Do we screen all students at risk of permanent exclusion for mental health conditions or special educational needs? This I am not so sure about. How would we start to formulate such a screening process?
Typical screening such as the Kessler model (used to screen for psychiatric distress) has limited practical use without a full psychiatric assessment. There is also, understandably, a reluctance by many to pathologise our children, to label them as troubled, distressed or disordered. How then, though, can that child access the help they need without a diagnosis or a statement/EHC plan? I welcome comments on this predicament.
In addition to a multi-disciplinary, holistic approach, early intervention for the at-risk child is vital. From a cost perspective it is obvious; help the child early, and the condition, and indeed the behaviour, is less likely to deteriorate. The school exclusion guidance actually emphasises this, yet time and time again our exclusion cases demonstrate that early intervention is being neglected.
None of us can take this systemic problem on without working with those from other specialties and utilising them at the earliest opportunity. Teachers, for instance, need to be confident that they can contact local health specialists as soon as they pick up on student warning signs. Teachers also need to be confident that they themselves can talk to the student privately when they notice that they are quieter, withdrawn, more anxious or angry.
On a positive note, in Osborne’s latest budget, he announced a further £118m to complete the roll-out of the Children and Young People’s Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme. It is hoped that IAPT will help more students to remain in school and access the help they need as soon as they need it.
It is clear we have the statistics we need highlight the above concerns and lessons learnt to our new justice minister, Mr Gove. Further, we have a wealth of knowledge and perspectives from a range of clinical specialists, teachers, parents, lawyers, prison officers, psychologists, SENCOs and school nurses.
In other words, the criminal justice system and the education system can learn much more from one other to put a stop to that treadmill. We do, after all, have a justice minister that once had the education brief.
Let’s work together too to reform the school exclusion guidance so it properly emphasises mental health.
And finally, let’s make it an imperative that young people’s mental health needs are successfully and swiftly dealt with. Young people who are at risk of being permanently ostracised by the education system do not deserve to then become sustenance for the criminal justice system.