Our actions can have serious, if unintended, consequences for students.
No doubt we would all be appalled by the suggestion that we might be contributing to a student’s chances of being excluded. But the reality is that there are many practices, culturally and systematically embedded in schools, that ensure some students are at much higher risk than they need to be.
For the purposes of illustration, here is a short ‘guide’ on how to make a student much more likely to be excluded.
Nothing has more impact on a student’s education than reading, so make sure that those who come to school disadvantaged stay that way. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to have a significantly smaller oral vocabulary than their more well-off peers. Unless this is addressed systematically, such students will fall further and further behind. Not only that, but their more limited exposure to language means that they have less opportunity to intuit the written code. To make them feel like reading isn’t for them, focus on visual and context clues, give them predictable books that make it look like they can read, and only address the phonic code as a last resort. Even then, you can keep this knowledge mixed up with other strategies so that the child never has the chance to learn systematically. These simple steps alone will help to increase your student’s chances of exclusion massively. In all likelihood, they will never recover from this bad start.
Sometimes parents will press us to explain why a child is not making progress. At such times it is important to avoid introspection and indeed any suggestion that the teaching we have or haven’t done is responsible. Instead, reassure parents that any apparent delays are merely developmental, and that eventually the child will grasp the knowledge they currently lack. The phrase ‘click and fly’ is useful here as it suggests a magical quality to knowledge, and high expectations of what the student will achieve. Under no circumstances yield to the temptation to talk about knowledge as the product of patient, steady work by the teacher and the student. Sometimes parents will believe the developmental excuse explanation until Year 5 – by which time the child will almost certainly be someone else’s problem. Developmental explanations are virtually a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Dispense freely.
Ignore gaps in learning
If a child is missing knowledge that they need to access other learning, you might be tempted to alter your teaching to ensure that they cover what is needed, or to call in specialist support. But if you want to increase their chances of exclusion, just press on with the programme and keep telling yourself that they will ‘click and fly’ one day. The accumulating learning deficits will have a catastrophic effect on their motivation and they’ll become prime candidates for ejection from school.
Categorise them as SEN when they just need teaching
This at once relieves the teacher and the school of responsibility, at the same time encouraging the student to believe their problems are irremediable. The SEN label can be used as freely as the developmental explanation, and with more power since it can be dressed up in all kinds of jargon. Talk about ‘visual processing deficits’, ‘short-term working memory deficits’, ‘attention deficit’, ‘behavioural impulse control deficits’ . . . you get the picture. The phrases may vary, but the central idea is that the child is the problem. SLT will be very happy to have an explanation for the student’s lack of progress. Meantime, the student will fall further behind, become alienated from peers and teachers, and develop a gnawing despair that eats away at their self-esteem.
Apply ineffective remedies
To really cement this sense of permanence in their learning difficulties, segregate them into groups, or one-to-one lessons if you have money to burn, and give them more intensive doses of the teaching methods that have already failed them. Explain that they will never catch up, treat slow progress as a miracle, and give them substitutes for teaching like coloured overlays, simplified vocabulary and the kind of cartoon pictures they remember from early primary school. This is almost guaranteed to produce not only ongoing failure, but a deep and seething resentment. You have now almost perfected the student’s candidacy for exclusion.
Now that they have lost hope, this one is easy. Always ensure that when they break the rules, you talk about how disappointed you are in them, remind them that they have disability x or problem y, and remind them that they won’t get far in life with such a poor attitude. Also, talk a lot. Nothing drives them to distraction like the teacher wittering on. This will intensify their feelings of frustration and, hopefully, injustice. They will now have strong motivations to reject authority, and aggressive emotions that they can inflict on peers, disrupting lessons and wearing teachers out. The early investment in reading failure is now manifesting as persistent misbehavior. You are almost there!
Claim it’s too late
We have now reached the end game. Remember to convey sympathy and compassion at this point. Also, shrug. After all, we did our best, but sometimes even with the best will in the world, it’s just too late. Explain to the parents how many chances the child has had and all the support that the school has given them. Show your disappointment that things didn’t work out better. Make sure to warn them that they must now make the best use of the alternative provision centre they will be consigned to. Then press the ejector button.
Of course, no teacher would really try to ensure students are excluded, would they? No, of course not* – yet all these practices do commonly occur in schools, albeit from different motives. From the student’s point of view, however, it is not the reasons for our actions, but how these actions impact them, that matters. So, despite our aspiration to higher motives, ultimately the effect on students is to increase the risk of exclusion.
If you are a head teacher or a senior leader, you have the power to shape your school’s systems and culture to avoid the discriminatory practices outlined above. I hope you use it wisely.
*I am deliberately overlooking a few former colleagues who did boast about “getting pupils excluded”. I am sure they were aberrations from the vast bulk of the profession.
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