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Timpson Review is largely welcome, but raises serious concerns

Tom Middlehurst, head of policy and public affairs, SSAT

Yesterday the DfE published the much-anticipated Timpson Review, looking at school exclusions and making 30 recommendations for changes to policy – which ministers have indicated that they will implement, ‘in principle’.

SSAT largely welcomes the review, written by the former education minister, which shines a light on the current situation and makes the case for some sensible practical actions. However, the report also raises a few alarm bells, particularly in relation to the link between exclusions and SEN, disadvantage and ethnicity. Moreover, there is a risk that merely putting more responsibility on schools, without seriously tackling the problems that lead to exclusion in the first place, will only acerbate the problem.

The good news is that the general trend is a decline in exclusions – a significant decline since the 1990s and a more moderate one since the current method of recording started in 2006. That schools are excluding less than they were ten years ago has to be welcome. However, since 2014, those rates have started to rise again – which is somewhat worrying (although they remain far below the rates of the mid-noughties). There are many possible reasons for this slight rise; though talking to headteachers and leaders across the network, they tell us that the changes to the curriculum and assessment systems, along with devasting cuts to support services such as CAHMS, social workers and teaching assistants, has created a perfect storm. Although it’s impossible to attribute the rising rates of exclusions to the new national curriculum and assessment arrangements, the rise does coincide with these changes.

SSAT has strongly advocated for an academic, knowledge-rich curriculum for all, but not at the expense of either the arts and vocational subjects nor of a personalised approach to curriculum design. Furthermore, our modelling has showed that, while the full complement of Ebacc subjects should be open to all, it should not be compulsory. Our members tell us that a push for 100% Ebacc entries has led to a narrowing of the curriculum, and therefore disengagement from some of the most vulnerable learners. The government should not ignore this possible link between curriculum narrowing and increased exclusions.

The government should not ignore the possible link between curriculum narrowing and increased exclusions…

Which is why we have some reservations over the proposal to make schools more accountable for excluded students’ results. In theory, this is a very good idea; but the implementation needs careful planning. It’s not yet clear what this will look like, though the consultation is likely to follow the recommendation in Nicky Morgan’s white paper in 2016, in which excluded students’ results would count in the mainstream schools’ performance data. We know that most schools around the country already take an active interest in the progress of excluded students in AP – but currently there is no ‘hard’ incentive to do so. Making mainstream schools and AP units jointly responsible is sensible. However, sloppy implementation of this – without taking in account the huge pressures that schools are already under – will be overly burdensome on the system and may lead to unintended consequences.

The paper proposes giving mainstream schools more control of the commissioning and funding processes of AP, which makes sense if they are held to account for these students’ progress. But as well as greater control, the government needs to understand and acknowledge the current pressures in the system, as well as the very high levels of specialist expertise in the best alternative provision.

Foremost is funding – every area of education is suffering real-term cuts: mainstream schools, SEN funding, AP funding and post-16 funding, especially. Schools should not be held accountable for any more outcomes than they currently are, until they, and AP, are funded sufficiently. It is grossly unfair to ask schools to do more, without first correcting the current funding gaps, and then providing sufficient funding for the increased demand. SSAT would strongly oppose this otherwise sensible policy if funding issues are not addressed first.

Schools should not be held accountable for any more outcomes than they currently are, until they, and AP, are funded sufficiently

Which brings up another point – we know from the work of campaigns such as WorthLess? And #SchoolCuts that cuts to the education budget are affecting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged students the most. We see a similar trend with exclusions. The review points out that boys, students with SEN, gypsy and Irish traveller students, black Caribbean students, and students on FSM are far more likely to be excluded than their peers. As a matter of social justice, this has to be wrong – we should not accept a society in which a child’s educational outcome is determined by their background.

However, schools can only do so much (and do do so much) to remove barriers to learning caused by other inequalities in society. Schools cannot, as HMCI Amanda Spielman has frequently said, correct all society’s ills. So, within the coming consultation and implementation of the review, there has to be transparency and acknowledgement of the challenges that schools are facing, and an assurance that schools with more disadvantaged, challenging cohorts are not unfairly affected.

We must also be careful of undermining the power of schools and academies to exclude as a last resort. We know that many schools simply don’t have the resources to provide support for many SEN students (again, as a result of the cuts), and so they are forced to make decisions they don’t always like. We also know that area-based solutions, such as managed moves, are effective in many authorities across the country – and so welcome the increased role for the local authority in the recommendations. But, ultimately, school leaders and governors must retain the right to exclude students when their behaviour is undermining the welfare, safety or long-term learning of other students and staff. This right should not be forgotten as a greater focus is given to exclusion rates.

The Timpson Review is largely welcome; it is useful to shine a light on the issue and to provide greater clarity for schools; and it’s right and proper that the most vulnerable students are prioritised through policy levers. However, the ongoing impact of austerity cuts across the public sector has created this situation – and schools must neither be blamed nor held accountable for the long-term failings of government.

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