This article, about the anniversary of the Timpson Review into school exclusions, was written by Alistair Dewar, our Relationship Manager for London, and features as guest blog on the Children and Young People Now website. Alistair also discusses the subject in more detail in the latest edition of the Thrive Pedagogy Podcast.
A year ago, the long-awaited Timpson Review of School Exclusions made 30 recommendations to government to ensure that exclusions were used properly and consistently and that our education system creates ‘the best possible conditions for every child to thrive’. These recommendations were immediately accepted in principle by the Government, but, since then, very little has been heard about what this implementation will look like in practice. The Review was published last May and, of course, since then the UK has had another election, entered into a transition period to leave the European Union and gone into lockdown as Covid-19 brought in social distancing measures, including school closures. Given the unprecedented scale and pace of these events, it is hard not to wonder if the Timpson Review’s recommendations have disappeared off the Government’s radar. I believe that with the challenges schools are about to face as they prepare to re-open, now is the time to prioritise the changes suggested by the review.
The former Education Minister Edward Timpson was commissioned by the Government to review how schools were using exclusion and why some groups of children are more likely to be excluded than others. An important part of the Review was to recognise that more needed to be done to equip schools with a positive behaviour culture and to equip teachers with the expertise needed to recognise and resolve behaviour problems at an early stage. These will surely be needed more urgently than ever as schools wait to hear a date that they can re-open and begin planning how they will help their pupils to adjust to ‘the new normal’. Children with existing mental health problems will undoubtedly have suffered as a result of the disruption and stress of Covid-19 while for others, the last few months will have meant additional pressures and a lack of routine that will adversely affect their mental health. There have been 30,000 Covid-19 deaths and counting which will mean loss and grief in almost every community. It would be naïve to think that children’s behaviour won’t be affected by the last few months and that some could potentially end up facing exclusion as a result of experiencing a stressful and disruptive situation that they are simply not equipped to cope with.
The rising rate of exclusions was the issue the founders of Thrive initially came together to try and address back in 1994, and although the rate is not as high as it was then, it has been on an upward trajectory in mainstream settings since 2014. The concern today is that data shows that certain groups of children are far more likely than others to be excluded: disadvantaged children, children from traveller families, black children and those with special educational needs – and that this could be because schools are trying to protect their league table positions. In his report, Timpson found that 78 per cent of permanent exclusions issued were to pupils who either had SEN, were classified as in need or were eligible for free school meals. A total of 11 per cent of permanent exclusions were to pupils who had all these characteristics. If we are serious about social mobility and breaking down barriers to achievement, these figures should be deeply troubling to us.
Key to tackling the behaviour that often leads to exclusions is early intervention by establishing a relationship with a child so that they know they have a safe, stable person that they can turn to for help. Behaviour that can be perceived as challenging in the classroom can be a sign that a child is in distress. Behaviour such as hitting out or running off is a sign that the child may be in fight or flight mode, acting on survival instinct to cope with a situation that they are finding difficult to deal with. Often, this behaviour comes about because of factors that are going on in the child’s life outside school – bereavement, divorce, parental addiction, poverty-related stress, moving house or even something like the arrival of a sibling. Thrive provides training to teachers and other educational professionals to support children’s emotional and social development to help them to deal with these sort of life events. Key to this training is the idea of connection and relationship between a teacher, or other educational professional, and pupils. This relationship needs to be based on understanding, empathy and connection and not on punishment or sanctions. Our training is underpinned by attachment theory, neuroscience, child development and psychotherapy and at the heart of it is the idea that children can’t learn properly unless they are calm and able to practice a level of emotional resilience. Once this is in place, a child can think more rationally about the situation they are in and to understand that there are things they can do to get their own needs met. During my teaching career, I’ve seen first-hand the changes things like the Thrive Approach can bring about to the lives of children as they begin to trust an adult and to learn more about their own reactions and emotions. It’s amazing to see the difference this makes to children who realise that they can feel and work through difficult emotions, rather than having to act out on them and how this, in turn, leads to behaviour improvements which reduce exclusions and make schools places where, literally, every child can thrive and reach their potential.
In his review, Mr Timpson said that “every child, regardless of their characteristics, needs or the type of school they attend, deserves a high-quality education” and that we need a school system that will “create the best possible conditions for every child to thrive and progress.” He called for more emphasis on behaviour management during teacher training and more funding to help schools to take a preventative approach to behaviour management. I did my teacher training in the late 2000s and we had one lecture on behaviour management and this was very theory-based. More time needs to be given to this vital area and a different approach needs to be taken in terms of recognising the advances that have been made in neuroscience and our understanding of why children behave as they do. I would like to see a focus on behaviour potentially in the second year of teaching with an emphasis on management in the classroom, not in theory, as well as looking at the role of SEN and the additional support these children need. For those who argue that budgets are too tight and time pressures too great for this extra commitment from schools, I would argue that the exclusion process itself and Alternative Provision are even more expensive and time consuming to schools and wider society. It is more cost effective, and more socially worthwhile, to help educate children to learn about their emotions so that they develop resilience and the ability to use appropriate coping strategies.
Of course, it is important to recognise that violent and aggressive behaviour is unacceptable. For a very small number of children, exclusion is the only way a school can respond to behaviour that puts the safety of others at risk. However, it’s something that should only ever be used as a last resort and certainly not because it is in the school’s best interests. The latest exclusion data available to Edward Timpson showed that an average of 40 children are permanently excluded every day with a further 2,000 excluded for a fixed period each day. Each of these children’s futures will be affected by exclusion. They will be more likely to engage in criminality and less likely to gain qualifications and progress to higher education. As the UK moves closer to coming out of lockdown and, hopefully, getting back to normal, we need to make sure that the recommendations made by the Timpson Review are not forgotten. The latest exclusion figures are due to be released by the Department for Education in July. If we want to reverse the current trend, we need to maintain pressure on the Government to implement Timpson’s 30 recommendations – otherwise, nothing will ever change and the distressed, angry children who are excluded will become distressed, angry adults and that is something that society cannot afford to allow to keep happening.