Exclusions, shaming and bias

Is it always wrong to steal?

Are there times where the end justifies the means? Are we ever guilty of making allowances depending on the who dunnit rather than the what they dun?

To err is human, to forgive is divine.

We’re all only human and capable of bias. However, do our biases affect our powers of reason and indeed encourage absolute judgement when perhaps reservation would be more appropriate? The responses to the recent article in The Guardian further called to question whether our stance in certain situations differs depending on the people/schools involved.

As with the start of every new school year, education has had the usual cycle of students challenging the rules on uniform and, in turn, schools responding in a variety of ways. A number of schools have made the local and national press, especially those which have isolated or excluded students for failing to adhere to expectations. This has coincided with publications in the media documenting a number of schools who have issued fixed and permanent exclusions or off-rolled students. This is news which has yet again polarised both Twitter and comment boxes all over the web.

Clearly responses to the information presented are emotive and fuelled by personal philosophy, often backed by evidence to support the given view – which everyone is entitled to do. My question is at what point does information which is freely available become shaming? Would we encourage the sharing of information if it was our school or a school we held a particular affiliation to? Outrage seems to me as a result of the who rather than the what…

In my experience of nearly twenty years working in education I have never met a teacher who believes you should never exclude a child. Equally, I’ve never worked for a head teacher who would exclude (either fixed-term or permanent) children without good reason. Often, any exclusion or isolation is a last resort when every other option had been considered. This is just my experience but I’m sure it’s a description most of you can identify with.

Every year, whether we like it or not, every secondary state school across the country is in danger of experiencing elation or shame when league tables are published. Head teachers and their teams have to live by the decisions they’ve made and the work that they’ve done with the children that they’ve got – there’s no hiding from it. There’s not an outcry when results are published because as a society we feel that this is how to measure success. However, increasingly in education, there is a realisation that exam performance alone does not paint a clear picture of the quality of a child’s schooling (some of us have known this all along) Acceptance of this by Ofsted in the outcomes weighting of its judgements is a significant indication of the sea change which is upon us. With this in mind, should numbers of exclusions (fixed and permanent), students removed from roll, and students educated off-site not be part of a school’s evidence for the quality of its provision? Furthermore, should it not be the duty of our press to report on this?

The majority of head teachers or member of SLT who issue a severe sanction to a student would have the courage to stand by their decision when held up to scrutiny because they believe that their judgement at that time with the information they possessed was the right thing to do for everyone involved. If they aren’t able to give a clear and reasonable rationale behind their action then is it not reasonable to question whether the decision was the right one in the first place? To have an opinion on exclusions and use freely available data is not shaming. However, I personally would always check my motivation for sharing details about a school and whether this was purely in the pursuit of truth. Equally, if you’re SLT and have made a decision, it’s important to have the courage of your convictions and stand by you decisions if you firmly believe your actions are for the greater good.

On a personal note, in my experience exclusion has always been a last resort and only when every other avenue has been explored. Equally, knowing when a school is no longer the right place for a child is a very nuanced situation. Sometimes exclusion is the best thing a school can do for a student (as Stuart Lock writes here) and the rest of the community.

Seeing first-hand how hard head teachers have to work and how difficult their decisions are on a daily basis, I think it’s all-too-easy to stand on the sidelines and criticise. No action taken at a very senior level is ever done without a great deal of consideration. As individuals who are invested in education and young people shouldn’t we be supporting our colleagues and not letting our bias get in the way?

The next time we’re quick to jump on the judgement bandwagon perhaps we should ask ourselves if we would arrive at such an opinion if it was one of our friend’s who’d made the call? And if it was, would we feel any differently? Just a thought.