Covid-19: is there an opportunity for a new approach to informal exclusions?

by Eleanor Stokes, Education Policy Researcher, Race on the Agenda.

 

The Department for Education has produced a guidance document for schools when they re-open in September after the Covid-19 closures.  ROTA has some thoughts.  

The period of lockdown has proved particularly challenging for some pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged communities. Refugees, asylum seekers, children from some BAME communities and from Gipsy, Roma and Traveller families have had difficulty accessing support and education resources.  

We know, from speaking with teachers, youth organisations, supplementary schools and young people themselves that children who were informally excluded from school prior to the Covid-19 closures have also experienced a lack of support. There are concerns that these young people, many of whom are from BAME communities, are already at risk of disengaging with education and will be ill equipped to return to school in September.  

So, what does Department for Education suggest? The Checklist for School Leaders to Support Full Opening (DfE. July 2020) presents an optimistic view that the return to school in September is an opportunity for school leaders to review and revise behaviour policies; to improve engagement with parents and carers of pupils at risk of disengagement, including absence and poor behaviour; to provide specific support in the form of counselling services for pupils who are vulnerable or ‘otherwise vulnerable’.  

Previous guidance from the Department for Education1tended to focus on sanctions which teachers could use, including forms of informal exclusion2. Less consideration was given to alternative solutions and interventions. 

  • ROTA welcomes the new emphasis on understanding underlying causes for changes in behaviour and providing help for children whose psychological and emotional wellbeing may have been badly affected during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

What does the Checklist for School Leaders specifically say about behaviour and informal exclusion?  

The Covid-19 situation requires schools to alter their ways of working, in order to reduce risk of contagion. Modifying the school behaviour policies will be part of this.  Pupils will need to comply with hygiene rules and different practices, such as restrictions on movement around the school.  

The Checklist acknowledges that some pupils may have difficulty in adjusting to the new behaviour expectations. This may be characterised by withdrawal from activities or signs of agitation or anger for example and lead to confrontation: 

‘Disengagement with education upon return to school, resulting in increased incidence of poor behaviour.’  

What has changed? 

Schools are encouraged to look at the underlying reasons for changes in behaviour which might disrupt learning.  Resources for counselling services will be made available to support children who may have experienced isolation, trauma or depression for example during lockdown and to forestall disciplinary action.  

ROTA’s current research indicates that children who are most likely to have been affected in these ways include young refugee people, asylum seekers, children from some GRT and BAME communities and children informally excluded from school prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, as well as those defined by the DfE as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘otherwise vulnerable.’ 

  • ROTA questions whether the promised resources will be sufficient for schools to carry out the suggested support for pupils in need. However, recognising that there is a need as described in the Checklist is a step in the right direction. ROTA’s research with schools, teachers, parents and young BAME people calls for a better understanding and support for children at risk of disciplinary action, such as informal exclusion. 

The Checklist specifically recommends an approach to dealing with disruptive or problematic behaviour that steers away from informal exclusion. It is the first time that official guidance has been so clear in spelling this out to schools:  

‘Any disciplinary exclusion even for short periods much be consistent with legislation.’ 

It furthermore goes on to remind schools that ‘Off-rolling is never acceptable’.  

  • ROTA welcomes the attention drawn by the Checklist towards Ofsted’s advice to schools on off-rolling,  which explicitly states that ‘pressuring a parent to remove their child, including to home education, is a form of off-rolling' and that elective home education must always be a positive parental choice, without pressure. Good news indeed. 

Source Document: Department of Education, July 2020. Updated Government guidelines on Covid-19 and schools re-opening in September 2020:  The Checklist for School Leaders to support full opening: Section on Behaviour and Attendance. Published July 13th 2020. 

 

Eleanor Stokes, Education Policy Researcher.

Eleanor@rota.org.uk