An SEMH school leader, Graham Chatterley has become a regular guest-blogger for Axcis. In this post, he discusses the budgetary pressures schools are under and how our most vulnerable children are often the ones who are at the highest risk of losing out as a result.
I recently read a brilliant article about exclusions and the damage they do in the long run. The link between poverty and mental health is clear for all to see and one in two pupils who get permanently excluded have a Mental Health Difficulty. Children in care are 10 times more likely to be excluded and children who qualify for free school meals are 4 times more likely to be excluded. So these children have had a very challenging start to life; they are angry, resentful, anxious and heaven only knows what other emotions, which puts them in a position where it is extremely difficult to regulate themselves and therefore challenging behaviour occurs.
The schools don’t care and so they are excluded, right?
I’m not saying there aren’t a minority of schools who think this way but the majority I’ve worked with are desperate to help, have an Ethos that is all about inclusion and ‘Every Child Matters’ but they are forced to make a choice! It’s head vs heart and when “your head” means peoples jobs and the majority of your students then compromises have to be made.
Working effectively with children with additional needs requires extra staff time, it requires help from outside agencies and it requires flexibility in their timetable. Therefore it requires a lot of flexible thinking but most importantly it requires funding. Give me a blank cheque and I will find a way for every child to have a specific education plan, social skills support, emotional literacy work and pastoral support plan to meet their needs. However blank cheques are a million miles from where we are at!
Funding being slashed year on year makes meeting the needs of challenging pupils harder and harder. These are children who often come from a home that has no money to meet basic needs. They go to a school that has less money year on year to provide the support the child requires. They therefore must look to outside agencies like CAMHs or Social Services for support. Yes you’ve guessed it, they also have been cut to the quick! We find ourselves looking for charities to try to find support and even then waiting lists are 6 months plus. I’m not saying that we have never had children in poverty before but the gap could be filled by schools and by outside services and currently all three are skint!
We are an SEMH school, we refuse to permanently exclude and it requires serious creativity to manage the most violent and aggressive behaviours at times, but we recognise that the child is not the behaviour – the child’s behaviour is a communication of their feelings and a result of their experiences – we cannot lose that ethos. We cannot punish that child for reacting to neglect or trauma or abuse exactly as they would be expected – but we are also teachers in a school and we have other children in the class to consider. We have targets placed upon us and despite having children with significant trauma needs, attachment needs, school refusers and children in crisis; we are still expected to get them GCSEs and are assesed against our mainstream counterparts.
In what world can taking a child’s attendance from 10% to 78% not be deemed success?
In an OFSTED world where it’s still not 90%.
These unrealistic expectations are a challenge to the ethos. Working with children who are sometimes violent challenges the Ethos. At the end of the day we are dealing with staff who are human beings and who do not go to work to be assaulted and who are hardwired to react in a certain way to being assaulted. The initial outrage and human need for punishment or exclusion is in every one of us. Especially when we are tired, stressed and feeling helpless.
The problem is, if we do exclude, we just confirm to the child what they already believe; that they are bad and they don’t belong! They then become more isolated and more vulnerable and all those precious pennies saved cutting funding to schools, CAMHs and Social Services end up getting spent later on the criminal justice system for a child that maybe could have been “saved” with the right intervention.
It is even harder for mainstream schools to be inclusive regarding behaviour. Until expectations and priorities change or funding is reintroduced, the inclusive ethos will wither and die. There are truly some amazing staff in mainstream schools. I regularly meet with Headteacher’s who are naturally incredibly inclusive and distraught when they have to exclude, but when a decision comes down to leaving 29 children unsupported or providing 2 to 1 for an angry and aggressive child it’s a near possible position. When TAs are in tears because they love a kid but can’t find a way to get through and been bitten or hit in the process. I know heads are raiding their own other budgets to try to find a way to support and exploring every avenue only to be met with dead ends. Site supervisors are finding the schools biggest store rooms and kitting them out as sensory rooms to try to desperately try to meet needs.
There is nothing to suggest that schools will be better funded any time soon, so what else could be done to help prevent exclusions? To start with we could move away from a system where everything is judged on academic progress. A system where realistically schools are punished not rewarded for being inclusive. We need to give recognition for attendance, engagement, reductions in aggression and allow for a flexibility in timetables that doesn’t make everything about what they are able to write down. Allow the school to work with that child’s interests and skills and not be worried that they haven’t done their spellings that morning and give the child that opportunity to have success rather than failure.
Let them show other children they have talents and are worth being friends with and give them that sense of belonging in the class. The only way to break the cycle of exclusion is to improve self-worth and stopping them feeling like an outsider. If we can convince them they have something to offer, if we can challenge their perception that they are worthless and we and the other children can show them that we like them. Then they just might feel it’s worth investing, even if the people holding the purse strings don’t.
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