This post is by Louise Thomas, senior programme lead at the Innovation Unit.
School drop-out rates have never been a focus in England in the same way they are in the United States. Yet school exclusion is rising and many young people are not getting the skills, experiences, and qualifications they need for a bright future.
One reason for England’s relatively high attendance rates is that historically education has been compulsory only to age 16, and after that non-participation doesn’t count as “dropping out.” Only recently was mandatory participation in some kind of training or education extended to 18, but it has been difficult to enforce.
Instead of “drop-out,” those who leave school at 16 and don’t immediately get a job earn the label “NEET” (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), an epithet conjuring similar negative images. The key difference is that non-participation of this group does not land at the door of schools or of education ministers. The school system is accountable for students getting certificates (GCSEs) at age 16 and after that it’s really up to the young people to choose the next step. If they’ve secured the right grades they could progress to A Levels that might secure them a university place or an alternative (often “vocational”) qualification that might land them directly in a career. If not, they might start working somewhere with sufficient training provision to “count” as participation in learning--or to become “NEET.”
Not surprisingly, patterns of exit from formal education at age 16 and 18 mirror economic and social divides. And the hidden patterns of disengagement that young people experience beforeage 16 appear to do the same.
But increasingly these patterns of disengagement are not so well hidden. This summer has seen something of an awakening to the problem of exclusion from school in England, with story after story revealing the vast difference in fixed-term and permanent exclusions between different localities and different education providers. The number of permanent exclusions nationally rose by 1,000 between 2016 and 2017, now equating to 40 young people expelled from school each day.
Some blame the school choice system and high-stakes competitive league tables, which produce incentives for school chains (“Academy Trusts”) to exclude children who they think will not perform well in exams. Others blame persistent poverty and unemployment in certain parts of the country, with its attendant issues of high crime, poor housing, and families who struggle to cope. Still others cite “parental aspiration” as the problem, and seek to rescue children from families who are seen to be restricting their children’s futures through their own low expectations. Further arguments report a lack of teacher and headteacher powers to discipline students as reason why young people are out of control in our schools, or perhaps social media and violent video games are at fault.
Whichever your pet theory about the reasons, what is true in almost all cases is that it is the behavior of young people that triggers an exclusion, so it is, in essence, a punishment for poor behavior. Like all institutions, schools seek to establish norms for and to police behavior. You don’t have to be a Foucauldian to recognize that poor behavior in schools is just the most visible manifestation of an unwillingness or inability to conform to the norms of schooling.
Many of these students end up in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs): locally run institutions for students who have been excluded from mainstream schools. I once visited one of the largest PRUs in the country. Like many it was doing a valiant job under extreme circumstances (PRUs are funded per pupil, who arrive at various points in various volumes throughout the year, making budget planning near impossible). It serves a wide range of vulnerable students, from recently arrived asylum seekers to gang members. It made me realise that behavioral issues in school are an indicator of a wide range of things, ranging from significant trauma as a result of experiences outside of school, through an inability to participate in school routines due to known and unknown learning or health issues, to simple inability to see the point of what they’re being asked to do.
But too often schools find out about all of these things through behavior, and the consequence of poor behavior is further punishment of the child. Often it is only later, when a child lands in a place better equipped to understand their needs, that the underlying issues get addressed. The PRU I visited told me that 100 percent of the children coming to them from local schools had an undiagnosed learning or speech and language need. It seems that local systems require children to be punished through exclusion in order to access the right support that would enable them to learn in the first place. Put another way, they have to behave poorly in order to get an education.
So we have a choice: we can fund intensive treatment centers for poorly behaved kids, to get them diagnosed and patched up and sent back into the schooling system that they have had such a poor experience of. (Such re-entry is what passes for success in our alternative provision system.)
Or, we can provide a real alternative: Schools in which knowing young people deeply is core to the professional roles of staff, in which the interests, aspirations and dreams of young people are the building blocks of curriculum.
Innovation Unit are exploring and designing new schools and approaches to learning in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, and around the world. We want all schools to connect to the lives of young people, and the economies and societies they will graduate into, regardless of social background.
In London we are working with a charity to support the opening of a new kind of school serving children with social emotional mental health (SEMH) needs who can no longer stay in mainstream education. The school design is underpinned by an educational and therapeutic learning approach which is personalised to suit each learner’s developmental needs.
In the north of England we are working a progressive local council to introduce an innovative school model that has achieved astounding outcomes for young people who are the most disengaged from mainstream education in the United States and Australia. The school will offer a broad and balanced curriculum and provide better pathways to university and employment so that young people in the locality can be on track to succeed in education and life.
We want the hallmarks of these schools to be learning that can be applied to the real world, provide young people with the skills, experiences, and qualifications they need to create a meaningful future, and provide powerful teacher-student relationships that puts the young person at the center.
We think the choice is clear. The case for introducing different kinds of schools that meet the needs of all young people the UK has never been stronger.
The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.