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The Bristol Cable

Lost learning: ‘My grandson’s being failed by a broken education system’

The grandmother of a boy repeatedly removed from Bristol primary schools speaks out, as the city’s mayor backs a zero-exclusions policy.

‘He’s missed more learning than he’s been given’: Jean’s grandson has been excluded from primary school.

Photo by Julian Preece.

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“It’s like we’re on an island by ourselves and I’m just left to think ‘how do we get through this,’” says Jean, whose grandson has been permanently excluded from primary school for the second time. “I’m surprised I’m not in the loony bin.”

The nine-year-old, who has ADHD and a rare neurological condition that can cause long-term behavioural and learning difficulties, started Year Five in September at a facility in Bristol that provides alternative learning provision for children with specialist educational needs and disabilities (SEND). 

He was referred there last year by a mainstream school that he had been attending on a reduced timetable. Before this, when he was just six years old, he was permanently excluded from another school in the city after being excluded on a fixed-term basis – for up to three days – on a number of occasions. 

“I thought [the alternative provision] was going to be the fresh start he needed,” says Jean, who has been the boy’s guardian since his mother died when he was an infant. “We were promised so much – promised that his needs would be met – but that wasn’t the reality.”

He was excluded from the facility in February, meaning he will be without a school place for eight months before starting somewhere else in September. 

We want young people to be appreciated and feel that they have support when they need it rather than becoming isolated

Jean’s grandson’s experience of repeated exclusions comes at a time when the issue is facing intense scrutiny, with a report from former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield in April calling for exclusions from primary schools to be banned in the UK within the next four years. 

And Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees this week spoke out in support of introducing a zero-exclusion policy. He said the issue was “very close” to him, as a member of his family was excluded from school and “thrown into educational limbo”.

“There was nobody to help him… It was only because of the brothers and sisters around that we were able to rally around him,” Rees told a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

“We need to find a way of supporting schools, but we need to find a way of making sure the education system is a home to every child within the city as well. We don’t think it’s easy but we certainly think it should be our aspiration, and we should be taking concrete steps towards it.”

Bristol has a low permanent exclusion rate – nine across all schools in 2018/19. But its fixed-term exclusion rate is high – 4,483 in the same year – compared with other local authority areas. Official data on exclusions for 2020/21 has not yet been released. 

‘He’s missed more learning than he’s been given’

“There’s been so much disruption to his learning,” Jean says. “I don’t know how he will catch up… It’s got to the point where he’s missed more learning than he’s been given. It’s heartbreaking. There’s been so many missed opportunities… The system is failing him again and again and I just have to sit and watch it happen.”

Bristol has in recent years become engulfed in a SEND crisis, with long waits for additional support and a lack of spaces at alternative facilities. Jean isn’t alone in feeling that, amid this crisis, her child could continue to be let down by the education system.

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From five years old the boy has been on an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP), which sets out the education, health and social care needs of children who need extra support in school beyond what the institution can provide. 

As part of the plan, at school he received one-to-one tuition and assessments by an educational psychologist, who Jean says had identified an attachment trauma in her grandson that was triggered by his mother’s death.

The boy struggles to regulate himself at school, Jean says, adding that he has been excluded for several reasons, ranging from being disruptive in class to “lashing out” and becoming violent towards staff or fellow pupils.

He was permanently excluded from his first primary school in 2019, when he was just six years old. The school said it couldn’t provide the additional support needed to keep him and his fellow pupils safe, or cope with his disruptive, sometimes violent behaviour.

The permanent exclusion came when he returned to school after being hospitalised with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM). The rare neurological condition can cause long-term behavioural and learning difficulties and, while she doesn’t yet know for sure just how ADEM has impacted her grandson, Jean says his behaviour got worse quite rapidly after he developed it. 

He received one-to-one tuition at home while he waited for a place at a new school, which he then attended through much of 2020 on a reduced timetable of half-days due to his behaviour. Part-time timetabling for school pupils is a practice that can be unlawful, but is increasingly being seen across Bristol, according to Lib Dem councillor Tim Kent. 

After being excluded in February after just six months, the boy is now back at home again, largely isolated from children his own age. He attends a placement with a council-run alternative learning group two days a week while he waits to join a new specialist school in September for the final year of his primary education. The disruption, Jean says, means he’s falling further behind.

The school does not deny that the boy had been permanently excluded but says it will continue to support him alongside its partners at Bristol City Council.

‘It’s the reality Black people have faced for generations’

Former children’s commissioner Longfield argues in her report that the current system doesn’t work for every child and leaves at-risk children being viewed as a “problem”. “[Schools] don’t focus on vulnerable children because they don’t feel they have an obligation or responsibility to do so,” she said in the report.

The report also highlighted how Black children are more likely to be excluded. She has called for race-equality training to be a core part of teacher training, and for the school curriculum to be reformed to make it more inclusive.

Asked about her grandson’s experience of the education system, and being excluded and as a Black boy, Jean says: “I don’t always want to be jumping on the race thing… But what [he has] been through, it doesn’t give me the impression that much is changing.

“There’s all sorts of factors – lack of funding, resources, training – but race, this is the reality of the situation, you have to understand, that we have faced for generations,” she tells the Cable.

Lana Crosby, a teacher in Bristol who campaigns for the abolition of school exclusions, says the practice, both permanent and fixed-term, when children are excluded temporarily, is wrongly used to manage behaviour and as punishment.

“Schools don’t always look at ‘behaviour’ as a form of communication, they just see it as misbehaviour that needs to be punished, and children are unfairly targeted. Exclusions should only be a last resort, which they aren’t. 

“There needs to be a greater focus on vulnerable children in primary education, with more creative ways to help them engage.”

On how school exclusions disproportionately affect Black children, boys in particular, she tells the Cable that educators “can still get it so wrong” and fail to admit it, despite being confronted with evidence such as Longfield’s report. 

“How many reviews do educators need to see before they admit that they’re part of the problem? Some people call it unconscious bias… but we need to call it what it is. It’s racism.”

On this case specifically, which she says will have been particularly harmful for both the boy and his grandmother, Cosby adds: “He’s needs haven’t been met, not necessarily because the schools didn’t want to do that, but it just shows there’s clearly a problem here.”

Jean says she can’t understand how, despite the assessments her grandson has had since starting school, the school system has continued to fail him. “I don’t know if it’s a lack of empathy, patience or understanding, but someone needs to take responsibility.”

‘We want young people to be appreciated and supported’

Bristol’s youth mayors have urged schools to completely stop excluding students, amid concerns of racism and harming the life chances of disadvantaged young people.

A similar zero-exclusions policy was recently introduced in the London Borough of Southwark, after council chiefs there said black pupils were more likely to be kicked out of school. 

In the blog post, Anika Mistry and Jeremiah Dom-Ogbonna, Bristol’s youth mayors, urged schools to offer support to misbehaving students instead of “overactive discipline”, stressing the importance of young people staying in a classroom. They added that banning exclusions would mean fewer young people “going down the wrong path”.

They said: “Often the decision for an exclusion isn’t justifiable, and concerns have been raised about the link between exclusions and race, where institutional racism could be a factor. We want young people to be appreciated and feel that they have support when they need it rather than becoming isolated.

“We have seen too many stories where young people have been put into isolation – short and long term – where this isn’t warranted. This isn’t OK. A situation that should have been easily resolved, by just speaking and letting the students know their wrongdoing, has escalated leading to irreconcilable damage, not just to their education, but to their future as a whole.”

Comments

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  • If a child is being violent at school it is not safe for the other pupils or teacher.
    I don’t see why people should have to put up with it when they are trying to learn. Exclusion seems the only choice and rightly so.

    Reply

  • I wonder about unconscious bias when I read about someone ending up in a loony bin? I also think that this is everyone’s responsibility and not just someone’s. Use the time and energy that is put into finding a scapegoat into finding a solution.

    Reply

  • I am a secondary school teacher in Bristol. We do not ignore vulnerable students as suggested by the commissioner but we only have a certain number of minutes to give each student and we try to do that as fairly as possible. Let me show you a basic formula to illustrate: a 60 minute class could entail 30 mins teaching whole class with differentiated resources ( often 3 versions of the same work prepared by me to meet students’ different needs) and then 1 minute for each student individually to deal with their questions, relate to them, enthuse them about learning, encourage aspiration , overcome a myriad of personal or learning obstacles etc etc etc. If the commissioner can show us how we should make those numbers work differently I’d be happy to listen. Encouraging high achievement and supporting students who need it in a vast number of ways is the daily challenge that we give our all to and blaming teachers for not taking responsibility for vulnerable students is a mindless and ridiculous simplification.
    How about a serious discussion about class sizes. With 23 students in a class I can much better meet all their needs and therefore behaviour and motivation is much more positive. With 30 it is NOT possible ( it is time this truth was admitted and we were supported in this instead of being used as scapegoats for underfunding and impossible targets). With 30 there are terrible consequences for a whole range of profile of student. Being excluded is the tip of the ice berg with regards to how our system is not working for ALL.

    Reply

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