Up until the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of children being excluded from primary school had been steadily rising (DfE, 2022). Now that schools are again operating as ‘normal’, those suspension figures have once again begun to rise (DfE, 2023). It also remains the case that certain children are disproportionately excluded, namely: boys; children with special educational needs; children eligible for free school meals; and children from certain ethnic backgrounds. For decades, research has linked exclusion use to misunderstandings of behaviour, dwindling school resources, and a culture of high-stakes accountability within the education quasi-market (Hayden, 1997; Murthy, 2021). While this research is useful, when examined through the lens of care, conversations surrounding primary school exclusion can provide a unique insight into this phenomenon.
The scholarship of Kathleen Lynch (2022) considers the impact that neoliberal capitalism is having on the time, capacity and potential for care in society. In doing so, Lynch contends that as metrics cannot measure care-led qualities due to their inherently relational nature, such qualities are not perceived as being of value, yet it is these decisions about what is valuable that dictate how time is used. My research draws upon these ideas and borrows from Held (2005, p. 10) in defining care as meeting the needs of those for whom we take responsibility.
‘Exclusion is being used as a tool to meet children’s needs and as a coping mechanism for mainstream schools operating in an education system that does not provide the time to appropriately care for children who sit outside of the neurotypical, middle-class “norm”.’
My research – produced through semi-structured interviews with 19 education professionals and five parents of children excluded from primary school – aimed to find out about how children are made vulnerable to exclusion from primary school and the purposes that exclusions serve for the school, teachers and the child. The findings show exclusion being used as a tool to meet children’s needs and as a coping mechanism for mainstream schools operating in an education system that does not provide the time to appropriately care for children who sit outside of the neurotypical, middle-class ‘norm’. One parent made this explicitly clear when explaining how her 4-year-old son was suspended multiple times in an attempt to encourage the local authority to approve his need for an education, health and care plan:
They deliberately put children – and the school definitely did that with my say-so – in situations where they know they will fail because there’s your evidence [for an education, health and care plan, which provides funded support] and that’s what they do with exclusions. (Parent)
Here we see the realities of an overwhelmed and under-resourced education system – a school using exclusion, illegally, as an attempt to secure additional support and funding for a child with special educational needs. Yet even after this additional support is obtained, children are not necessarily protected from exclusion. In part, this is due to the pressure schools are under to ‘perform’, a pressure that diverts time away from children who require that little bit more:
What I hear is, ‘I don’t wanna do this but…’ and what they [teachers] don’t say is, ‘I live in fear of exam results being negatively impacted if I allocate time to dealing with this child here instead of attending to the others’. (Chair of Governors)
As another participant made clear, it is the children who need the most care and the most time who are not afforded this basic human interaction – care is simply not valuable in an education system dominated by neoliberal values:
For the most vulnerable children you haven’t got the time you did have to give them what they need. Most of the time what they need is time; they need time protected with a member of staff who has time for them and cares. (Local authority Inclusion Officer)
So where do we go from here? Lynch contends that naming and acting with the specific intention to care is an act of resistance in and of itself. Recognising how performance pressures contribute to the erosion of care from the education system is the first step. Importantly, we must not blame individual schools and teachers, for this is a systemic problem.
Department for Education [DfE]. (2022). Permanent exclusions and suspensions in England 2020 to 2021. https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/permanent-and-fixed-period-exclusions-in-england/2020-21
Department for Education [DfE]. (2023). Permanent exclusions and suspensions in England 2021 to 2022. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/permanent-exclusions-and-suspensions-in-england-2021-to-2022
Hayden, C. (1997). Children excluded from primary school: Debates, evidence, responses. Open University Press.
Held, V. (2005). The ethics of care: Personal, political, and global. Oxford University Press
Lynch, K. (2022). Care and capitalism. Polity Press.
Murthy, R. (2021). How children make sense of their permanent exclusion: A thematic analysis from semi-structured interviews. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 27(1), 43–57. https://doi.org/10.1080/13632752.2021.2012962