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Daniel OHare

Educational psychologists concerned about government proposals that will marginalise, exclude and harm vulnerable children

30 August 2019 | by Daniel OHare

On Tuesday the 27th of August you may have seen a sudden surge in media attention to leaked government documents suggesting a raft of school policy initiatives including:

  • Backing and supporting school exclusions

  • Encouraging authoritarian approaches to behaviour management

  • Support for the use of ‘reasonable force’ to improve discipline

Unsurprisingly the Division of Educational and Child Psychology is deeply concerned about the negative impact that such policies will have.

They appear political rather than based on evidence from research or practice, and will disproportionately affect those children and young people who need the most support, including children living in poverty, those with special educational needs, children in care, boys from black and mixed backgrounds, and children already experiencing lower levels of emotional or psychological wellbeing.

Government data clearly shows that permanent exclusions in England have continued to increase, particularly at secondary level.

Government figures are also unequivocal that disadvantaged students are significantly more likely to be excluded than their peers, and there is a huge amount of evidence detailing the negative effects of permanent exclusion, including reduced wellbeing and poorer mental health, and increased likelihood of incarceration.

Suggestions to back and support school exclusions are particularly problematic in light of the government's renewed commitment to the academisation agenda, as data from the Department for Education shows that the rate of fixed term exclusion from sponsored academies is already higher than that of LA maintained schools.

The DECP is disappointed and frustrated to see a refocusing on behavioural and authoritarian approaches to behaviour, as well as the use of vague terminology such as ‘reasonable force’.

Such approaches to children’s behaviour are overly simplistic and run counter to our understanding of child development.

There is substantial evidence from research and practice that reactive and simplistic approaches to children’s behaviour are not only stressful for teachers but actually teach children very little about what needs to change.

Warm supportive relationships with adults, a sense of belonging, high expectations, teaching social-emotional skills and autonomy are the key ‘ingredients’ to positive behaviour change for children and young people.

The DECP is concerned that the proposed policies are entirely at odds with the government’s commitment to improving the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people.

Such approaches locate ‘the problem’ within the child and fail to recognise the links between poverty, inequality, lower wellbeing, poor mental health and children’s behaviour in school.

There is no disputing the fact that children who are poor, from minority backgrounds, or those who have special educational needs and disabilities suffer the most from school exclusions, off-rolling and authoritarian approaches to behaviour.

The leaked policy suggestions will only reinforce inequity within the education system.

But, rather than focusing on powerful determinants of wellbeing such as poverty, housing, discrimination and inequality, the government seems to be suggesting that excluding all the ‘naughty children’ from school will improve the education system.

The DECP roundly rejects any policy that attempts to normalise or support school exclusion and calls on the government to refocus on true inclusion for every child.

We will be working closely with the British Psychological Society and other key partners to ensure that our concerns are raised and to offer support to develop policies that have the wellbeing and achievement of children across the education system at their heart.

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