The link between children permanently excluded from school and those who go on to commit violence is an established fact. So, can a zero exclusions policy, as advocated by the public health approach, solve the problem? David Cohen from The Evening standard investigates.
Every morning, when Lucy and her fellow students arrive at Abbey Manor College in Lewisham, their school day starts with a full body search. They line up in front of a security guard who frisks them with a metal detector looking for knives and mobile phones. He then scours their bag for sweets, chocolate, sugary drinks and drugs.
Corridors are locked down and even visits to the toilet permitted only with an adult escort armed with a special electronic fob to open the doors. “It’s to prevent vandalism and provide an environment in which these children can learn,” says headteacher Heather Johnston.
If Abbey Manor seems more like a prison than a school, that is because it is a pupil referral unit (PRU), an alternative provision for children permanently excluded from mainstream schools. In other words, where the borough’s “bad kids” are dumped.
The situation is compounded, the Youth Violence Commission says, by a “clear link” established “between school exclusions and youth violence”. It has led the cross-party commission to call for “zero exclusions from mainstream education” as part of their public health approach to tackling rising youth violence. But is a zero exclusion policy realistic?
At Dunraven School in Lambeth, where many of the 1,700 students come from troubled estates and almost half the pupils are eligible for free school meals, they believe it is. Since headteacher David Boyle took over in 2004, he has cut permanent exclusions from five a year to zero and temporary exclusions have plummeted from 510 to just 10.
How have they done it? “We realised that the overwhelming majority of students who are violent or disruptive have a history of trauma or vulnerability,” said Boyle, 54. “These children tend to be caught up in domestic violence, gang disputes or suffer disadvantage through mental health issues, neglect or poverty. So instead of sending these students to a PRU, we set up an alternative on-site provision to support them that we call the Base.”
The result is that students with violent behavioural problems, much like Lucy’s, are managed in-house. Base students, as they are called at Dunraven, are educated separately on site, given bespoke mentoring and pastoral support and reintegrated into the main school when they are deemed ready.
Tia-Jo Mclaren, 14, a student who would have been expelled to a PRU by most schools, said: “I used to shout at teachers and walk out of class when I liked, and two years ago I was sent to the Base. Base made me calmer because there were less people and I got one-to-one attention.
“I started to get insight into my behaviour. I realised I had anger issues and they helped me find a way to deal with it. I learned ways to calm down and to focus. As my behaviour improved, I was allowed back into regular classes.”
Read more about the Base and the schools results in the full article Violent London: ‘These troubled children know they are in last chance saloon’
Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin
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