Pinball children – putting together the broken fragments of the education system

13 Apr

I       Introduction

The number of children being excluded from schools and academies continues to increase.   Children out of education spiral downwards and are picked up by unsavoury elements who use them as “mules” to transport drugs.  Others join gangs and are sucked into knife crime, sometimes becoming victims.

Tom Sherrington, an educational consultant, author of the website and the book, The Learning Rainforest, warned school and academy leaders and governors to ensure that children are not permanently excluded for frivolous reasons and certainly not because their parents are behaving badly. “You can’t permanently exclude a child because of his/her parents.  They are pinball kids struggling with life,” he said. Yet, the number of youngsters (problematic, no doubt), who are vulnerable – broken fragments of our society – continue to be turfed out of institutions for a variety of reasons and not just because they present behavioural difficulties.

The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and the Betty Messenger Charitable Foundation have been running a project on the Pinball Kids (since the autumn of 2018) to understand better what is driving up the number of exclusions and searching for a panacea to cure this social and educational pandemic.   If you are interested you can contact the RSA at

From 2013 to 2018, the number of exclusions rose by 60% in England’s schools and academies.  In the academic year 2017/18, 42 pupils per school/academy were excluded.   Laura Partridge of the RSA in her blog pointed out that “the school system disproportionately excludes pupils with special educational needs, who have grown up in poverty, who have a social worker and from certain ethnic minority groups”. She added: “Children who the system should hold on to are being let go and let down. Being excluded from school has negative consequences for the rest of a child’s life.”

Recently, the exclusion of pupils from schools and academies attracted increased media attention.   When one drills down at the numbers, one finds that the young people whose academic performance impact negatively on institutions’ examination results and league table standing were over-represented in the exclusion statistics.  Many of these children had mental health problems.  Support services for them, including the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), simply can’t cope with the increasing numbers.  And there is no Ed Excel outfit to deal with the problem as we have for Coronavirus-19.

RSA research has discovered that excluded pupils are

  • twice as likely to be in care,
  • three times as likely to be “children in need”,
  • four times as likely to have grown up in poverty and
  • seven times as likely to have special educational needs and disabilities.

To reduce the number of exclusions, the RSA is of the view that every school and academy must “take an approach where pupils and their families receive social, emotional and behavioural support as well as educational instruction”.  It adds: “We also need national and local policies to value the outcomes that these approaches achieve for all children.”

In its report on Pinball Kids, the RSA highlighted the causes for rising exclusions. These are as follows.

II     Exclusion Causes

(1)       There are system factors beyond the education system, which affect children’s wellbeing and capacity to cope with learning.  Young people face increasingly complex challenges, which act as triggers for poor behaviour that then end up in their schools and academies turfing them out.  These include the loss of parental income owing to unemployment (something that has increased astronomically during the current pandemic), housing insecurity, domestic violence, a change in foster care placements and the mental ill-health of family members.

Over the last 12 years or so – since the financial crash of 2008 – the reduction of local authority funding for schools and academies and other public services that work with children have been causes of if not exacerbated the problems of these challenging children.

Schools and academies end up being the repositories of society’s difficulties and find it difficult if not impossible to deal with the negative behaviour of the affected children.   Justifiably, headteachers, staff and governors argue that their institutions just don’t have the panacea for society’s viruses.

(2)       This leads to the second point, i.e. that schools and academies have suffered from having fewer resources and public services that contribute to the work of the institutions – such as the youth services, social services and CAMHS – have also had their funding cut.  Per pupil funding in England fell by 8% (circa) in real terms from £6,539 in 2009/10 to £5,994 in 2018/19.  In the most deprived areas, council funding was cut by 21% – i.e. £432 per person.

(3)       Thirdly, several policy reforms that were intended to improve the state of education and the quality of living have had unintended consequences, resulting in the exclusion of vulnerable pupils.  The government’s drive to raise standards in education by increasing the accountability of the professionals and school and academy governors through the mechanism of increased autonomy have led to stricter behaviour management.  In such a climate, headteachers and governors have resorted to a policy of zero tolerance which has increased the use of exclusion when all else fails.

(4)       Fourthly, the government has ramped up the importance of test and examination league tables to shed a light on succeeding and failing institutions.  Schools and academies are keen to see themselves high up on league tables, which adds to the pressures that they place on headteachers and teachers.  Laura Partridge garnered data for the RSA through a freedom of information request to local authorities in England.  She found “a spike in admissions to Pupil Referral Units in the first term of Year 11 in 2016/17, the last point before students’ exam results count towards a school’s/academy’s performance”.  This was a direct consequence of schools and academies off-rolling “problematic pupils”.

(5)       Fifth has been the pressures placed on schools and academies by Ofsted’s inspections.   One former headteacher described to the RSA the pressures that the school had been under to bring it out of Special Measures.  “It was so tempting sometimes to make children disappear”.  Amanda Spielman, the current chief inspector, however, is taking steps to address this issue with her double pronged policy, i.e. to investigate cases of off-rolling and emphasising the importance of school/academy leaders promoting an inclusive environment.

(6)       Sixth and finally, the rapid increase in the number of academies has led to institutions co-operating with one another less to hold on to their pupils.   It has become the case of survival of the fittest.  The RSA, for example, learn of academies opting out of local arrangements to find pupils places following exclusion (fair access processes) destabilising the entire system. As a result of this, headteachers reported that excluded children, who often had complex needs that required additional support, were not distributed fairly between the institutions.

III    Solutions?

So, what is the way forward and how can we deal with the exclusion Medusa?

Prevention is inevitably better and cheaper than cure.  When children’s home life unravels, we need more help from organisations like CAMHS.  However, this is expensive.   In the current milieu of increased unemployment because of the pandemic, this is not coming any time soon.

Schools and academies do what they can to promote inclusion in difficult circumstances.  They must double efforts to enhance the educational experience of all children.

The RSA has recommended government investment in multi-agency teams to support preventative work by headteachers and the development of a ‘what works’ fund to gather evidence on interventions designed to improve relationship-building and the extent to which they can contribute to reducing exclusions.

Finally, Elinor Lobey of the RSA suggested that school and academy leaders strengthen relationships with pupils, families and services that work with vulnerable children based on innovative practice from case study schools.

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