By Phoebe Whitlock, Student Representative at The School Exclusion Project.
Last Wednesday’s Spending Review has provided the clearest indication yet of the new Government’s approach to education policy. The headline is this: the Conservatives have committed to increasing school spending in line with pupil numbers but not cost pressures and, as a result, school spending per pupil will significantly fall in real terms over the next 5 years.
Almost 5,000 children were permanently excluded from secondary schools in England in 2013-14, the most recent year for which figures are available. Thankfully, this figure has gradually been falling over the past decade. However, in the future the problem has the potential to get much worse. Although the schools budget has been protected in real terms, rising from £58.2 billion this year to £61.2 billion in 2020, pupil numbers are expected to rise by 7% in this Parliament, as opposed to 2.4% in the last one. If you combine this with increased public sector pay and rising national insurance contributions, then budgets would need to increase by almost 20% over the course of this Parliament to protect per pupil spending in real terms.
This policy amounts to a large budget cut. It will be the first time real spending per pupil has been cut since the mid-90s, and as a result there is a genuine concern that exclusions – be they legal or illegal – will increase.
Already, as the School Exclusion Project recently noted, a number of schools appear to be engaging in illegal exclusion policies. Real terms budget cuts will doubtless make the problem much worse. They take away the school’s capacity to deal with the often complex cases, meaning that some students can and will suffer by slipping through the cracks. This “quiet scandal in the education system” has already led to one student missing 14 months of school.
I must be clear – it is not the fault of the schools. Managing increasing expectations, constantly changing exam systems and raising the school leaving age on a decreasing budget is simply not possible. The schools need more support and more funding if students are to stop slipping through the cracks and be given adequate support.
A way that a troublesome student can stay in mainstream school is through a managed move to an alternative state school. However, a school may want to help a student with a managed move, but given they are funded by the school the student is leaving – how would this be financially viable for every permanently excluded student?
The current system incentivises schools to use illegal exclusions or coerce parents into home school.
This is a kind of cooking the books scenario where the student remains on the register so the school can claim funding for them, but they do not have the student on school property so the money can be directed in other ways.
No matter what angle you look at it from, the student loses out. The schools are trying hard – no one goes into education to permanently exclude vulnerable students. But budgetary restrictions are severely limiting what they can and cannot do for students who need extra help.
This is not the first time this year that the prospect of rising school exclusions has reared its head. In January, the Department for Education proposed new exclusion guidance which would have removed the requirement that schools only use permanent exclusion “as a last resort”. Consequently, a child whose conduct is deemed to be merely detrimental to the education or welfare of others in class could have been permanently removed by the Headteacher. There was no longer a need to establish serious harm. The new guidance was withdrawn only a month after it was proposed following the threat of legal action from Just for Kids Law, supported by the Communities Empowerment Network and the School Exclusion Project.
This reduction in standards should be seen for what it is: an attack on the most vulnerable in society. It is widely accepted that permanent exclusion from the mainstream school system has far-reaching and detrimental consequences. The review from the Centre for Social Justice into school exclusions used the figures from 2009/2010 and the findings are startling. They show that in a survey of 15-18 year olds in custody, 90% of the young men and 75% of the young women surveyed had been excluded from school. The detrimental effects of school exclusions on the later life of a pupil cannot and should not be ignored.
The Government should be doing everything in its power to prevent exclusions, not make it easier for Head Teachers. The prevention of exclusion and tackling of any issues a student may have could prevent anti-social and even criminal behaviour in the future. A strategy of prevention rather than punishment should be adopted and maintained as a priority.
If this Government wants to be the one to restore the prestige of the English education system then they need to adopt a hands off approach and put their money where their mouth is – give the schools proper funding, proper support and watch the system flourish.