Media Trends in School Exclusions
Media coverage of schools exclusions can directly and significantly contribute to the actions of individual schools and the formation of public opinion surrounding exclusions. Less quantifiably, but no less importantly, it appears to inform policy decisions surrounding the laws and guidances relating to exclusions.
more media outlets are choosing to write about the phenomenon of schools exclusions than before
So far, so generic. What, if anything, can be gleaned from an analysis of media headlines relating to school exclusions? Before citing any specific cases, I wish to comment on two wider trends that are rapidly identifiable on this headlines-based analysis. First, in terms of the sheer volume of coverage, it seems clear that more media outlets are choosing to write about the phenomenon of schools exclusions than before. Based on a summary of Google News search results, there has been a year-on-year rise in the coverage. For instance, in the period between 2006-2007, there were as few as 8 pieces written on the subject. In the previous calendar year, there were over 400 articles authored. Most basically, this is suggestive of an increasing media awareness of and interest in the fate of excluded school children.
The second preliminary observation concerns the form of the articles. With few exceptions, articles written on the subject follow one of four stock forms: (1) a purely quantitative analysis of the number of pupils excluded; (2) criticising schools or the government for excluding too few pupils; (3) criticising schools or the government for excluding too many pupils; or (4) criticising schools or the government for a particular aspect of exclusions, covering ground such as the background of the excluded, the motivations behind exclusion, and procedural inadequacies in the individual cases. These blueprints indicate that ‘the media’ exert countervailing pressures, often simultaneously, on schools, inspectors, governors, politicians and policy-makers alike. They are responsible for both pressuring schools to do more to address ill-discipline by excluding those beyond the pale (i.e., format 2), whilst also arguing that schools should do more to exclude fewer pupils (format 3). Format 4, by identifying specifically problematic areas, may be more amenable to remedial action.
However, whilst format 4—the identification of intra-systemic abuses in the exclusion process—is a constant feature of media coverage, the depth and targets of this coverage have been expanded. Initially, this coverage focused on country-wide data and the associated social and structural inequalities. For instance, on 18 September 2006, BBC News Reported that “Many ADHD pupils excluded”; on 4 March 2007, it was reported by BBC News that “Black pupils treated worse” in the exclusion process, a report echoed on 28 October 2007 by The Independent in a headline which read “Schools told to root out institutional racism”; on 10 November 2008, the story of a headteacher excluding pupils to boost pass-rates was covered by both the Telegraph and The Independent. This coverage has recently been supplemented by a more targeted, regionalised approach, often captured first by local news media outlets. The first indications of this naming and shaming strategy appear to arise in 2012. BBC News (on 13 Jan 2012) highlighted the “high exclusion areas like Kent”, and then the Crewe chronicle (on 28 March 2012) noted a similar anomaly in its local area. This trend grew in 2013, with the Sutton Guardian (2 August 2013) and BBC news joining other news outlets in commenting on local anomalies. 2014 saw the Halifax Evening Courier (8 September 2014) and the Coventry Observer doing likewise. Improved access to statistical information may be driving this local pressure. Of note, this has not displaced the macro-level consciousness raising – BBC News and Sky News both reported on 11 Feb 2014 on the fact that children with autism face higher rates of exclusion. Like the macro-level consciousness raising, localised scrutiny is likely to serve, at the very least, as a flagging mechanism for problems in the system. This trend should be welcomed; the more we know about exclusions, and the mistakes made in imposing them, the more able we are to secure the interests of excluded children.
Further specific comment can be made about media reporting of official statistics. In the previous decade, there was a tendency for articles to focus on the final data (i.e., the total number of exclusions). Thus it was common to find headlines such as “fewer pupils expelled” (BBC News, 1 July 2008) and “schools excluding more children” (BBC, 9 March 2008). More recently, however, there is a tendency for deeper investigation into the causes and constituent parts of those outputs. For instance, The Telegraph reporting on the growing number of primary school exclusions (3 October 2009), and the spectre of illegal school exclusions which was documented widely in 2011-13 across a range of national and sub-national media outlets. This marks a greater scepticism, it is contended, of the official figures, and a greater willingness to question how exclusion rates are being reduced, if at all they are.
Lastly, there appears to be a growing focus on the effect of exclusions on the individual children. This is not entirely new. The “high cost of school exclusion” was noted by BBC News in September 2007. But the coverage is more moralised and less calculating than simply stating the financial cost of premature or wrongful exclusion (300k, according to the report featured in the BBC article). Recent headlines such as “schools exclusions punish vulnerable children” (BBC News, 28 Feb 2010), and “condemned to fail by school exclusions” (The Independent, 27 Feb 2010) are sound examples. Furthermore, the personal profiling of excluded children, as seen in the article headlined “personal account: Sophie’s story” appearing in March 2012 is a sign that the views of children are being taken more seriously.
the media does anecdotally appear to influence and potentially exacerbate the see-sawing effect between over- and under-exclusion found over the previous decade.
This article has not attempted to trace these developments into the ether of policy. But the media does anecdotally appear to influence and potentially exacerbate the see-sawing effect between over- and under-exclusion found over the previous decade. Above all, though, it can safely be said that shining the light of accountability onto what have hitherto been the blindspots of the educational system is a good thing. More engaged media in this area cannot, therefore, be readily dismissed.
 2007-07 (8 results); 2007-8 (22); 2008-9 (56); 2009-10 (92); 2010-11 (96); 2011-12 (147); 2012-13 (249); 2013-14 (287); 2014-15 (400)
 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/5348612.stm; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6413265.stm
 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/secondaryeducation/3416986/Pass-rates-soar-after-headteacher-suspends-478-pupils-in-a-year.html; http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/zero-tolerance-pays-off-for-head-who-suspends-two-pupils-a-day-1009576.html