Growing numbers of children are at risk of being excluded and “falling off the radar” as schools return to normal following the pandemic, experts fear.
Analysis of recent government data shows the problem was worsening before the pandemic but there was a lull while schools were closed because of the virus.
Department of Education figures show that in the autumn term before the first lockdown general exclusions were up 5% and primary school exclusions rose by 20%.
However, evidence suggests this could soon be replaced with a spike in exclusions as children return to school, with problems at home bottled up and likely to prompt bad behaviour.
It comes as the former children’s commissioner launches a new initiative to stop what she calls a “conveyor belt” of vulnerable children falling into the hands of gangs and criminals.
Anne Longfield told Sky News: “We know that COVID has dealt a real blow to those kids – the vulnerabilities that they’ve experienced at home; addiction, domestic violence, have increased and lot of them also aren’t connecting back into school so they are at risk of falling off the radar.”
Ms Longfield is today launching The Commission on Young Lives which aims to work with other youth groups to design a new national system to prevent children from becoming involved in county lines and gangs.
The commission warns that even before COVID hit in March 2020, almost 15,000 children had been referred to social services over gang fears in the previous 12 months – a rise of 4,000 on the previous year.
Those working with vulnerable children are seeing increasingly severe problems – more domestic abuse, greater food poverty, more children struggling with mental health problems, and a resurgence in knife crime that has led to more teenagers turning up at A&E with stab wounds.
Part of tackling the issue will be deciding how to stem the rise in school exclusions.
“Since lockdown ended there have been rises in exclusions in the local authorities we work with,” says Kiran Gill, founder of The Difference – a project that tries to prevent school exclusions through teacher training.
Ms Gill also cites increased instances of domestic violence and worsening mental health problems as aggravating factors.
She adds: “We need to reverse this trend because only 4% of excluded young people are likely to get a pass in GCSE English and maths and even by the age of 20 young people are unlikely to have the literacy and numeracy needed to access the labour force.
“Therefore it’s no surprise they are much more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.”
The Difference runs what it calls a Leaders Programme which places teachers from mainstream schools into Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) for excluded children so they can learn how to better understand their problems and keep them in the system.
English teacher Daniel Cain-Reed who joined the programme is now teaching at a PRU run by Haringey’s Learning Partnership in North London.
He told Sky News: “I don’t think I ever felt my mainstream school [was] always best placed to offer those young people and their families the support that they needed, and that is something I have definitely learned.
“I feel a lot more knowledgeable, and when I go back I will help my mainstream colleagues to be more pre-emptive and spot the signs of perhaps trauma – to identify the risks that some people might experience and mitigate that so children can continue to be successful in mainstream schools.”
He added: “I think I have definitely noticed young people being excluded far more at a far younger age as well too, and when it happens at a younger age it’s a real challenge for staff to build that resilience back up.”
At the PRU in Harringay, we met year 10 student Miriam Khadir, 14, who was excluded from two secondary schools for “persistent disruptive behaviour”, although that phrase underplays the complexity of what happened.
In Miriam’s view, her teachers never explored the root causes of her problems.
She said: “If you are you are happy to explain anything that’s wrong at home to your school it makes life easier.
“Let’s say something happens at home. You come into school, and you are upset, and if you can let all that anger and upset out (with a support worker/teacher before the lessons) then you are happy to go in to learn you’ve got a good mindset and you are ready to get some education.
“But if you come in, there’s no one to talk to you, there’s no support, you go into a lesson [and] you’re not ready to learn.
“You’re still upset from what’s going on at home. Therefore, the child’s not going to be ready to learn. Not every child needs a mentor but some do need help to express what’s going on at home.”
Computer science teacher Kalpana Jegendirabose is also on a two-year placement on The Difference programme with Haringey Learning Partnership.
She says: “We have more opportunities [at the PRU] to have conversations with the children here and actually sit with them. Those things wouldn’t necessarily have happened in mainstream because the timetables are so strict – there isn’t any room for actually having those conversations.”
Miriam is now entering her first year preparing for GCSE’s and hopes to buck the trend of children failing after falling out of mainstream education. She’s now engaging more in lessons and has a love of history.
She responded to being excluded from school by raising £2,500 to open the first library in her pupil referral unit.
The opening this week was attended by local MP David Lammy and children’s author Michael Rosen.
It seems that Miriam’s exclusion was mainstream’s loss. How often is that the case?