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It’s a difficult balancing act running a school, especially when funding is tight and league tables loom large. But these schools are prime examples of where interesting approaches are being taken to create more inclusive learning environments that could prevent school exclusions.

The new RSA report Pinball Kids: preventing school exclusions explores how we can prevent school exclusions.

The phrase ‘Pinball Kids’ comes from former head teacher Tom Sherrington who used it to describe pupils who consistently bounced up against the boundaries of their school’s rules, norms and expectations – and we want to see how these students can be supported in the system, rather than excluded. 

From wider societal issues to unintentional consequences of policy-making, we have traced why exclusions have been on the rise and identified areas of policy and practice which could be influential in calling a halt to this.  

In the report, we look at best practice from schools that could contribute to preventing exclusions. This includes examples of how an inclusive ethos, an understanding of need, and a focus on relationships can put pinball kids on a different path. Honest and open, school leaders reflected on the, at times difficult, decisions they have made and how these are benefitting all their pupils.  

Everyone welcome, everyone supported: an inclusive ethos 

A sense of belonging can encourage young people to engage with school positively. The commitment to making sure everyone feels included goes beyond reducing exclusions, to creating a school where all students can thrive as individuals and as a community.  

Passmores Academy, perhaps familiar from their appearance in the TV show Educating Essex, has inclusion at its heart. Central to the school building is their ‘Inclusion Hub and its placement embodies their commitment to make pastoral and academic support visible and accessible to everyone. Working there is a primary-trained teacher who provides specialist support for those with low levels of literacy or numeracy, ensuring students don’t feel left behind, disengage and increase their risk of exclusion.  

The school also boasts an ‘Autism Hub’ where students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) receive additional support. Given the overrepresentation of students with special educational needs and disabilities in exclusions data, this is a valuable resource. However, co-principal, Vic Goddard, is clear that inclusive practices are promoted throughout the school and that this benefits everyone: 

“if a classroom is set up to cater for an autistic student’s needs, it’s set up to cater for every student.” 

Towers School and Sixth Form Centre, an on-site Welfare Centre and a unique pastoral management structure ensure every pupil is included. Meanwhile, Co-op Academy Leeds have developed their own alternative provision for students who struggle in a mainstream setting. 

We recommend that a commitment to inclusion be recognised and encouraged by making it an explicit criterion in the Ofsted inspection framework. 

“You have that trust”: Relationships with students  

Research suggests that strong relationships between teachers and pupils have a positive impact on classroom behaviour, which in turn could reduce the number of exclusions. When we interviewed young people who have experienced exclusion, they often mentioned where a lack of relationships meant support was missing (“there’s no one in school to talk to”) or gave examples of how just one positive relationship made a difference. 

Carr Manor Community School is committed to developing strong relationships between staff and students. Groups of around 10 students are ‘coached’ by a member of staff. Meeting three times a week for a ‘check in’, ‘check-up’ and ‘check out’, this consistent pastoral support allows students to feel comfortable knowing they have an adult to share with as well as a close group of peers.  

For students who may be experiencing difficulties outside of school, these groups – described by one student as a “second family” – can provide a place to be listened to, understood and supported.  

The Fermain Academy, an alternative provision school, makes inventive use of space to foster relationships.  Staff help develop students’ social skills by spending time engaging with students outside of lessons through games and shared facilities. They believe this approach is transferrable to mainstream schools and would develop those relationships which they know to be vital for providing support. 

Families as partners in their child’s education 

Relationships with parents are also important in preventing exclusions. A better understanding of family context can help schools target intervention, and greater engagement of parents in their child’s education has been linked with greater engagement from children, reducing the risk of exclusion.  

Pears Family School is innovative in this area. For example, their ‘Parental Learning Hub’ brings together teachers, parents and therapists to discuss each child’s needs and offers training in areas like trauma and attachment. Parents enthusiastically described the opportunity to share and problem solve as a group as a “support network”. The school also invites parents to join classroom lessons on certain days of the week, allowing them to feel part of their child’s learning and progress.  

As a small alternative provision school, Pears Family School has been designed to prepare students to return to mainstream education, therefore it can be argued that their specialism and scale allows for this level of work. However, finding opportunities in mainstream schools for parental engagement which fosters partnerships and helps families learn more about behaviour could reduce the risk of a child being excluded – including preventing the impact that this has on the wider family.  

The effective use of a family worker by Surrey Square Primary School and the wrap-around support provided by Reach Academy Feltham are also detailed in the report. 

The whole picture: understanding additional learning and social and emotional needs 

At Hope School, headteacher Rohit Naik realised that the school needed to do something differently to ensure they were not just dealing with external behaviours but trying to understand the root causes.  A special school for students with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) difficulties, they changed their approach to become attachment and trauma informed. Given the links between experiences of trauma and attachment issues with disruptive or destructive behaviours, there can be an increased risk of exclusion if schools do not understand these factors. Rohit believes that schools should be prepared to be adaptable to students’ needs: 

“Rather than focussing on whether children are ‘school ready’, we should be considering whether schools are ‘children ready’.

Transforming the school’s approach involved training for all staff – including their own regular counselling to gain an awareness of personal experiences with attachment and trauma. Although not a “quick win”, Rohit attributes this new focus to building capacity in the school and allowing all members of staff to feel they can effectively support students. Our report discusses how promising approaches such as attachment and trauma awareness could be further trialled, for example across special and mainstream schools, and evidenced through the development of a ‘what works fund’ by the government specifically aimed at reducing exclusions. 

Another school highlighted in the report is Risedale Sports and Community College for its use of assessment during the transition period between primary and secondary school to ensure support is put in place as early as possible. 

What can my school do?

These examples are just a few of the many schools up and down the country working hard to align government priorities with the needs of students. While not all schools are the same, it is important to look for cases which can provide inspiration to allIn our report, we call on school leaders to reflect on questions raised by these case studies to understand how we could better support pinball kids, for example: 

  • How can you strengthen pastoral structures? 
  • Do you engage families as partners in education? 
  • Have you reviewed your behaviour policy with inclusion in mind? 

Although we know that schools require support from government policy and funding and we make recommendations around this in the report, in the current political landscape, the drive for inclusion may need to come from those ‘on the ground’ in the education system.

Therefore, we hope the schools included in the report and our considerations for school leaders showcase the potential for change, stimulate discussion and reflection and ultimately help to reduce the number of school exclusions.

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