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Youth voice on school exclusions

By listening to young people who have experienced exploitation, we aim to change the systems that put them at risk. One reoccurring theme amongst young people we support is that many have been excluded from school. We must understand school exclusions from a young person's perspective and work out how to improve the system.

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What is school exclusions?

legs of person sitting on swing in playground

What is school exclusion?

An exclusion is when a school decides that a child is no longer allowed to attend that school. It may result from a series of incidents or from one very serious incident that is against the schools behaviour policy (the school rules.) Exclusions can be temporary or permanent and there is a procedure for schools to follow.

Listening to young people

In 2019, we began engaging young people to hear their views on exclusions. We wanted to give young people an opportunity to express their thoughts on a process which often doesn’t allow them a voice. It was also to help adults understand school exclusions from a young person’s perspective.

This project engaged with 11 young people from across England who were either receiving a direct service from us, part of an external youth club, at an Alternative Provision or part of a Youth Voice Webinar.

Young people's experience of exclusion

This report amplifies the collective voice of the young people who took part in the project. The quotes are not attributed to individual young people or ages or genders in order to protect the identity of those who took part.

The report is arranged into three key themes:

  1. Well-being
  2. Relationships
  3. The school system

The connections young people made between exclusions and exploitation make up the fourth section. A theme of power imbalance also emerged. References to this run throughout the report rather than as a stand-alone section, this is because the theme of power imbalance cuts across all the other themes.

boy looks forward to the teach in class

Exclusions and well-being

Young people spoke about the impact on their confidence and self-esteem, their sense of feeling valued and cared for, the impact on relationships with those around them and the amount of choice and autonomy they feel they have in school and in the exclusions process itself. Overall, young people told us that they struggled to cope with the challenges of school exclusions.

I didn’t even have my say. They asked me nothing, no questions.

Young people spoke about exclusions impacting on their hopes and aspirations about the future and whether they feel able to fulfil their further and higher education plans. We found that the disruption to education as a result of an exclusion can be significant and lead to young people feeling ‘written off’ and demoralised.

however boring it is, school is the most important key to your future

For many of the young people the school exclusion was just one of the challenges in their life and circumstances in and out of school impact on each other. What they experience outside of school can impact on their ability to engage with school life to the extent that it can lead to them being excluded. Also that being excluded from school exacerbates the challenges they are already struggling with outside of school.

Exclusions and relationships

Young people spoke a lot about their relationships with teachers, adults at home, friends and peers and the complexities of how all of these relationships interlink with their education.

Friendships and Peers

A sense of belonging is a significant aspect of well-being for young people. The young people described making choices at school motivated by a need to be with friends or to fit in or maintain their friendships. Sometimes ‘friends’ can be disloyal and let each other down with significant consequences.

Young people described having to deal with stereotyping and rumours amongst their peer group at school. For some a reputation is positive and something to cultivate, whereas others felt it led to negative consequences.

friends have tried to get me to like, work harder, stop being rebellious just like listen to them

Teachers and adults

Young people identified the importance of consistent support in schools where they have teachers they can relate to and trust, who listen, seeing past the behaviour to understand the cause and supporting them to resolve things and move forward. Young people explained that finding just one teacher who you trust and who believes in you can make a huge difference in mind-set, especially if you can relate to their identity.

They listen and try to understand

Young people frequently spoke about feeling powerless at school. They spoke about teachers being inconsistent, treating some pupils differently to others. They feel this is unfair and as a result some have lost respect for their teachers. As well as feeling stereotyped by their peers, some pupils feel they are stereotyped by teachers. This contributes further to a sense of powerlessness and inevitability of being in trouble.

Relationships at home

Being subject to school exclusion can impact negatively on relationships at home. Young people explained that parents and carers can feel under pressure having to attend various meetings and engage with school throughout the process. This can damage relationships between home and school and can also strain the young person’s relationship with those who care for them at home. Some comments from young people highlight a lack of inclusivity making it challenging for adults to access the exclusions process.

I had a meeting every time I was excluded and I felt tight on my Mum because she had to come every time and walk up with the baby.

Exclusions and the school system

The young people involved in this project often spoke about ‘school’ as an entity in itself - how ‘school’ makes them feel, the decisions ‘school’ makes, whether ‘school is fair or not.

Young people told us that the learning environment and the academic and pastoral support they can access at school makes a big difference. Large class environments can be challenging, particularly for young people who have additional and/or unmet needs. Young people talked about the difficulty and pace of the work, limited choice of subjects and their concerns about part time timetables.

We should have more choice in what we learn

Young people talked about behaviour policies and approaches. They described rigid rules and the cycle of detention/isolation/exclusion that can quickly escalate and feels hard to break once established. Young people see the systems in place as inflexible, arbitrary and ultimately ineffective in achieving real change.

we go to school to be taught. Don’t send kids home, it’s just common sense for us to be in school.

A theme running throughout much of what young people said relates to having a lack of power and autonomy. Young people talked about this in relation to communication with teachers as well as between school and home. Young people feel empowered when they and their family/carers are listened to and are able to effectively engage in and influence decisions that affect their lives.

However, young people spoke more frequently about feeling disempowered at school, with power imbalances for some becoming more noticeable as they get older. The interventions designed to prevent problems escalating can actually have the opposite effect if young people don’t feel they have the opportunity to have their voices heard. Young people referred to difficulties with short notice or brief meetings and late letters and the impact that had. A specific example related a lack of inclusivity in terms of communication in relation to English being a second language for a family.

When I first came [Year 7] I felt I was equal to the teachers, but as I got older I realised like no, the teachers were just abusing all the power

Young people shared both positive and negative experiences of the school environment and school systems - times when ‘school’ has felt supportive but also when their individual needs and circumstances have not been taken into account. Their experiences highlight a power imbalance, where, due to the school systems and/or culture in place, they often feel powerless and unheard.

Report conclusions

At the start of this project we set out to amplify young people’s voice about school exclusions through the perspective of those who were at risk of or who had been exploited. Young people spoke about the wide-ranging impact of school exclusion on their lives and for some, they saw a clear link between being excluded from school and risk of serious harm.

This document captures 11 young people’s unique experiences which it is important adults listen to. It is recognised that the scope of this report is small, but it is a starting point and contributes to wider national debate around the impact of school exclusions.

Every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously. In acting alone, without the participation of young people, adults will miss a vital piece of the jigsaw. What is set out here, highlights adult’s duty of care to listen, take note and act in partnership with young people to change the education system for the better.

I had changed as a person, the system didn’t change.

Youth summary report

Download our youth summary report. It has been written for young people, pulling out the key themes from the full report and signposting to support. It can also be used as a resource for professionals to support their work with young people.