England’s exclusion epidemic

In July 2017, the Children’s Commissioner published  Vulnerability in Children  – a report that brought together a range of information from government departments, agencies and others to reveal “shocking statistics” about how many children currently  live in vulnerable situations; an estimated half a million, or a number equivalent to the entire population of  Manchester.

Falling through the Gaps, published in November, builds on the July report to focus exclusively on children excluded from school. The report covers not only those formally excluded from mainstream education but also a much larger number of  ‘invisible’ children; those that can’t be found or even seen in official statistics. Home-schooling and ‘off-rolling’ are prioritised as subjects for further, more detailed work.

There are six key findings:

  1. Tens of thousands of children are educated outside mainstream or special school, many effectively ‘hidden away’ in settings where little is known about how well their needs are met. 10,000 children are dual registered in Alternative Provision (AP) and a further 38,000 single registered. Only 16,000 of these pupils are enrolled in state-funded, DfE registered provision. To date, Ofsted has identified 300 establishments operating illegally as unregistered schools, but the true number of them is unknown. It is impossible to assess the quality of a child’s education, wellbeing or safety in such provision.                                                                                                                                         Over 50,000 children could be home educated but again the true number is unknown and likely to be higher with some figures suggesting the total figure has doubled since 2011-12.  The reasons for home education vary. Whilst philosophical reasons remain a major factor, anecdotal evidence suggests that a growing number could reflect pressure being asserted by the child’s former school or cases where the child has additional needs that the parents believe are not being met. Since parents who home educate are not obliged to allow the LA to carry out an inspection, again, little if anything is known about the quality of the education, safeguarding arrangements and the values that are instilled.
  2. Many of these children are vulnerable and in need of extra help. Children with SEND account for half of all permanent exclusions despite representing only 14% of the school population. Over ¾ of children in PRUs have SEND. 1 in 10 has a SEND statement or EHC (Education, Care and Health) plan. A high proportion of these pupils may be in AP because it is easier to place them there, rather than because that is the setting which provides the best support for their needs.
  3. Official exclusions are rising, but many children are also being excluded by the back door through ‘hidden’ or unofficial exclusions. The number of children who leave mainstream schools for other types of provision is significantly higher than the number permanently excluded (which has risen by 44% since 2012/13). Only 1 in 5 children in AP has previously been permanently excluded. Pupils commonly undergo a managed move to an AP and then complete their education there. These pupils are effectively permanently excluded without having gone through the legal process that is designed to protect their rights.
  4. In some cases, children could be moved out of mainstream schools for reasons that are more in the school’s interests than the child’s. Most of the children who move into AP do so in Year 10 or 11, and only 1% go on to achieve 5+ A*-C including English and Maths (2015-16). Over a third of pupils who were in AP at the end of KS4 in 2016/17 were recorded NEET, compared with 1 in 20 mainstream pupils. Nine out of ten mainstream schools are benefitting from these pupils leaving, in the sense that their performance data is improved. Analysis by school type has shown that this effect is strongest for sponsor academies.
  5. Some children, including highly vulnerable ones, are not in education at all. Between 10,000 and 15,000 children are estimated to miss education at one point in time.
  6. In many cases, existing statistics ae unable to tell the full story. There are no official figures on the extent of unofficial and illegal exclusions, for example, being sent home to ‘cool off’. Only surveys, which could severely underestimate the scale of the issue.

The report concludes with a reminder that missing out on a good education is bad for a child’s development and life chances. We know that for many children, exclusion is one step along a journey that ends with adult social exclusion and troubled lives. The long term financial costs of allowing children to get to the point of exclusion as well as the social costs are huge. England’s exclusion epidemic needs to find a cure, and quickly.

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How & why we must meet the attachment needs of adolescents in school.


Many studies confirm that secure attachment, the foundation of socioemotional wellbeing, is associated with higher grades and standardised scores compared to insecure attachment. Secure attachment is also associated with greater emotional regulation, social skills and willingness to accept challenges. (e.g. Bergin & Bergin, 2009) Because these effects tend to be greater for high-risk pupils, any closing the gaps strategy must include enhanced teacher-pupil relationships – or school bonding (See How, below) – as a critical component. When this focus is missing, it is high risk pupils who have the most to lose.

This applies across all phases of compulsory education. Whilst attachment needs are easy to observe and understand in young children, for example toddlers visibly distressed by the departure of an attachment figure (AF), adolescent insecurity of this kind is much more likely to be dismissed as simple non-compliance, or attibuted to raging hormones. (How many issues might that one mask?) For this reason, the underlying need – very evident in the toddler and understood by practitioners who endeavour to create security – is missed. Subsequently, none of the appropriate support is provided, but rather punishment.

Blurring the issue further is the widely known fact that the work of adolescence is to achieve autonomy  – so surely teenagers need AFs less. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth – self-reliance and independence stem from feelings of security; the availablity of an AF, physically present, open to communication, responsive to needs. Indeed, confidence in the availability of AFs has been described as the bedrock of healthy adolescent personality. (Bretherton, 1999)

It is estimated that between a third and half of children lack such a bedrock, to a greater or lesser extent, so attachment difficulties are common in the classroom. This is of course where relationships with warm, sensitive, respectful teachers become a potential game-changer. In one study, adolescents who reported attachment-like relationships with their teachers were less likely to use drugs and alcohol, engage in violence, attempt suicide, or become sexually active at an early age. (Resnick et al, 1997) Teachers can and do function as surrogate AFs.

The problem is that most of the time they don’t attach to those pupils most in need of this support – because unfortunately the behaviour of insecure teenagers elicits responses in teachers that make it difficult to attach to them. Research suggests that teachers tend to interact with insecure pupils in a contolling manner, using many directives, in contrast with interactions with the securely attached, which are characterised by greater warmth, respect, an expectation of compliance and higher expectations.

Clearly, therefore, an evidence-based strategic effort is required if we are within our schools to deliberately disconfirm the internal working model of insecure pupils – that adults are hostile, rejecting or unresponsive. It is vital work that can’t be left to chance, because the chances are, it won’t happen, and insecurely attached pupils will continue to populate our isolation rooms, or make up the ranks in our PRUs, firmly entrenching their disadvantage.

To be sure, meeting attachment needs presents greater challenges in the secondary setting. There’s a sense in which “secondary schools are not designed for belongingness.” Bergin & Bergin et al (1993) found that teacher-pupil relationships were less personal and positive in Y7 compared with Y6. Secondary teachers saw pupils as less trustworthy, compared with their primary counterparts just a year earlier, and pupils rated their teachers as less friendly. Of course, relationships take longer to etablish in secondary school, because pupils encounter many more teachers and this itself creates a degree of insecurity. Another problem is the notion, again confirmed by reasearch, that with age, school connectedness erodes.

This is not inevitable, however – international comparisons demonstrate that negativity about school and adolescence need not go hand in hand. Whether pupils bond to their secondary school  – and experience enhanced wellbeing as a direct result of that – depends to a large extent on the success of leaders in creating opportunities for meeting attachment needs; in putting relationship-building front and centre.


School bonding refers to a sense of belonging in school and having a network of relationships with peers and teachers. It can make pupils feel secure and valued, like attachment, which can in turn liberate them to take on academic and social challenges. A pupil bonded to school has a sense that ‘people like me’ whereas one who is not will feel lonely, outcast and alienated.

In secondary schools, we know that how pupils feel about their school is largely determined by the quality of the relationship they have with their teachers in specific classes. (Osterman, 2000) If pupils perceive their teachers are supportive and caring, they have greater engagement in school, which is related of course to achievement.

Teachers need to learn how to engage constructively with insecurely attached, floundering adolescents. It’s a huge challenge not to act in ways that confirm internal working models, but there can be fewer greater rewards than making a difference of such life-changing potential. In this, the work of the educator involves:

  • understanding child development and through this responding sensitively and non-judgementally to behaviours
  • providing choice whereever possible
  • avoiding coercive discipline: adolescents are more likely to feel school bonding if their school does not have harsh a discipline policy, such as classroom removal for relatively minor infractions (McNeeley, 2002) Effective discipline is best achieved by keeping the tone positive and respectful and by using the least possible power
  • helping pupils become more pro-social by providing them with opportunities to help each other. Noticing and praising their kindness
  • intervening to repair specific, difficult relationships – e.g. for 5-15 minutes a day, a teacher or TA giving a pupil undivided attention, following the lead in whatever activity the has been chosen, conveying acceptance, interest and safety

Participation in extra-curricular activities is another important feature of school bonding. Secondary school pupils feel more connected when there is a high rate of participation in such activities, in addition to a positive classroom climate. Mahoney and Carins found that the least competent pupils benefitted the most, even though their involvement was often just in a single activity.

Pupils are more likely to feel bonded to small schools. In one study, the optimal size was about 300. Larger secondaries should endeavour to mimic the positive effects of smaller schools by creating ‘school within a school’ structures, such as House systems, teams etc.

Attachment takes time to develop and requires that pupils and teachers stay together long enough to form relationships. This might not happen until the end of an academic year, when relationships are typically disrupted. Relationship continuity should be planned for vulnerable pupils, as much as possible. They need to feel safe in their relationships with teachers they know and trust – able to admit confusion, errors, even a dislike of the subject matter. (Of course, teachers are more attracted to pupils who share their passion for a topic, but all pupils, even those with interests different from the teacher’s, must be valued and cared for.) Key-worker and mentoring schemes are also helpful, with one atuned, available adult offering unconditional positive regard enough to provide that all-important safe base.

These few recommendations are low cost because they simply require improved relationships with children, rather than new curriculum or infrastructure. Furthermore, wellbeing is linked to achievement and wellbeing is enhanced through secure pupil-teacher relationships. So this is about standards too, soft and fluffy as it may sound. With the benefits most marked within high-risk groups, currently falling further behind their more advantaged peers, it is beyond time we focussed properly on this crucial work, beginning by reviewing our traditional behaviour policies.

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Three reasons why every school should support No Pens Day

In his government commissioned review of services for young people with communication difficulties, John Bercow made a powerful case for early intervention by highlighting the “multiple risks” that children face when their communication needs are not met. These include “lower educational attainment, behaviour problems, emotional and psychological difficulties, poorer employment prospects, challenges to mental health and, in some cases, a descent into criminality.” (Bercow, 2008:7)

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That review was written a decade ago and I Can, the children’s communication charity, is undertaking a review of progress, ten years on. We await the outcome of this. However, when current educational discourse is such that an awareness-raising campaign – No Pens Day  – causes ‘rage’ amongst influential EduTweeters, it is probably advisable to manage expectations around the impact of Bercow. For at least three reasons, this is little short of tragic.

Reason one: communication difficulties are often never identified

Many children and young people do not receive support for their language and communication needs for the simple reason that their difficulties are never identified – or they are identified too late. Unless there are articulation problems affecting speech, language impairment can be a hidden difficulty: we can understand what pupils say to us and we assume that they in turn can understand what we say to them. It is not surprising, therefore, that problems around identification have been identified as a key issue in the SLCN (Speech, Language and Communication Needs) field.

A key study was undertaken by Conti-Ramsden and Botting in 1999. The researchers found that of an estimated 5% of Year 2 children with language deficits, only 1% were identified on special needs registers. The 4% who did not have their primary learning needs met at this early stage in their education were evidently often referred to support services for other reasons, such as slow educational progress, poor reading comprehension or challenging behaviour. (e.g. Beitchman, 1985). Individual Education Plans therefore focused on these secondary effects rather than on underlying language problems. More recent research would suggest that the situation has improved little, if at all. According to Bercow, identification of language impairment remains, “grossly inadequate”, (Bercow, 2008: 18) with many young people never receiving support for their difficulties.

Misconceptions are, it seems, rife. Beitchman et al. (1999) suggest that language impairment is often misinterpreted as non-compliance with practitioners failing to appreciate the difference between poor receptive language and inability to comprehend instructions.  Vallance et al. (1999) report that around 50% of children receiving services for a range of adjustment disorders actually display language impairments when specifically tested. In an investigation of a special unit for children with BESD, Burgess and Bransby found that 16 out of 17 had communication difficulties for which speech and language therapy was recommended. 11 of these were described as having severe difficulties, but they did not have the obvious problems with speech that would have alerted professionals to their needs at an earlier stage.

Reason two: unmet communication needs lead to social exclusion

Communication, at first non-verbal but later verbal, is of prime importance in establishing social relationships. When children are unable to participate in satisfying interactions, their opportunities to form positive relationships are reduced. Studies of language impaired young children have found that problems begin early and may even be evident in pre-school settings: Hadley and Rice found that “Preschoolers behave as if they know who talks well and who does not and they prefer to interact with those who do.” (1991: 342). Consequently, language impaired children have fewer opportunities to practice their skills and fall further behind peers.

This is confirmed by many studies showing that they are, for example, less adaptive to the feelings and needs of their listeners (Bergman, 1987), less able to be tactful (Bliss, 1992), less able to interpret social clues (Schumaker and Hazel, 1984) and more limited in their ability to negotiate (Gallagher, 1993). This lack of social skill may lead ultimately to social rejection. Benner et al (2002) summarise the research evidence by maintaining that “language impairments appear to have a devastating effect on interpersonal relationships. (Benner, 2002: 44).


Social problems persist and even intensify into adolescence where the verbal environment becomes more challenging. Quick-fire interactions and jokes, adolescent slang, idiomatic language and puns which depend on understanding ambiguity become increasingly important in defining group membership. (e.g. Whitmore, 2000). Given the central importance of the peer group in developmental terms – adolescents need ‘cliques’ (Dunphy, 1963) as sources of psychological support while striving for autonomy from their parents – failure to succeed in this environment has serious implications. Longitudinal studies have shown a significant correlation between how well children and adolescents get on with their peers and mental health in later life. (Kimmel and Kimmel, 1995).

Reason three: language deficit feeds the school to exclusion to prison pipeline 

Gallagher emphasises the key role of language in his description of ‘executive control’:

Children’s language comprehension and expressive skills are critical to their understanding, encoding, organization, and retrieval of rules that enable them to effect appropriate levels of self-control and emotional self regulation.  Language skills facilitate executive control …. by providing a means for self reflection, verbal mediation, response inhibition, and behavioural direction.

(Gallagher, 1999:5)

This is often referred to in the field as ‘self-talk’ or ‘private, internal speech’; that is, “Speech uttered aloud by children that is addressed to the self or no-one in particular.” (Berk and Potts, 1991) Children with impaired language development are often described as impulsive and unable to follow social rules because they lack these verbal strategies needed to control behaviour.

For normally developing young children, language becomes a substitute for action as they begin to understand what is said to them and to express their needs verbally. However, as Gallagher (1999) found, language impaired children are more likely to use direct physical action to express needs and in this way a strong association between anti-social behaviour and language deficit develops.

Behaviour can become more challenging in the secondary phase if there is no intervention for students with communication difficulties. Benner (2002) cites several longitudinal studies that suggest the strength of the relationship between language impairment and anti-social behaviour increases over time. (e.g. Baker and Cantwell, 1980, 1987). Whitmore (2000) characterises transition from primary to secondary school as a move away from the “student centred” environment to a “subject centred” one. The increased social challenge outlined above is therefore mirrored by an academic one with an explosion of new terminology, much of it abstract, and greatly increased listening demands: Richards (1978) and Benner (2008) claim that secondary school students are expected to learn through listening 90% of the time. Ehren (1994) produced a comprehensive list of the ways in which this suddenly increased academic (and social) challenge can affect the language impaired learner. Difficulties include not following instructions; asking irrelevant questions; not participating in class discussions; relating poorly to authority figures; getting along poorly with peers and interacting in an irrelevant way in conversations with both peers and adults. (Ehren, 1994: 398).

All of these behaviours, and many more identified by Ehren, have the effect of alienating the language impaired pupil and it is not surprising that so many become withdrawn or show anger and frustration. According to Benner et al (2002), a range of studies suggest that those with expressive language difficulties are more prone to the former whilst receptive language difficulties tend to be acted out: Cohen, Davine, Horodezsky and Isaacson (1993), for example, found that children with undetected receptive language deficits were rated as the most aggressive by teachers.  Heneker (2005) found that of 11 students in a pupil referral unit (PRU), 91% had some difficulties with receptive langauge.

As Ripley et al. (2001) note, the national agenda on the prevention of exclusions must surely address the issue of unmet communication needs with a plethora of studies stemming back to the 1980s now clearly identifying this as a high risk group.

“The most effective way to reduce or prevent offending is to provide the right level of support at the time it is needed.”

(Dr. B. Lockhart, OBE, cited in Youth Justice Agency Conference Report, 2009: 5)

According to Youth Justice Agency statistics, over 60% of young people in the criminal justice system have language difficulties. Exacerbating this problem is the fact, highlighted in the YJA report just cited, that current offender treatment programmes are language-based and therefore inaccessible to the majority of young offenders. These young people are subsequently more likely to reoffend than those without language deficits. (e.g. Davis et al: 2004).

Clearly, there is an urgent need for greater awareness and intervention in this area, starting in our schools; the human and social cost of failing to provide people with the help they need in order to participate positively in the world around them is too great to ignore. Describing communication as “the missing link in the social exclusion chain”, Beardshaw and and Hosford (2009:3) outline a dismal and well-trodden path:

This is a challenge that many young people are facing today. They don’t have the language to express themselves, solve problems, support each other, or learn. Without this ‘map’, children are more likely to follow a well-trodden pathway of acronyms; from ASBO to NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) and from PRU (Pupil Referral Unit), to HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) via the YOI (Young Offenders’ Institution). As in the classroom, language is the conduit for interventions, support and help in these institutions. It is estimated that 60-90% of vulnerable young people have communication difficulties. How can these young people progress without language skills?

For too long, Bercow concluded, policy makers and educators have neglected the needs of those who find communication difficult, focusing on other elements of the child development agenda:

It is time to call a halt to the sequence of low priority, neglect and poor performance. People with SLCN (speech, language and communication needs) don’t want to be kept waiting, left floundering and forced to struggle. They don’t want sympathy. They want empathy, understanding and action.

(Bercow, 2008: 67)

Recent research confirms that between 40% and 56% of socially disadvantaged children begin school with language delay, so this lack of empathy, understanding and action only entrenches disadvantage and widens the gap: ‘Matthew effects’ ensure that the language rich children get richer, and the poor poorer, with all that means in terms of compromised outcomes for the poorer group. Clearly, identifying communication needs and helping children develop good communication skills is an urgent social justice issue. That is why we have campaigns like No Pens Day and that is why every school should support them.


Helping vulnerable pupils cope with managed moves, or other transitions

Most Local Authorities have Fair Access panels or similar collaborative arrangements through which troubled and troubling pupils are afforded the opportunity of a ‘fresh start’ when things are going badly in their current school. Some may be referred to the LA’s PRU through this process whilst others will transfer to neighbouring schools. Parents and pupil will have consented prior to the panel meeting since a managed move cannot legally be imposed.

Through such collaboration, the damaging experience of a permanent exclusion can be avoided and, for this reason, we are promoting the practice in Lincolnshire. However, in Lincolnshire, as elsewhere, we need to be acutely aware of the risks and I’m posting this as a way of thinking these through whilst also sharing some expert advice, from the excellent Louise Bomber, on how to support transition. She reminds us that change is highly anxiety-provoking for our most vulnerable pupils. We really need to know what we’re doing when we move them between settings.


Any new situation involves the loss of the old, known one. Memories are particularly likely to be reawakened by sudden or extreme changes. The more unstructured and strange a new situation, the further we are removed from what is familiar physically, mentally or emotionally, the more disoriented and terrified we tend to feel. (Wittenberg, 1997)

Clearly, transition can be difficult for anyone at any age since change involves loss and the need to confront uncertainty. Even children with ‘good enough’ backgrounds will experience anxiety at the prospect. For those who have experienced relational trauma, the loss inherent in transition can trigger very powerful feelings. Without careful support, those with autistic difficulties will also struggle with transition, though for different underlying reasons. It’s helpful to note that Bomber’s strategies, all aimed at significantly reducing anxiety, will support both groups and indeed any vulnerable pupil who is facing the challenge of moving on.

Exposure to too much stress or a particular individual’s intolerance to such stress may either lead him to be totally unable to cope with the new situation, or drive him to adopt defensive measures that do not allow him to make full use of his potential … There will always be individuals so vulnerable that any change may result in disintegration, or at least a serious setback. (Wittenberg, 1999)

Vulnerable children benefit from consistency. However, for all kinds of valid reasons, it is not always possible to provide this. The strategies below constitute an investment in wellbeing and available resources within both settings should be deployed to enhance this, so that transition is successful and vulnerable children are not caught up in damaging rounds of pass the parcel.

Lack of certainty in school will, however, have undermined their progress, leaving them less able to make relationships with teachers or to trust in their guidance. Mistrust then acts as a barrier to the enjoyment of school and educational success. (Peake, 2006 in Golding et al, 2006)


1. Communicate

Bomber’s advice is to say it as it is. Pupils need us to be upfront and honest. What is going to happen? Inform the pupil briefly and explicitly in a factual way, rather than adding personal thoughts or judgements. Sensitively check back understanding, remembering that vulnerable pupils may experience rejection very deeply.

2. Remember

Allow opportunity to reflect on what happened during the pupil’s time at this school – the successes and the failures. A memory book might be helpful.

3. Prepare

Give as much information about the imminent change as possible, to prepare the pupil for the move. Careful preparation will reduce anxiety and help keep behaviours more regulated and appropriate. Preparations could include:

  • creating a visual timeline/countdown to the move
  • researching the new school and area
  • transition visit(s) with a familiar adult (suggested activities in APPENDIX)
  • making a book about the new school (suggested content in APPENDIX)
  • preparing the new class or form for arrival. What could the teacher and pupils do to welcome and help feel included?

4. The exit interview

Time needs to be made for some important questions to be asked. Maybe we didn’t always make the wisest decisions as a school and maybe we too can learn from experiences we have shared with this pupil. For Bomber, the exit interview is essential. It will not only communicate to the pupil that their voice is valued, but it might also increase our understanding. New learning can then inform practice with future vulnerable pupils.

Done well, the process will reinforce the message that the pupil is a combination of parts and is not ‘all bad’ (using the language of parts is a key theme in Bomber’s work) We do after all have a duty of care for our pupils’ mental health, and how they leave school.

a) What did we do that helped you to settle to learn?

b) What do you now do differently, as a result of being at our school?

c) What did we do that interfered with your ability to settle and learn here?

d) What should we get better at?

e) What would you like us to understand about pupils who struggle in school?

It is only when we truly listen that we become acutely aware of the misinterpretations and mistranslation that inevitably goes on within schools, and the need for us to adapt our practice.


5. Induction

The time invested in the pupil’s welcome will be well spent. The class needs to be prepared and ready to welcome with a full time-table implemented over time, not all at once.  The pupil will be especially vulnerable at first and will benefit from being paired up with good role models who will be aware of their role in helping the new pupil feel comfortable. At the same time, it’s also wise to be ready for the end of a ‘honeymoon period’ as difficulties usually arise when pupils feel more settled. Monitor closely and be ready to increase support sooner rather than later – as a preventive measure. If the school is able to provide solutions-focused support, now would be the time for this.

6. Follow-up

The previous school needs to continue contact with the pupil in person and/or through notes or cards. It’s important that pupils experience staggered endings – especially with their key adult. Like all of us, vulnerable pupils need to process endings and feelings of rejection and despair will quickly overwhelm if not managed through planned, staggered endings. Imagine how helpful it would be for a pupil who may be full of shame to know that someone chooses to remain in contact, despite not being paid to do so. This after-care experience could prove life-changing for some, in terms of how they view themselves.

In summary

None of this is standard practice. (Correct me if I’m wrong) However, it’s vital for those pupils whose life experience places them at risk of experiencing feelings of profound rejection. The consequences of this can be toxic – for the pupils themselves and their wider communities. Despair and isolation can lead to devastating effects, such as the numbing of pain through drug-taking, binge drinking, risk taking and other compulsive addictive behaviours. We must strive to avoid these outcomes, by doing things properly, managing transitions sensitively, creating for our pupils a sense of belonging and thereby avoiding the dangerous game of pass the parcel with our most vulnerable children.


A Memory book could include

  • photos of significant people in school
  • photos of significant places in school
  • comments written by staff
  • evidence of successes – pieces of work/photos/written entries
  • a list of areas of improvement
  • a list of areas still to be worked on
  • names of favourite books/activities/tasks
  • log of best memories
  • time line (include the future on this so they can start to think about it)

Visits to new school can include

  • following a map to the new school
  • meeting key staff
  • having lunch together
  • attending a club
  • interviewing a pupil at the new school
  • taking photos
  • looking at a school map
  • going through the school diary to prepare for organising themselves
































Punished for being born with a difficulty, common practice

The latest annual DfE statistical release on exclusions, which reported an increase for the second consecutive year, divided opinion. Whilst many were alarmed by the rise from 5,795 permanent exclusions in 2014/15 to 6,685 in 2015/16, others felt that, at thirty-five pupils a day, there should be no real cause for concern. “Equivalent to a third of a pupil per school annually. Not really that shocking,” observed executive director of Teach First, Sam Freedman. Without exclusion “system freezes” reassured DfE behaviour tzar, Tom Bennett.

As you were then.

Unless, that is, your thing is equality of opportunity for pupils with special needs. Jarlath O-Brien, special school headteacher and author of ‘Don’t Send Him In Tomorrow’  reminds us in this piece for the Guardian that the system is failing children with special needs – freezing them out, if you like. Year on year, SEN pupils are permanently excluded at seven times the rate of their peers, substantially deepening the disadvantage they were born with.

The inarguable point about institutional discrimination is made every year. To no avail. From policy makers to commentators, the complacency around SEND outcomes refuses to be shaken. It’s as steadfast as that around exclusion itself. (A vanishingly rare practice on the continent, by the way). It seems we should expect to see pupils with SEND over-represented in the data because, when their difficulties impact on behaviour, well then they are obviously going to be exclusion-prone.

Let’s just forget about the principle of reasonable adjustment and discount completely the 2010 Equality Act then, shall we?

If you watched Channel 4’s affecting Excluded at Seven last week, you will have shared my utter dismay that children should be punished for their difficulties. An exclusion is a punishment, let’s remember. It’s not an intervention. What is happening in our schools that children with neuro-developmental difficulties such as ADHD and autism should be punished for these, with the biggest, most devastating sanction in the arsenal? If behavioural difficulties are such that mainstream school isn’t the right place,  then surely there’s a process – a statutory assessment process – not a casting out.

So I cannot be relaxed about the fact that children with special needs are permanently excluded, ostracised, at a rate seven times higher than the convenient majority.

And, actually, I can’t be sanguine about the overall rate of thirty-five pupils a day either. Partly because outcomes, both emotional and academic, are appalling for excluded pupils and I still believe that every child matters. But more because the official exclusion figures are actually just the tip of the iceberg.

The Labour government of the 90s rightly framed exclusion as a social justice issue and the subsequent focus on reducing them brought the official number down from 12,300 in 1997/98 to 5,740 in 2009/10. A quite extraordinary achievement. Except that during the same period, the number of pupils being educated in Pupil Referral Units actually doubled.

To this day, the DfE collects no data on the reasons why pupils are sent to PRUs, or the number of pupils on part-time timetables. We cannot know how many poor quality pupils are asked to leave or otherwise managed out of what is after all now an educational marketplace. The practice in some LAs of rescinding exclusions once a pupil has been removed from roll also muddies the waters.

We cannot know the real scale of the problem, then. (Those of us who see this as a problem.) What we do know is that alternative provision is education’s growth industry. Reform that seriously aims to close the gap, or even ‘diminish the difference’, would surely seek to reverse this trend towards exclusivity and segregation as a first priority. For as long as influencers and decision makers are complacent on the exclusions issue, though; for as long as the rising numbers are dismissed, nothing will change for those disadvantaged children that today’s system is patently failing.



Look for the helpers (an assembly) #Manchester #WeStandTogether


I was still working in a high school at the time of the 2015 Paris attacks. I wrote an assembly and shared it on Twitter. A number of people found it helpful so I’ve adapted it to apply to Manchester. With the two events horribly similar, this wasn’t difficult. The assembly begins with a personal anecdote, but anyone who is a parent or simply knows a child will be able to substitute their own. Children are fearful and I think as teachers we have a duty to give them a sense of perspective, as well as to protect those who might be vulnerable within our school communities, in the febrile aftermath of an atrocity.


It dawned on me just how terrifying the world can seem to the young when I was travelling on a train to York with my 11 year old daughter. She was unusually quiet, eyeing our fellow passengers when normally she’d be busily Minecrafting. Finally she blurted, “How do we know there’s not a bomb on the train?” I asked her to explain. “Well nobody checked our bags before we got on – like they do in airports. So there could be a bomb on this train.”

A quick smartphone search and I was able to advise her that the odds of us dying in a terrorist attack on the 10.15 from Newark to York were approximately 9.3 million to one. For some context, and because she loves dogs, I reassured her that our chances of dying from a dog bite were greater, around one in 700,000 poor souls suffering this fate.

Unfortunately, these impressive facts didn’t do the trick. Josie remained a coiled spring and was on the platform at York before I was even out of my seat. This saddened me – I don’t want any of my children or indeed any of you to be irrationally frightened of the world, or worried about something so thrilling as travel. It was therefore a relief to find online some better advice than mine, from an expert in childhood called Fred Rogers. Remembering his own fears as a boy, he wrote these words.

Events have moved on since then and, like all of you, Josie has watched the news in horror these last couple of weeks. She knows all about the Manchester bombing; the twenty two victims, most of them very young; the injured, the bereaved, the suddenly motherless. But she also knows about the helpers.

The helpers are the subject of this assembly.

This is Paula Robinson

She helped dozens of terrified children to safety after the attack. She hadn’t been at the concert, but was walking past with her husband when suddenly terrified and screaming children poured out of the arena. Paula gathered a crowd of around fifty of them and led them to safety at a nearby Premier Inn. She then shared her number on social media to let worried parents know that their daughters were safe.

Stephen Jones is homeless and was sleeping rough nearby when he heard the blast.

“First there was a bang,” he said. “I thought it was some kind of firework, and then there was a big explosion. I just felt the wind force, and then everyone started screaming and running. Me and my mate we got up and we started running. We realized what had happened, we run back, and all the women and children were coming out with blood.”

Explaining why he ran straight into the danger-zone, not knowing whether there would be a second explosion, Stephen said, “It was children, a lot of children with blood all over them, crying and screaming. If I didn’t help, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself for walking away.”

As news of the attack spread, and train stations were closed, locals began offering spare rooms on social media under the hashtag #RoomforManchester. Rebecca Topham tweeted: “I have a sofa, floor, blankets and tea 5 minutes from the arena for anyone in need.” Hundreds of others offered spare beds, settees, phone charging points, food, and lifts home.

Elsewhere, cafes provided free drinks for the emergency services with people taking tea to police at the cordon. Members of the public arrived at the stadium where victims were taken to wait for family members, offering food supplies.

Taxi drivers in the city centre turned off their meters and offered free rides to help victims get home.

Next morning, queues formed outside of blood donation centres in Manchester after the NHS put out an emergency call for new supplies. Give Blood NHS was eventually forced to shut down registration because it had been so overwhelmed by donors that it filled its banks to capacity.

That evening, thousands of people from every part of Manchester packed Albert Square to remember the victims and send a message of defiance. The square was as full as the eye could see as masses turned out to show their solidarity.

There was a huge outbreak of applause as the great and good on the steps of the town hall were joined by youngsters from different community and faith groups and the Lord Mayor of Manchester said the thoughts of the whole city were with those affected. By Friday, a fundraising campaign was generating donations for victims through the hashtag #muslimsformanchester and a walk for peace through the city was organised by Jamia Mosque.

This show of unity is as far from the outcome that Isis terrorists would have been seeking as it is possible to get. That’s why it was so very important. Those murderous bandits despise our modern, multi-racial communities.They want Muslim people to feel loathed in their European homes and driven to join them in Syria. They want them to feel that they have only one true home – within so-called ‘Islamic state’. They want our western countries to become fearful, closed, authoritarian societies. They want us to divide and become weaker, less tolerant, less together – they want us more like them.

Every individual who does something to ensure they fail to achieve this evil aim is a helper. Manchester has reminded us that we are a great country of helpers.

There are a small number of haters too, though. People who give the terrorists exactly what they want. Manchester police report that there has been a doubling of Islamophobic hate crimes in the city since the bombing. Whilst social media was dominated by helpers, haters also used it as a platform for their lazy and toxic prejudice.

Nobody works harder to challenge hate than Brendan Cox, because he knows where it can end. His wife Jo was murdered in the street by a white supremacist, about this time last year. An MP, Jo campaigned for racial tolerance and used her maiden speech in parliament to celebrate all that the UK has gained from its racial diversity. She said, ‘We have far more in common with each other than that which divides us.’  It was for this belief that she was fatally stabbed on her walk to work by a cowardly, far-right thug.

In a series of tweets after the Manchester bombing, her widdower, Brendan, stressed the importance of unity. He wrote, “The pain these attacks inflict is profound & real, it lasts long after the headlines have moved on. But the cause they seek to advance is going to fail. They try to divide us. But we will not divide. We will pull together & live our lives. Britain will respond as it always does under attack: with love for the bereaved, unity & resolve. They will not change us. They will not win.”  He added, “People who use this to push hatred are doing exactly what the terrorists want. Division & hate make us weak, unity & resolve make us strong.”

If anyone has the right to respond to an atrocity with anger, to lash out in rage, it is surely the bereaved. Yet consistently we find that the most eloquent voices for reason, inclusion and love belong to those who grieve the loss of loved ones. These are voices that must be heard by us all with the deepest, most humble respect.

This assembly finishes with some of the most haunting, heartbreaking, brave and beautiful words that I think a human being ever spoke. The love of Antoine’s life was killed in the 2015 Isis attacks on Paris. Like the young people of Manchester, she was at a gig. Somehow, only days later and in the shock of grief, Antoine was able to say this:

Pupil mobility, the widening gap and misplaced faith in Hirsch 

The first few days of a new job are always testing. Your colleagues are actually strangers so you feel an outsider and under scrutiny. You don’t know your way around or where anything is. People keep telling you stuff but there’s very little you’re actually absorbing  just yet. The things people really do need to tell you they assume you know already. You keep getting names wrong and you’re mortifyingly prone to asking daft questions.

It’s a tricky time and you may well be having to break the mid-week drinking rule more often than is healthy just to cope. However, experience tells you that this will pass and in truth it’s not long at all before your equilibrium is restored and you’re feeling like part of the furniture again.

Contrast that narrative with the one written by a child who arrives at a new school with no expectation of ever feeling the sense of belonging that is essential to wellbeing because that simply hasn’t been the story so far. According to data published by the DfES in On the Move, the largest group of pupils who change school mid year are ‘informal’ excludees. The poor social and emotional skills which led to exclusion, exacerbated now by hightened anxiety, make this group of pupils extremely vulnerable and it takes a very special school, a genuinely inclusive one, to break the cycle of negativity and failure.

There are some schools that consistently succeed where others fail, of course. Extraordinary places, often unsung heros of the sector, where needs are met and pupils loved in all of their diversity. Maybe, just maybe, Ofsted will now begin to recognise the contribution such schools make to the public good through its focus on ‘off-rolling,’ flagged in the most recent update for inspectors.

There are many schools that don’t manage to transform fortunes, however, and all too often, the next transition is to PRU, via lawful exclusion this time, or onto another new setting.

When the ‘fresh start’ fails, unrealistic expectations can be part of the problem – a pupil expected to find the inner resources to maximise the advantages of a new beginning without adequate support to change established patterns of behaviour. Or a pupil expected to be on best behaviour through some notional honeymoon period when in fact high levels of stress, often masked by bravado, are driving survival behaviours. The transfer of information can be poor too, so the new school may have no understanding of what reasonable adjustments need to be made – even when the principle of reasonable adjustment is fully understood. Consequences are then applied, as per the policy, and another move precipitated.

School hopping is of course strongly associated with disadvantage. Over 60% of pupils who change schools mid year are eligible for pupil premium or have SEND. The scale of this problem rarely catches the headlines, but it is enormous. For every ten pupils who start secondary school in England, six will change schools. According to this report, which cites the National Pupil Database, that’s a staggering 300,000 pupils a year. These pupils perform worse than expected with outcomes further compromised by every move. Indeed, when there have been two secondary school transitions, the scale of under-achievement is roughly equivalent to that of children in the care system.

We will never close the gap, or even diminish the difference, until the policy context actively serves to strengthen schools as inclusive communities. A knowledge-rich curriculum, a robust testing regime underpinning it, the most dilerious of academy freedoms – none of these things will do anything to break the cycle of deprivation until the DfE develops some policy around every child mattering again. During the period that Nick Gibb has been urging us to embrace the transformative power of a knowledge-rich curriculum, most recently in Empowering Teachers to Deliver Equity, the achievement gap between rich and poor pupils, already a chasm in the UK, has widened.

It would be farcically naive to maintain that we haven’t yet transmitted enough knowledge for its transformative power to impact on our most disadvantaged pupils. Or that progressive methods or learning styles are somehow undermining the great project, as Gibb implies. There is essential work around social pedagogy, community building, how to create a sense of belonging, that must come first. Rhetoric around closing the gaps will remain no more than that for as long as there is no focus on the marginalised, or for as long as that focus is ideological rather than research-led. Before Hirsch there has to be Maslow and before cultural capital there has to be social.

The most inclusive school leaders know this and enact it by pulling pupils in from the margins, viewing all of them as assets. They are contributors to the sector and to society, of course – addressing their own issues, referring for EHC assessment when necessary, leading on Early Help, building relationships with hard to reach families, providing keyworker support, embracing diversity, investing in their communities – warts and all.

If we are serious about closing the gaps, we need a policy climate that promotes this practice rather than one that actively undermines it. Inclusive schools are rarely on top of the leader board in its current form. By admitting and keeping ‘poor quality’ pupils, to quote the now notorious researh from the Centre for High Performance, they are more likely to be propping up their exclusive neighbours than taking any plaudits themselves.

The off-rollers; the SEND-lite; the exclusive – too often these have been our ‘rapidly improving’ and Ofsted Outstanding establishments. However, Amanda Spielman has said that the inspectorate is to become a force for good and by asking inspectors to consider pupil mobility as a leadership and management issue, she has taken an important early step in the right direction.

If the DfE comes to understand that all of the answers are not in ED Hirsch and that the current policy context is actively promoting exclusivity, then perhaps the real work towards closing the gaps can finally begin.

Attachment Aware Schools: The Meet and Greet

The Sutton Trust Research finding that 40% of today’s children don’t benefit from good enough  parenting to ‘succeed in life’ has major implications for the way we do things in school. Especially the way we do behaviour. It’s interesting to note that the study found that boys’ behaviour is more adversely affected by early parenting, or lack of it, than girls’. Could this be one of the reasons for our enduring problem with boys’ under achievement? With a strong link between insecure attachment and social disadvantage also highlighted in the report, it is clear that attachment awareness must be at the heart of any evidence informed closing the gaps strategy.

One of the things that makes school such a big ask for children with unmet attachment needs is of course their negative attachment representations, or, to use Bowlby’s term, the internal working model. This makes compliance a problem.

The problem when behaviour policy is not research-informed is that sanctions for non-compliance are deployed, whether they are successful in changing behaviour or not. And of course they are not. Because they only reinforce this internal working model, thereby exacerbating behavioural difficulties and justifying the need for more sanctions. So it goes on and on and on with permanent exclusion all too often the catastrophic result.

The task for inclusive educators is to avoid this self-perpetuating negative spiral altogether by introducing children to the world of secure attachment, so that they can learn to trust the adult lead. This can only be achieved through a focus on the quality of key relationships. As Bomber puts it, “Every relationship has the powerful potential of either confirming or challenging everything that has gone before.”

Her book, ‘What About Me?’ provides essential guidance on what a genuinely supportive school day looks like for children who have experienced significant developmental trauma and loss. It begins with some advice on the critical meet and greet, summarised below. Whilst this advice is aimed at key adults within school, it’s important to note that the principles must be understood by all staff and creatively enacted in the classroom, if that space is ever to become a safe one in which the the insecurely attached child or adolescent can be freed up for learning.

  • Pleasure in seeing the pupil should be exaggerated. Be mindful of proximity, facial expressions, posture, tone and pace of voice. Once a relationship has built up, a brief touch to connect with the pupil can be helpful. Smiles and healthy, appropriate touch are “the most vital stimulus to the growth of the socially, emotionally intelligent brain.” (Gerhardt, 2004)
  • Concentrate on giving the pupil full attention. Sit alongside the pupil, against a wall and where there is full view of the area. Invite the pupil to talk about last night and the journey to school. Give eye contact and summarise back what was shared, both explicitly and also what you inferred.
  • Objects from home have important value. They need to be placed carefully in a special box that has a lid, or in a personal tray.
  • Prepare the pupil for the day, going through a visual planner or diary together. Use sequencing connectives such as before, after, next. Encourage reflection by asking the pupil to ‘scale’ the effort levels they anticipate. Take note of any subject or relationship that might require additional input.
  • If there is any change in the usual routine, map this out carefully. Social stories can be used for this.
  • At the end of the meet and greet, remind the pupil that they will be ‘kept in mind’ and when you will next meet. I’ll be wondering how you’ll be getting on in literacy. I look forward to hearing all about it when I see you straight afterwards. A Post-it note or record in planner can reinforce this.
  • If there is a breakfast club, it is best served in a small, quiet and calm setting with the pupil at a table and key staff actively participating in the meal so that appropriate and healthy interactions are co-modelled.

A meet and greet that will really make a difference isn’t just a quick check-in with form tutor or class teacher then. It’s a much deeper interaction than that. Inclusive schools make the full meet and greet for those who need it a priority because in terms of preparing pupils to settle to learn, the beginning of the school day is the most important part – early intervention in action. A wide range of staff can be deployed as key adults, of course. They don’t need QTS or a counselling qualification. Just the capacity for empathy and a limitless supply of unconditional positive regard.

Differentiated Behaviour Management. An inclusion essential

If ‘no excuses’ means that inappropriate, disrespectful, risky behaviour must always be squarely addressed, then nobody would take issue with it. If, on the other hand, it means that such behaviour must always be addressed in the same way, according to an inflexible ‘do this-get that’ policy, then the approach is not compatible with inclusion.

To make such a statement is not to reveal low expectations for pupils with particular SEND, such as ASD. It’s not to say that a pupil with a special need affecting behaviour should have licence to ignore the rules. It’s simply acknowledging that some pupils need much, much more support than others and that sanctioning them for mistakes associated with their difficulties is both profoundly unfair and counterproductive – not least because sanctions can induce shame.

In relation to children with attachment difficulties, of course,  we must do everything possible as educators responsible for their wellbeing to protect them from prolonged feelings of toxic shame. Their experience of relational trauma means that they are already shame-based and this is why we must be so very careful with discipline. We want all pupils to understand the difference between right and wrong and to experience a degree of guilt for misbehaviour. However, for the extremely vulnerable, insecurely attached child, this can easily tip into toxic shame, which is a long way from guilt:

Guilt, “I have made a mistake.”

Shame, “I am the mistake.”

Nathanson’s compass of shame, above, illustrates the ways that humans respond to shame – none of them positive, prosocial or healthy. All teachers will immediately bring to mind individual LAC children who regularly occupy points on that compass. They are very often the hardest children to reach because they have never learned dependency. They have never learned how to trust adults and to follow their lead. That crucial developmental stage was missed.

But in the problem lies the solution; the task for inclusive educators is actually very clear. Vulnerable children must be taught through their experience of school as a surrogate secure base that adults can be trusted. Though adaptation and recovery takes time, perhaps years, the experience of empathic, genuine relationship does facilitate such growth with the role of ‘key adult’ crucial in this work.

Any attachment aware practitioner will understand then that we cannot merely discipline children with relational developmental difficulties as we do the majority. Not unless we want to exacerbate difficulties by inducing feelings of rejection, panic and shame.

Louise Bomber advocates an approach to challenging behaviour which includes the possibility of reparation. It’s described below, more or less word for word as it appears in ‘What about me?’ The sequence does rely on all school staff understanding the needs of insecurely attached children and it also assumes that children with the most complex needs are supported by a key adult. In inclusive schools, these preconditions will exist. Sadly in many, where exclusion is the response to unmet need, they are absent.

The reparation sequence

1. Pupil’s key adult describes the events neutrally and with empathy.

I noticed that you were trying really hard with your maths work this morning. You started getting frustrated around question 5. It was as if you felt that you couldn’t cope any more. It got too much. You threw your book and then before you knew it you were in a real state.

2. Gently let the pupil know that you realise he is feeling disturbed right now.

You are probably still feeling all shaken up and need a bit of space.

3. Be explicit about the fact that something needs to happen to ‘repair’ what’s gone wrong. Give an idea of how that could be done.

When you are ready, let’s go and pick up your maths book and repair it with some Selloptape. We can then make a small apology card for Sir, as it wasn’t his fault that your patient, perservering part disappeared for a few minutes.

4. Let the pupil know that we now know that he is not as strong as we thought, and that we will help him practice in the area that he had difficulty in – so that he can cope.

I’m sorry because I thought the work was the right level. It wasn’t. I will make sure tomorrow the work is more suitable for you. Let’s get your confidence back before moving onto more challenges.

5. Supervision, structure and support are also necessary to varying degrees in order to facilitate the reparative stage.

Let’s go and neaten up that book together.

6. Once the pupil has engaged in reparative activity, we may also be very explicit about the fact that the relationship with the key adult remains intact.

Just to say that you and me are OK. The teacher is also OK. He understands that you were having a wobble and is looking forward to welcoming you back into maths tomorrow.

If we don’t make this kind of comment explicitly, we leave the pupil insecure and once again at risk of the inappropriate behaviour escalating, because of his very real fear of rejection or abandonment.

Some pupils will feel toxic shame so acutely that it will significantly affect their ability to re-enter classrooms, meet particular staff again or continue with lessons. In these cases, advocacy is needed by the key adult so that the classroom teacher understands that efforts must be made to build a bridge:

I really missed you in Geography today. I was looking forward to seeing you. I know we had some difficult moments yesterday but today is a new day. We have lots of interesting material to investigate together.

This sensitive after-care is very powerful. Many pupils are shocked by it and the experience has been found to strengthen their respect for and relationship with the member of staff who took the time to do this.

That’s just one of the many strategies described in ‘What about me?’ – a book about teaching traumatised children how to relate to others in healthy, appropriate ways; a book about differentiated behaviour management. Of course, we don’t usually do behaviour like this. We have one size fits all policies and that’s because our systems have been set up with the assumption that pupils will have benefited from consistently ‘good enough’ care to understand and make the most of education.

It’s increasingly apparent that this is not the case. If our schools are going to serve the whole of their communities, then this needs to change. The only alternative is exclusion – because those square pegs, they are never going to fit – not if we believe they can be hammered in through a sanctions regime, however ‘consistent’. For me, there is ‘no excuse’ for a belief that is contradicted by a plethora of evidence from the SEND field.


Inclusion. Children do get it.

When my eldest daughter was in Year 4, a new boy joined her class who had difficulty managing his behaviour. He’d call out, bounce out of his seat, huff and puff over his work, lose his temper sometimes. Meg saw his frustration just as, I’m quite sure, her classmates and the teacher did. She didn’t judge him for it though, or question his ‘poor choices’. Quite clearly, it was all a bit more complicated than that. There was something behind this, ADHD maybe – trauma and loss perhaps. Whatever the underlying cause, Josh didn’t cope at all well. He stood out.

However, he wasn’t followed by the rest of the class, like some juvenile Pied Piper. His peers didn’t lose their ability to self regulate because he was still working on his. He wasn’t removed from the class to undergo training elsewhere, as advised by the DfE behaviour guru, to prevent his difficulties from ‘normalising.’ If he had been, and the re-entry criteria were total control of impulsivity, enabling the same standard of behaviour as that achieved by others, then he would never have returned to the classroom.

There’s a place for withdrawal, of course. Inclusion doesn’t mean everyone together all of the time. Counselling can be helpful, as well as a range of small-group interventions. Solutions-focused coaching ought to be an entitlement. But one-to-one and small-group learning must be generalised back in the classroom to be effective; reinforced and practiced within context.

Meg grew very fond of Josh. He turned out to be really good for her self esteem at a time when she was in and out of the ‘popular group’ with bewildering regularity. She found that she was a calming influence on him and the teacher regularly paired them up. She would come home full of tales about how she’d been able to help, strategies that had worked. This made her proud.

Fairness is a value highly prized by most children and their understanding of it is more subtle than we give them credit for when we assume they’re incapable of understanding disadvantage or difference. Those teachers who have employed Circle of Friends to include autistic pupils will know all about the enormous capacity that children have for compassionate understanding and empathy – and the joyous difference this can make when it’s harnessed within a structured programme.

Special Challenges is a report from the National College about how four schools effectively included children with SEMH. I’ve summarised it here. The report identifies peer support as one of six key themes and points out that there is social and emotional learning for all children, not just the vulnerable, when this is promoted. Pupils in the study schools understood diversity and consistently demonstrated caring attitudes towards those who were struggling. They were strong communities, happy places – and we have many schools that fit such a description.

The Coalition government aimed to ‘Reverse the bias towards inclusion’ and we live in the shadow of that rhetoric. (All it ever was, without a massive expansion of special schools). We need to change the rhetoric, because it doesn’t help the most vulnerable children in our schools feel that they belong there. And that is plain wrong.