As pupils return to schools and learn to re-adapt to a ‘normal’ timetable, worsening mental health amidst high-pressure catch-up may result in more pupils being vulnerable to exclusion.
We need to anticipate and monitor that vulnerability and prevent an avoidable rise in exclusions. As one Head Teacher put it as part of the Oxford University ‘Excluded Lives’ project – which is currently looking at the impact of the pandemic on those at risk of exclusion – ‘we need to start building fences along the top of the cliff rather than parking ambulances at the bottom’.
This powerful metaphor hits hard and can feel uncomfortable in the way it portrays the finality of a young person reaching the point of exclusion. However, it begs the question what might these fences be?
The RSA’s Inclusive and Nurturing Schools Project with the Greater London Authority is looking to take lessons from existing practice to foster inclusion and nurture and reduce preventable exclusions.
For this project, we’ve defined ‘inclusive and nurturing practice’ as practice that aims to support all pupils to thrive in mainstream schools, to develop the social and emotional capabilities necessary for lifelong flourishing and, implicitly seeks to reduce unnecessary exclusions.
This is what we’ve learnt so far.
Working upstream and early identification
Figures from the DfE tell us that the risk of being excluded is unevenly distributed. Children with SEND, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) - such as growing up in poverty or experiencing abuse, mental health difficulties, children in or on the edge of care and from some ethnic minority groups are disproportionality excluded from education.
Some of these factors may mean that a child has additional challenges to engaging with learning and/or with school. Being aware of, and understanding, these factors means a school can adopt trauma informed practices – applying an understanding of trauma to teaching practices that enable pupils to regularly attend school and engage in the learning process. Working with those most vulnerable early on to support them to stay and thrive in mainstream education, and crucially, before challenges arise.
In light of the pandemic, we need a more nuanced understanding of vulnerability rather than fixed categories based on pre-Covid context as more children potentially become vulnerable. A report by The Children’s Society suggests there has been increases in young people’s levels of anxiety, in emotional, behaviour and attention difficulties. Those who may already have faced barriers to engaging with education may find it challenging to reengage in the classroom. In addition to this the NSPCC also saw a 32% increase in calls from adult concerned about their wellbeing and safety of a child during lockdown. Early identification will become even more important as new risk factors emerge and complex overlapping existing vulnerabilities intersect.
Adopting a relationship-based approach
All schools are based on relationships. Research tells us that investing time and resources into improving these relationships leads to positive outcomes around inclusion, engagement, and achievement.
Our scan of current provision revealed a range of interventions focused on relationships: from building better support around families to using restorative approaches to support pupils’ ownership of responsibility and reconciliation with affected parties.
The RSA’s own Pinball Kids (2020) report recommends that every pupil should have at least one supportive and positive relationship with a member of school staff. This is particularly important for at-risk pupils who may have traumatic, unstable adult relationships in their home lives and for whom relationships with school staff are associated with negative interactions around discipline.
It is equally important for schools to build positive relationships with the whole family. Often, the parents/carers of children vulnerable to exclusion can feel let down or alienated by school systems and lack trust in the school’s ability to meet the needs of their child. This is often the result of negative personal experiences of schooling or perceived prejudice from schools.
In it's survey of the literature, The Timpson literature review found that interventions aimed at supporting the whole family had a positive impact on exclusions, attendance, and disruptive behaviour. Yet support was not always located within the school. Many of the children most at-risk of exclusion have complex, overlapping vulnerabilities that necessitate effective multi-agency working. However, from positive school-family relationships, schools were able to act as a connecting institution to high-quality external provision or relevant multi-agency teams such as social care, housing, adult health services that could support families.
Barriers to multi-agency working remain, including a lack of inter-agency understanding, static funding streams that do not account for multi-disciplinary working and a lack of resourcing. However, a recent study looking at the impact of placing social care professionals in schools to improve educational attainment found that working more closely together helped to overcome these barriers, by establishing inter-professional competencies and common language for referral pathways.
Empowering School Leaders
Inclusive and nurturing schools are only possible when teachers and school leaders are empowered to adopt inclusive and nurturing practice, and when they are supported by the systems within which they work.
The Excluded Lives report warns that exclusions of all kinds will increase if the culture of schooling that emerges after Covid-19 is centred on high performance. This aligns with the RSA Pinball Kids report’s finding that external pressures on schools (high performance, league tables, funding limitations) do not incentivise inclusion, and in the worst cases, deter from it.
In spite of these pressures, our recent research has identified promising models of practice within individual schools, across MATs and across localities that are resilient to external pressures and effective in creating a culture of inclusion. Networks enabling partnerships of education practitioners who share a commitment to inclusion are even better placed to draw on the collective expertise, share best practise and build system wide change. That is why our final toolkit for inclusive and nurturing practice (to be published later this year) will include lessons from schools, multi-academy trusts, and local authorities in order to inspire inclusive practice at different levels of the system.