School exclusions questioned

Russell Hargrave reports

School signSchools in Waltham Forest excluded pupils from the classroom more than 1,500 times last year for behaviour including assault, verbal abuse, and drug use.

As families across the borough prepare for the new school year, one local education expert warned that school funding cuts have left teachers in the borough with increasingly limited alternatives to excluding disruptive students.

Data released this summer shows pupils were temporarily removed from Waltham Forest’s state schools on 1,564 occasions in 2015-16, spread across primary, secondary, and special education. There were 14 permanent exclusions in the same period, up from ten the previous year.

This includes 442 bans handed out for physical assault against other pupils, 313 for persistent disruption, and 168 for verbally abusing teachers and other school staff. There were 28 exclusions for misconduct relating to drugs or alcohol.

The data also shows that exclusions cost pupils more than 3,500 days of schooling in total. This is broadly comparable with neighbouring boroughs in Redbridge, Newham, and Haringey, but lower than in Hackney and Enfield where the exclusion rate exceeded 2,000.

The temporary exclusions in Waltham Forest were clocked-up by 981 pupils and education specialists told the Echo this could mean a relatively small number of ‘repeat offenders’ accounted for several hundred offences.

Jo Bardsley, a teacher and behaviour expert from Walthamstow who has taught in two east London boroughs, says that exclusion figures can show the limited options available to schools when dealing with difficult pupils.

She said: “There are lots of things you can do with behaviour, but they have got to be properly funded and resourced.”

Referring to therapeutic and pastoral work with troubled pupils pioneered in the schools where she has worked, Jo added: “Schools were running interventions like this and they were the first to go in the [budget] cuts.”

This meant that troubled children lost things as simple as support in small groups or one-to-one time with a dedicated teacher, which allowed them to learn in a much calmer atmosphere.

“For many of these kids, silence and stillness are non-existent in their everyday lives,” said Jo.

Pupils who have been permanently excluded or are at risk of permanent exclusion can be referred to receive their education in an alternative setting at one of Waltham Forest’s two Pupil Referral Units (PRUs). The borough’s PRUs are at Hawkswood Primary School for younger children and Burnside School for secondary education, both in Chingford.

In the meantime, Jo remains concerned about the impact not just for excluded students but also for their classmates whose schooling is being disrupted. She asked: “How many hours are lost for the other kids, as a result of students with behaviour issues not having adequate support to change their behaviour?

“Their education has been used as a political football for the last seven years, and they know it.” Without other help, Jo says, “they get depressed and they get worse”.

Waltham Forest Council declined to comment.