Is the exclusion of pupils adding to knife crime?

18 Apr

I        The school/academy dilemma

Children’s welfare is of paramount importance to schools and academies.   Happiness and safety are the twin conditions required to promote their growth mentally, physically, morally and spiritually – enabling them to develop and flourish during the compulsory stage of their education. They keep them grounded for the rest of their lives.   Were a school/academy to be wanting by Ofsted in its safeguarding arrangements it is peremptorily placed in special measures.  This does not negate the requirement that a school/academy is expected to demonstrate that its pupils are achieving.

Regarding the last requirement, schools and academies are caught between a rock and a hard place. It is imperative that governors, headteachers and staff give children every opportunity to succeed – but at what cost?   In a number of egregious cases schools/academies are “off-rolling” the “problematic children to twinkle in the firmament of academic achievement”.  Funding difficulties heighten the dilemma for them, making it that much more daunting to educate problematic children in the same classrooms as the better-behaved ones, disrupting their education too.

The evidence is stark: in the Autumn Term of Year 11, several “turned off” youngsters are excluded – often permanently – so that they will not bring their schools/academies shame by doing badly in their GCSEs.

And when that happens, there are drug gangs out there ready to capitalise on these “turned off” youngsters who feel education’s “discarded” outsiders, causing their lives to spiral downwards.   To defend themselves and/or prove they are macho (most of them are boys), they resort to knife crime.

II       RSA study

Laura Partridge of the Royal Society of Art (RSA) carried out a study on pupil exclusions and published her findings in March 2019.    Her research revealed that there was a “spike in admissions to Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) in the Autumn Term of Year 11, the final term before the census deadline”.   Were a pupil to be excluded after the school census date, i.e. the third Thursday in January of the GCSE year, he/she would be included in the GCSE league table.  Consequently, secondary schools/academies exclude their difficult pupils in the Autumn Term prior to the Spring one when the census is taken.

The data shows that there is a significant increase in the PRU numbers in the first term of Year 11, accounting for nearly 15% of the total admissions according to those local authorities who provided returns to the RSA.

A survey of almost 80 local authorities found that 1,328 teenagers were admitted to PRUs in the Autumn Term of their GCSE year.  Only 748 were admitted the term after and 676 the term before. The figures cause the casual observer to suspect that some headteachers are using exclusions to “game” the system.

During the academic years 2015/16 the number of permanent exclusions was 6,685 and in 2016/17 – 7,720 – an increase of 1,135 over the two years.   On average, 41 pupils are permanently excluded from English schools every day.

The most vulnerable pupils are the ones most likely to be excluded, i.e. those eligible for free school meals, with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and/or from certain ethnic minorities– such as of Caribbean heritage.

This is by no means the end of the matter.  An investigation in 2018 revealed that 13,000 pupils did not have results recorded in league tables in 2017, despite appearing on their schools’/academies’ rolls a year earlier.

According to a recent report by the independent children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, “the act of excluding a child in itself makes that child more vulnerable to gang violence”. Schooling gives a child structure, a regular routine, relationships with responsible adults and a relatively smooth route to accessing other public services. Her report stated that excluding or off-rolling was “repeatedly identified” as the trigger for membership of a gang.

PRUs do a splendid job – putting together the broken pieces of young people’s lives. But then, only problem pupils should move to the PRUs in the first place – not children who are likely to mar a school’s/academy’s position in the league tables.

III     Ofsted’s findings on London

Following a study it carried out on knife crime in London among young people, Ofsted reported in March 2019.   Its research concentrated on 29 schools, academies, colleges and PRUs.  The inspectorate ran focus groups with parents and children.

It concluded that “no single agency, including schools and academies, can solve knife crime on its own”.  However, our institutions can do more to keep children and young people safer.  These areas including the following.

  • Improve partnership working and strategic planning in London.
  • Share and promote good practice in relation to exclusions and managed moves.
  • Coordinate early help and prevention.
  • Involve information-sharing.
  • Teach the curriculum and support children to achieve.

There are measures that the government can take too, the most important being to reduce the pressures it places on schools and academies to ensure that all their pupils achieve in one year only. Would it not be better to average out youngsters’ performance over several years?   Ms Partridge writes that providing institutions with support rather than punishment can improve the situation.   After all, that is how governors are supposed to operate – i.e. be “critical friends” by challenging and supporting their schools and academies.

Schools/academies can also help one another by sharing success stories to enable those less successful to replicate good practice.   In this regard, local authorities (LAs) can help, but are they able to in the current, financially straitened positions?

IV     Police call for resources to tackle knife-crime

In mid-February 2019, three teenagers were fatally stabbed in Birmingham.  Hazrat Umar, 18, whose uncle, Nazir Afzal, oversaw prosecutions in the Rotherham sex-grooming case, Abdullah Muhammad, 16, in Small Heath and Sidali Mohamed, 16, in Highgate, Birmingham.  In Birmingham (at the time of writing) nearly 300 knife crimes were recorded in 2019.  The second largest city in the United Kingdom is on the cusp of overtaking the capital on knife crime.  Most of the victims and many of the perpetrators are young people of school/academy age.

This caused David Jamieson, the police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, to state at a press conference that he would request a special Home Office grant to deal with this spike of violence from the Home Office, money normally set aside for terrorist attacks and disasters.

Jamieson informed the home secretary, Sajid Javid, and education secretary, Damian Hinds, that many of the children involved had been excluded or “off-rolled”.  He added: “Nationally 19,000 have been off-rolled. Many of those children are here in the West Midlands. This is a national emergency. Many of those children are on an immediate path into crime and violence.”

He implied that schools and academies were using their “strong arms” to persuade the parents of poorly performing or disruptive pupils to remove these children from the institutions – or else they would be permanently excluded.  This off-rolling results in children being lured and sometimes shanghaied into drug gangs, because they have time on their hands.   Education in PRUs is generally less than full time, so that the devil always finds mischief in idle youngsters’ hands.

The Metropolitan Police has said that 41% of those caught for knife crimes in London are from the ages of 15 and 19, and 8% from 10 to 14.   Excluded pupils are 200 times more likely to have been involved in knife-carrying offences.   Additionally, 50% of prisoners were expelled from schools/academies when of statutory school age.   The statistics are sobering – revealing that children expelled from school for fighting were more likely to become violent adults.   This is a vicious circle that needs to be converted into a virtuous one.

Glasgow may have some answers.   Young people thought likely to become perpetrators of knife crime were helped with housing and employment.  Recorded knife crime fell dramatically in that city because this help was coupled with tough sentencing for those involved in carrying knives.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police will be doubling the number of officers working in schools to 600 from 280 a year-and-a-half ago because concerns over knife crime grows.   Seventeen police forces in England deploy officers in schools, often within safer school partnerships (SSPs), an initiative implemented in 2002. However, will this be enough?

A government working group with police representatives stated in its report that police officers gather and share intelligence on young people and their possible gang or extremist affiliations in the work they do in schools.   What we don’t know is what happens to the intelligence, how it is stored, who accesses it and the implications for young people.

Evaluations of the SSPs’ work show small improvements in reducing truancy but there is insufficient data about improvements in school-level offending, albeit pupils say that they feel safer when the police are in their institutions.

V       Ofsted’s recommendations

Ofsted suggested a way forward.  The watchdog made 11 recommendations, as follows. [1]

(1)        Local community safety partnerships should fully involve schools, colleges and PRUs.

(2)        All schools and academies in London should ensure that their exclusion policy reflects the practices set out in the Department for Education’s (DfE’s) statutory guidance.   Local authorities should have a strategic response to permanent exclusions. They should also, in conjunction with the schools’ commissioners, challenge schools and multi-academy trusts if exclusions do not appear to be in line with statutory guidance.

(3)        The DfE should collect data from schools/academies about managed moves in the same way in which it collects information on permanent and fixed-term exclusions.

(4)        Safeguarding partners should involve school/academy leaders at a strategic level in assessing the needs of children and young people in their areas, and in planning and delivering early help services in response to those needs.  Schools/academies need to participate actively in local arrangements as required under Keeping children safe in education statutory guidance.

(5)        Local safeguarding partnerships should facilitate all agencies including schools/academies and colleges in challenging one another’s practices if they believe any agency is failing to contribute to the local strategy to protect pupils from knife crime.

(6)        Schools and colleges should share full information with one another when pupils and learners move schools/academies, PRUs or alternative provision or move to further education (FE) to safeguard them and other pupils and learners.

(7)        Pan-London safeguarding partners should provide challenge to schools/academies and colleges and, when necessary, drive improvement in how well schools/academies and colleges share information with others to promote children’s safety when those children move schools/academies or into further education, including via managed moves or when they are permanently excluded.

(8)        The Metropolitan Police Service needs to establish a clear and consistent protocol and memorandums of understanding with schools/academies that ensure that it and the schools/academies routinely share information about children for the purposes of safeguarding.

(9)        School/academy leaders should consider how their personal, social, health and economic education (PSHEE) curriculum reflects local safeguarding issues and trends, including knife crime.

(10)      Pan-London bodies should consider ways in which they can support schools/academies in ensuring that external organisations that are delivering anti-knife crime and gang affiliation sessions can provide a high-quality and impactful contributions to the school/academy PSHEE curriculum.

(11)      Safeguarding partnerships and school/academy leaders should raise awareness of the dangers of grooming and criminal exploitation among both, parents and children.

[1] While these recommendations were made in relation to London schools, academies and multi-academy trusts (MATs) they could apply to institutions all around the country.

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