Those were among the messages to emerge in part three of the Doncaster Free Press round table discussion, at Doncaster Civic Offices, on the topic of school attendance and exclusion.
Our panel was Karen Fagg, headteacher, Park Primary, Intake; Jamie McMahon, regional director of post 16 education for Delta Academies Trust; Helen Redford-Hernandez, headteacher, Hungerhill Academy, Dr Nicola Crossley director of inclusion; Astrea Academies Trust; Gwynn ap Harri, chief executive ,XP Schools Trust, Paul Ruane, Doncaster Council head of service for learning provision, Martyn Owen, Doncaster Council head of service for inclusion; Leanne Hornsby, Doncaster Council assistant director commissioning and business development.Sam Twiselton, vice chairman of Doncaster Opportunity Area Board, Damien Allen, Doncaster Council director of children’s services, Saul Farrell, Doncaster Council strategy and performance manager. Free Press community engagement editor David Kessen chaired.
What can be done to reduce exclusions?
Damien Allen: We need to recognise that whatever we do to reform mainstream schools, and more children should be included in the wider curriculum offer, there will always be a number of people for whom a mainstream setting is not appropriate and part of what we’re doing in response to some challenges around exclusion rates is looking at a review of behaviour and inclusion across the whole of the borough and we’ve gone through three stages. The first step was to get a baseline for what the data was telling us but also reviewing the existing provision, and we know that’s not sufficient to meet demand, but also looking at what new provision we might put in place. We’re including within that, with the opportunity area leading, the creation of an inclusion charter and that's an example of great partnership working.
Martyn Owen: With exclusion we’ve worked with each sector differently. We’ve bound ourselves to a set of principles working together to share practice and take ownership of the agenda and to work together to make sure all the decisions that are made are going to help us to deal with problems and open doors to provision earlier. What we’re seeing through the inclusion charter is all the secondary schools bounds together reducing incidents of exclusion.
DA: I’ve been able to visit all the secondary schools to hear from schools what the challenges are but also to identify great practice, and I’ve seen a lot of good practice. Some of it is very simple stuff like the presence of the headteacher in the school yard at the start of the day seeing pupils as they come through and setting an example not just to the children but the parents as well, and they’re thankful for that in terms of being open and accessible to any enquiries or appointments. If you’re not careful schools can present barriers unwittingly, but I’ve seen great examples of open access to parents and that brings a challenge as then you have to articulate difficult conversations sometimes around were the balance of responsibility of responsibilities between the school and the parents lie and it’s during moments in those interactions that change takes place.
We’ve implemented a scheme called Big Picture Learning for pupils at risk of exclusion or who have been excluded. We’ve started with initially eight young people which will grow to 60, and that’s a model that’s evidence based around building relation capital between socialising and emotional control of themselves. It also looks at relevance to the world of work. It puts them into something that is their passion and uses an adult other than a teacher to model that in the workplace. It is really quite rigorous, measuring outcomes every month to ensure that’s taking place.
Jamie McMahon: We have a lot of square pegs in round holes and its having a bit of an impact in the schools in that they can’t engage. As they can’t engage with the learning, its having an impact on behaviour and there isn’t the range of alternative provision. There’s a clog-up within the PRU (pupil referral units), and things happening that are now being resolved through work we do with the inclusions charter. But we’re still trying to find the right provision for some of students and while you’re in that process, the students in the school are still learning and creating behaviour points. Every strategy and intervention you do you, can cope with a serious one-off incident, but it is the persistent behaviour that is causing the biggest issue.across the majority of the schools. I think what’s letting the system down is the availability of alternative provision for those students to access either as part of their mainstream provision or for their entire provision. We're also seeing students coming back out of PRUs straight into mainstream provision that have not transitioned through any alternative provision back into the mainstream, and they having to deal with that.
The focus has to be on everything that we’ve been talking about with the right curriculum, engaging lessons, the right support packages and working with community. There are students that are going against the behaviour policy, and are choosing to behave in a particular way. That’s obviously going to have an impact on everything else in the classroom and the school has to be harsh, and has to be honest with its attendance policy, and adhere with every policy, otherwise, if a parent or student sees ‘we don’t fine for attendance or we don’t do this’, then those things will start to be replicated across the board, and that starts to deteriorate the things your trying to achieve in the school.
Nicola Crossley: I think that fundamentally, the behaviour policy is key, but I think what’s also important is that the behaviour policy and development of that needs to be co-produced with everybody that's involved in it, with staff and children involved. If you want people to buy into something, they have to be part of its construction. from the first instance . If you don’t have people who are buying in, its going to fall apart, so its key in our schools and it has to be consistently applied and clear to everybody so that there are no gaps in the application . What I’m seeing in some of our schools is where the difficulties are created as a result of inconsistency and one member of staff interpreting it in a different way to another. As leaders we’ve also got to be really clear in our communication and that’s why I think co-production is important in creating this as then you’re in a stronger position. Another point to be aware of is that nationally and regionally we need to be mindful of the fact that there a number of vulnerable children who are most at risk of exclusion and that they are SEN (special educational needs) children and the children who have suffered from adverse childhood experiences and trauma. I think we need to be supporting our colleagues in understanding that there are children who present with behaviours that challenge and that for a lot of them it’s not a chosen behaviour, its as a result of experience. Every behaviour has a trigger. We might not agree with that trigger, but at that moment for that child, that trigger is real. I think there needs to be more done within the sector and the system to understand that. I’m not saying that we just excuse any poor behaviour, I’m saying it would be helpful for us to be open, curious and inquisitive as professionals into what’s the reason for that behaviour. My greatest concern is repeat exclusions. Where they are not appropriate is where that child keeps getting exclusions, as clearly the behaviour policy is not working. Children are not born naughty and for me they are a product of the environment and we have to be mindful of that.
Karen Fagg: Our schools are full of square pegs in round holes and if we set about setting very strict guidelines and very strict policies we are not going to meet the needs of those square pegs in round holes. I think there’s a lot of expertise in mainstream that we’re not using or supporting and there’s a lot more we can do in mainstream before we look for alternative provision. I think we need the back up and the expertise before it reaches crisis point. Where do we go if we reach crisis? I’ve not excluded a child permanently while I’ve been a head and I don’t intend to, but the amount of pastoral support I have to put in to do that is phenomenal. Mainstream school is where the learning is going to happen for them.
Martyn Owen: Even in our most challenged communities there are headteachers who have a reflective approach towards their curriculum and planning, to allow them to be successful and minimise exclusions and maximise the outcomes for young people. We can see that happening in Doncaster and it’s very impressive, but its not happening everywhere. We also recognise that there’s a need for us to work collectively to make sure we get on early on with the process so we’re not wasting time in children’s lives, and helping change them as quickly as possible. That’s been the feeling that’s come back from all the headteachers when we go through summits. They’ve said its about getting the money in the right place so we don’t have to wait for an assessment.
KF: We know excluding a child is the wrong thing to do. They’re not going to get what they need by sitting at home on their laptop or whatever and we’d be happy to battle on providing we know we've got the support and backup when we need it.
NC: We’ve developed something in our trust called the PEAP approach – the pre-exclusion assessment process. At our inception, 68 per cent of all exclusions were issued to children with special educational needs. Within two years we’d reduced that to 37 per cent. We see spikes as schools join us as they have to get used to our standardised approach. The PEAP approach is a structured conversation for children who have had two fixed term exclusions in a half term or at risk of permanent exclusion. It explores the views of the child, what support is in place, and what guidance has been used. I think its important to have a structured approach. We’re asking principals if this is the only last resort they’ve got? Intially it was met with a lot of resistance. People felt it was bureaucratic, excusing poor behaviour, but it’s really not. It's about supporting schools, and gathering evidence of what they’ve been able to do to support those children. For principals it’s about saying we're going to support you so that you don’t end up in a tribunal. We will support you but you have to prove you’ve done everything.
Helen Redford-Hernandez: I think where we are in Doncaster at the moment reflects lack of investment in early intervention, the withdrawal of Sure Start funding, and working with parents very early on. For me, working with my primary heads, the one thing they lament is that they don’t have that resource, and ultimately, that tips out into poor behaviour later because that parental engagement wasn’t fostered in the first place. The other thing I’d say is the behaviour policy in my school purposefully gives me the freedom and flexibility to operate a zero tolerance approach to poor behaviour which sounds very draconian, but how we get there is there is a lot of flexibiltiy in my policy. So a one off event with a very good child who made a really poor decision may end up with an exclusion, because that’s the right thing for them, and they change their behaviour very quickly. But then a child who came to us after being excluded by another school, someone who’s got two hours in a room in meltdown and has kicked and punched me personally, has not been excluded. I identified my team very quickly that there’s been a lack of intervention with that child. They had been through two primary schools and a secondary school and ended up in my school. The response there was to tell the mother that I wouldn’t give up on that child, and they were staying in. She wept, and thanked me and I think it’d important to have those anecdotes. You sometimes get exceptional parenting and engagement, but the antithesis is that there are parents who have not been well parented themselves, and need that additional support. What I’ve not seen in Doncaster since I’ve been here, is big behaviour networks which we had in Nottinghamshire where we talked about those strategies. Everybody talked about behaviour. I’ve seen some fantastic parental engagement in some of the most challenging of our schools. I went to have a look at Woodfield School. They’ve got a community kitchen in the primary school and parents were cooking together and building those relationships with their children and I think we need to open up our schools, myself included, and try to build that community. I don’t know how many big community schemes we have in Doncaster. Certain from a secondary, I've not heard of any great parental engagement schemes in schools – there may be. My parents come in and we have lots of discussions but we don’t have a community project. I came from a community school, a language college, and all the pupils learned languages with their parents and it was just fun.So I think there’s something around the curriculum, something about what’s in our policies, I could have excluded many children and I’ve chosen not to. You have to be quite judicious as a head when you use certain punishments and when you don’t but I think my policy allows me to do that and use a range of strategies.
Gwynn ap Harri: One of the things we do is we allow our kids to express who they are through looking at different things. We choose equity over equality we choose restorative over punative, and we choose expression over conformity. For instance we have a dress code which is dress appropriately and modestly and we have those conversations about what that is and the vast majority of our kids the vast majority of the time dress appropriately and modestly. They like to express who they are not just through their clothes, but through their work and that helps in terms of them thinking they are our school rather than they just come for our school.
MO: I’m in agreement about what Gwynn and Helen said about empowerment, judgement and consistency, I do think though that what we’re seeing is there’s a lot of good practice across the borough and I think the behaviour networks are starting to show that but its early days with sharing between the schools I think what is quite exciting about Doncaster is the great variety of approaches and its just now where we’re at the point we are showing each other our practices and I can see in the statistics that we’ve got for exclusions and attendance, where schools are sharing with each other and moving themselves on. I think we need to work together more as time goes on.
JM: That’s the focus of the Doncaster secondary heads until the end of the summer term – we’re going to be sharing best practice.
Sam Twiselton: As new deputy chair I was told rightly or wrongly 18 months ago that there wasn't a tradition of collaboration among the secondary heads and yet what I’ve heard recently is massive collaboration and signing up to do things in a consistent way, and recognising where there might be differences.
Paul Ruane: The culture has changed significantly. We’re now moving into the primary sector. A couple of weeks ago we had 50 primary heads to hear about the inclusion agenda and had a lot sign up for related events.
Saul Farrell: The Independent commission for education and skills, when they returned in October, they saw the scale of progress since their first visit and described a virtuous circle of improvement through collaboration.
GaH: Campsmount isn’t here. They’ve got a demographic shared with other schools yet their not excluding. They're doing no fixed term exclusions. We’re sharing how he’s doing that.
JM: Some 95 per cent of our parents went to our schools. And 95 per cent of those parents experience in those schools is completely different to what the school is now. Because everyone went to school, they think they know what we do in a school, and that’s not always the case. We’re also changing the culture of the parents who come into the school because what was acceptable for them at school is not acceptable now and that juxtaposition is quite awkward in terms of working with the community. What we’re seeing is how we were roughly 45-50 per cent attendance at parents evenings, and that’s up to 70 per cent, and I think that by getting parents to buy in we’re now getting the community to buy in. and its making a positive change.
Leanne Hornsby: What’s clear is there is significanty greater collaboration and consistency to move forward so the building blocks are there. Things are changing and it takes time to make that change.