If you want to complain about exclusions, then first ensure that the education of the most vulnerable is properly funded

It may appear caring for the UK government and the public to be horrified by high-exclusion rates[1], but it is actually the height of hypocrisy.

In one of the many wonderful scenes in the 1986 film the Mission, Don Cabeza, an eighteenth-century Spanish slaver, makes his case to an ecclesiastical court and attempts to justify enslaving the Guaraní, an indigenous people of South America.

His argument rests on his claim that the Guaraní are not human, and therefore ‘they have to be subdued by the sword and brought to labour by the whip.’ ‘These creatures are lethal and lecherous’, he argues. ‘They kill their own young.’

This does indeed sound like barbaric behaviour, until, Father Gabriel points out that such a practice is not an ‘animal rite’ but a necessity for the Guarani’s own survival: ‘They can only run with one child apiece. And what do they run from? …They run from slavery.’

I recognise the hyperbole in this comparison, but there is a clear similarity between the hypocrisy of Don Cabeza’s criticisms of the Guiraní and those who criticise schools for high levels of exclusions.

The UK government and public chase and harass schools to achieve ever higher grades with fewer and fewer resources, and then, with breath-taking effrontery, use the fact that this toxic combination results in more children being excluded as an excuse for yet more chasing and harassment.

Eight of my fifteen years in teaching have been spent with students who have either been excluded or in danger of being so, and in all that time, I have never witnessed a school, governor, or headteacher exclude a child with anything other than a very heavy heart. Indeed, I have delivered such news personally to parents myself, and I can safely say that it hurts. And it doesn’t hurt any less when the government or public have the brass neck to berate us for doing so.

I would challenge those pontificating about lost futures to witness, at close hand, the pain involved in deciding to exclude. Or even better, spend just a small amount of time working with the children I have worked with, and with the same poverty of resources, and then tell me it was my fault when they didn’t make it.

For too long, governments of the UK have been too concerned with dictating to teachers and holding them to account. There is a degree of irony about an evermore right-wing government presiding over an evermore Soviet-style education system – so highly centralised and highly controlling as it is.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that schools should always seek to improve; it’s nice to have good grades. And perhaps it’s even nicer when your house price goes up 8% because the local school has achieved an outstanding in Ofsted[2]. And if you’re a Conservative government, I’m sure it’s lovely to be able to say you’ve slashed spending.

I obviously also recognise that high-rates of exclusions are concerning. But the solution cannot be yet more chasing and harassing of schools. The government’s job is to enable us to do our jobs, not to reprimand us for not pulling rabbits out of our backsides.

Just as the Guraní could only move as fast as their slowest member, so can an education system only improve at the rate of its most vulnerable. If we don’t want anyone left behind, then we need to cut down on the relentless accountability measures and ensure that the most vulnerable children are catered for.

So, let’s put the money back in to Sure Start, properly fund Pupil Referral Units and (preferably on-site) Alternative Provisions, and cough up for those with Special Needs. (And for pity’s sake, don’t waste £50 million on that grammar school vanity-project![3])

And yes, I understand that it may not be popular. I understand that if the government begins properly funding education for ‘naughty’ children, they will have the spiritual successors to Paul Dacre bemoaning the apparent rewards given to the unworthy. But let us be clear and confident about this: unless you live the reality of teaching at-risk children and supporting their families, you don’t know what you’re talking about. To insist on complaining about properly funding the education of these children is to have the moral credibility of an absentee landlord stealing food from the starving.

If the ugly reduction of human beings to pounds on a spreadsheet is your thing, you may be concerned that, in this time of austerity, we simply don’t have the money to spend. But this argument is self-defeating. We know the cost of allowing children to leave school without qualifications, employment or training: currently the UK bill is about €13 billion a year[4], and given that child poverty is on the increase[5], this figure is likely to go up. You could pay for full-time one-to-one help for everyone of the 7,720 students excluded in 2017[6], and it would amount to less than 1% of that figure.[7] Failing to pay enough for the education of those most at-risk is simply taking out a payday loan with an interest rate Wonga would be proud of. An odd choice for a government which considers itself financially competent.

The funding of the education of those most at-risk has, for too long, been seen as optional window dressing on the state education system. This is wrong. It is fundamental. It is foundational. Sort it out… And then leave us get on with our job.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/aug/31/dozens-of-secondary-schools-exclude-at-least-20-of-pupils

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-39327149

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/may/11/grammar-schools-in-england-to-get-50m-expansion-fund

[4] https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/sites/default/files/ef_publication/field_ef_document/ef1254en.pdf p.75

[5] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/child-poverty-increase-children-family-benefit-households-a8268191.html

[6] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/726741/text_exc1617.pdf p.3

[7] Based on an average salary of a teaching assistant: https://www.payscale.com/research/UK/Job=Teaching_Assistant_(TA)/Salary

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