In response to Anne Longfield’s Commission on Young Lives regarding ‘exclusions culture’, Iryna Pona, policy and impact manager at The Children’s Society, said: “Children being excluded or missing from school is often a sign that something isn’t right at home, in school or in their wider lives.
“Changes in behaviour can be a symptom of anything from undiagnosed learning disabilities, bullying and racism to poverty, neglect, mental health issues, abuse and exploitation. Some children may still not be re-engaged with education since the COVID lockdowns for a variety of reasons including anxiety, because they are caring for a sick parent or relative, or because they are being exploited.
“Being excluded can leave children feeling isolated, harm their learning and self-esteem, and leave them more vulnerable to risks like exploitation. We found that criminal groups sometimes encourage children to be disruptive in school specifically so they get excluded, and can then be coerced more freely to courier drugs in county lines operations. Criminals have been known to target pupil referral units as they are on the lookout for the most vulnerable children to target.
“Schools must do far more to talk to children and families at an early stage to explore the reasons for changes in behaviour or absences from education. It’s crucial staff feel confident in helping children access support, and arranging assessments, including special educational needs, where appropriate.
“Changes in behaviour that lead to schools considering exclusion need to always be seen as a ‘reachable moment’ resulting in the child and family’s needs being assessed jointly by school and social care and offering help. Exclusions should be the absolute last resort, and should only happen in conversation with social care and a child’s family and when specialist support is in place to ensure their learning, well-being and safety are not harmed.
“Schools must recognise that some pupils face challenges which affect their learning, well-being and behaviour. Instead of seeing these young people as outliers who do not fit in, schools need to listen to them, involve them in decisions affecting them and be more inclusive and supportive.
“The finding that black children are more likely to be excluded and treated like adults is something we see with young people we work with. We support the call for race training for staff to tackle this unacceptable ‘adultification’ which could mean this group of young people are even less likely to get help.
“Schools need help too. Stronger government guidance is needed on exclusions, the need for schools to measure and understand children’s well-being, and the importance of identifying children absent from school and getting them the help, they need. Schools must work with partners in the community to ensure vulnerable children are offered early support when issues emerge and the Government needs to do more to boost investment in crucial early help services which cash-strapped councils have been forced to scale back due to funding cuts.”