‘It’s about the layers of disadvantage these children face in school’

Dr Chris Bagley is an Educational Psychologist, and former teacher, based in South London schools. We heard from him about school exclusion and race.

What’s your area?
My academic research explores the psychological impact of school exclusion and considers alternatives. Over the last few years I have worked in a youth offending team, with families and young people also subject to Child in Need and Child Protection Plans, many of whom have been permanently excluded from school. Recently, we’ve been thinking a lot about educational psychology, activists and educational places collaborating to challenge racism and exclusion. 

What can schools do differently to prevent exclusion for Black Learners?    
With school exclusion and off-rolling growing in prominence, it is critical to look underneath the data and explore alternatives. A crucial question arises: Why are children with similar labels excluded disproportionately, such as those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) from Black Caribbean or Mixed White Caribbean backgrounds?  

And you’re focusing on those particular groups?
Well, you’ll see categories such as Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) used in other sources. But here I’ll try to use ‘Black Caribbean’ and ‘Mixed White Caribbean’ throughout, to ensure the narrative captures the impact of exclusion on young people from these ethnic backgrounds, specifically.  

So who gets excluded?
As summarised in the recent Timpson Review, ‘78% of permanent exclusions issued were to pupils who either had SEN, were classified as in need or were eligible for free school meals. 11% of permanent exclusions were to pupils who had all three characteristics’. Black Caribbean and Mixed White Caribbean children are three times likely to be excluded than their white peers. These trends are stubbornly consistent over time. 

What is the impact of the intersection between SEND and Black Caribbean / Mixed White Caribbean students at risk of exclusion? What can schools do to promote inclusion and prevent the exclusion of children and young people from these groups?
As reported by the Centre for Research and Race Education (CRRE), the ‘problem of the over-exclusion of Black students is present from the earliest stages of education’. Research reveals a persistent problem of stereotyping and unconscious bias. Teachers’ greater sensitivity to the behaviour of Black Caribbean and Mixed White Caribbean students can lead to them being singled out for harsher treatment; they are often subject to a ‘cumulative process of mounting disciplinary sanctions for relatively low-level disruption that might go unpunished for other ethnic groups’. 

How is this related to attainment and educational expectations?
Well, it is noteworthy that government stats show the attainment of Black Caribbean and Mixed White Caribbean children is similar to others at Key Stage 2. However, during secondary school, an achievement gapopens up: Black Carribean/Mixed White Caribbean young people achieve worse results than others and are far more likely to be excluded.

Teachers tend to have lower academic expectations for Black Caribbean and Mixed White Caribbean students and to be wary of them as a potential source of disciplinary problems. Recent research from the UCL Institute of Education and Queen’s University Belfast found that once differences in socioeconomic background were controlled for, Black pupils were 2.54 times more likely to be misallocated to a lower set in maths, compared with White pupils. Black learners are disproportionately more likely to be identified as having SEND. Sometimes, this label is invalid and discriminatory; this has significant consequences. When a child is placed in an ability group inappropriate for their learning capacities, this can lead to feelings of despondence, alienation and low self-worth.  

Furthermore, schools are not always receptive to the cultural differences that students bring, sometimes labelling naturally growing afro hair as a uniform violation or excluding children for having dreadlocks. These policies are highly discriminatory, undermine a child’s sense of school belongingness and make them feel devalued and unwelcome.  

How do these factors impact on exclusion? 
It’s about the layers of disadvantage these children face in school. This can include unconscious bias on the part of school staff, alongside SEND. If a child is treated differently to peers from other ethnic backgrounds, placed in an ability group that does not match their capacities and/or does not perceive their culture or identity to be ‘appropriate’, this can spark resentment and disaffection. 

None of that absolves children of responsibility for their behaviour. However, it shows how cumulative adverse experiences can accrue over time, trigger difficult feelings and lead to ‘challenging behaviour’ which sometimes ends with exclusion. All of this is avoidable.  

OK, avoidable how?
There are evidence-based interventions that work to promote inclusion and avoid exclusion. 

First, let’s consider the whole school ethos. To successfully include Black learners identified as having SEND, school leaders must promote a tolerant, curious approach when working with diverse populations. Inclusion should be a priority alongside academic results. It is possible to have both. ‘Poor behaviour’ can be interpreted as a trigger to increase understanding of a child, to move closer to them, not push them away. In schools that succeed in preventing exclusion, there is motivation, led by senior leaders, to withhold judgement of children and unravel the complex issues they face with the support of the family and external professionals such as micro-inequities experienced due to racism and ableism.  

And have schools had proven results with that whole school approach?
Yes, we don’t have to look too far to find large-scale success using this framework. Scotland is undergoing a ‘cultural shift’. Permanent exclusions have reduced enormously (only 5 in total in 2016/17 compared to 7,720 in England increasing to 7,900 in 2017/18). Evidence suggests that to great extent, this is a consequence of a change in ethos. The Scottish government guidelines around behaviour in schools say ‘Staff should recognise that all behaviour is communication and endeavour to identify, where possible, the triggers that may lead to a child or young person acting in a challenging and distressed way’. 

Let’s go back to streaming / ability groups that you mentioned earlier. Is there an evidence-based intervention around that? 
It is crucial that all young people take part in education that promotes challenge and growth in line with their strengths and needs. In relation to Black Caribbean and Mixed White Caribben children with SEND, it is particularly important to consciously avoid discrimination. Being placed in low ability groups has huge consequences for a child’s self-worth and erects an artificial ceiling on the attainment of a child. This can reinforce inequalities by setting a cap on learning and limiting the development of their skills. 

There is significant evidence that mixed ability groups are preferable. Susan Hart’s excellent book, Learning Without Limits, provides numerous real-life examples where successful teachers avoid the fixed ability thinking which accompanies ability groups and view young people as dynamic learners with a shared capacity to excel. 

You mentioned self-worth. Is this about where children feel comfortable, where they belong? |
Belongingness is a fundamental motivation. Every human being needs to feel connected to others via consistent, genuine relationships. Research around social ostracisation shows that being rejected causes significant, long-lasting distress and activates the same circuits as physical injury. 

When considering belongingness, it is crucial to celebrate the cultural diversity of young people and families. This requires flexibility and sensitivity around curriculum, uniform rules, dress codes and the development of effective dialogue with those from different background backgrounds. Young people and families who perceive themselves to be wanted, kept in mind and valued are most likely to develop secure home-school relationships and experience social, emotional and academic success. 

In regard to detention, isolation and exclusion from school; these experiences can re-traumatise vulnerable children, who are hyper-sensitive to rejection and being coerced. This is not to say that young people should never be removed from mainstream lessons if they are not coping. It is a question of rationale and the messages they receive. If a young person behaves violently or defiantly and is pulled from class for a discrete period, there is nothing inherently damaging about this, as long as the child continues to feel connected to school and valued by teachers. 

Some schools organise alternative arrangements, including individualised timetables, regular opportunities for mentoring or designated sessions to think together with trusted adults about their socio-emotional coping. There is a huge difference between providing a bespoke approach whilst ensuring a child feels valued and included and an exclusionary approach that punishes isolates, or ostracises.  

Dare I say it, but alternative arrangements and bespoke approaches sound expensive, and dependent on skills availability. 
There is a myth that swirls around some schools that ‘we don’t have the skills to help these children; we’re not psychologists or social workers’. On the contrary, evidence demonstrates that a small number of identified school staff can support by providing non-judgemental listening, attuning to the child and perceiving them as worthy, regardless of their behaviour. This can be transformative for children. Alongside a consistent, compassionate adult, children can reformulate some of the faulty brain circuits described above and begin to: tolerate frustration and uncertainty, develop a sense of personal agency and self-regulate. This does not require psychologists, it requires relationships.  

So what’s holding schools back?
Teachers are often ‘caught between two models’: a punitive model that promotes punishing children to force them to behave and another which says that teaching is all about building strong relationships with children. In one study, students whose teachers completed an ‘empathic mindset exercise’ were half as likely to be excluded over the school year. Fostering empathic and responsive relationships helps ‘humanize students... you see them as not just a label but as growing people who can change, who can learn to behave more appropriately, with help’. 

Can you give us an example of this in practice?
The process should begin with a respectful, collaborative meeting with a young person, their family and trusted school professionals. This can be chaired by the SENCO and/or external professionals (e.g. the school Educational Psychologist) if appropriate. The aim is to establish a young person-led, shared consensus of how best to support their inclusion. 

Subsequently, key information can be shared with other teachers at a ‘Teach Meet’. This might take place before school, after school or at lunchtime, backed by the senior leadership team. When appropriate, it can be empowering for a parent and/or the child to attend, to support teachers in understanding their strengths and needs. 

Teach Meets present an opportunity for class teachers to get together, share crucial information and engage in dialogue about a child’s life experiences and presenting needs. More importantly, they can facilitate discussion of the child’s strengthsexceptions (times when things go better) and promote future-focused thinking. All team members can work together on solutions, fostering collective ownership. Progress is best reviewed, again as a team, on a termly basis, beginning with a smaller feedback meeting with school, young person and family. Best practice is for Teach Meets to run habitually, as an integrated part of a school system.  

What next?
I have been collaborating with Helen Knowler, a Lecturer in Education at the University of Exeter, and Zahra Bei from No More Exclusions, who describe themselves as an Abolitionist Coalition Grassroots Movement in Education, on the intersections between race, disability and exclusion. This is a time when we can push for real change, and I hope the community of psychologists will get behind us.

- Find No More Exclusions on Twitter, and Dr Chris Bagley there too.

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