Being excluded from school can be highly damaging for a child’s perception of education as well as their approach to academic achievement and those who are meant to educate them.
When a student is being excluded from their mainstream school, be that for an accumulation of incidents and challenging behaviour over time, a one-off occurrence, such a bringing a knife to school or drugs or poor attendance, it is, despite many warnings, words of advice and a huge range of strategies to keep the child, still a shock to many, an event they did not believe would actually happen.
Of course, schools had issued warnings, many meetings would have been held between parents and headteachers, letters would have been sent, conversations would have been had. Nevertheless, the final act of exclusion often comes as a shock and in many cases students, who struggle to take responsibility for their actions, insisting that their expulsion was unjust, that others had not been punished for the same incident, that it wasn’t their fault, that they didn’t know they had gone too far.
Arriving at a pupil referral unit, many students are raw with feelings of injustice, of not being listened to and heard, of being let down and abandoned by the school they knew so well and were a part of for a significant amount of time.
Whether the student had been wronged or whether the exclusion was just and fair, is often irrelevant to how he or she may feel about education and their future.
To a young person and their parents, being excluded is a huge event, whatever background the child may come from. Nevertheless, many excluded children come from extreme poverty, with little parental care and guidance. In addition, they are frequently gang affiliated, involved in the distribution and dealing of drugs for their elders, forced to avenge their friends’ ‘beef’ and be part of attacks as well as retributions.
Some are subjected to child sexual exploitation, neglect, abuse and exploitation from a wide range of people, adults as well as their peers. Being excluded from school is, in addition to the neglect many of the children in pupil referral units experience, another rejection from the mainstream they find very hard to cope with, and which pushes them further onto the fringes of society and the associated behaviours and attitudes to life that brings.
Being rude and verbally abusive in this world is normal. Pushing someone out of the way because you feel boxed in, is what you do to get out. Punching windows, doors and walls when you’re angry, is a form of release. Headbutting someone who is shouting at you and in your space is the only way to break out of that situation.
This is not an excuse for this kind of behaviour. Every student we speak to who has been excluded for an act of violence against another person knows that what they did was wrong. However, the feeling of alienation, of not belonging, of being rejected, of being ‘relegated’ to a pupil referral unit, remains and feeds into the disaffection for the education system and hostility towards those who work in it.
Pupil referral units have to fight against the tide of a constant stream of disaffected and discouraged students who join their schools every week
It is then down to PRUs to try and ‘repair’ their students’ attitudes towards education and teachers, which is a long process that requires forging many relationships and re-building of trust between children and adults. In many cases, it works and we get students back on track – a successful reintegration into mainstream can be the future blip in some students’ education history.
However, in many cases, the damage has been done and all the staff in a PRU can hope for is a reasonable working relationship with the young people in their care, punctuated by regular outbursts, conflict, an inability to take responsibility for their actions and patterns of destructive behaviours that are difficult to break.
Pupil Referral Units are important places for many students – they provide support and an alternative education most mainstream schools are not able to offer.
But if mainstream schools were better equipped to keep their most challenging, to have systems in place that allowed the most difficult children to make mistakes and learn from them (consequences to actions are important but restorative practices are equally essential) a whole generation of young people might benefit from the power of inclusion and forgiveness rather than the alienating effects of purely punitive consequences.