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Tue, 09 Jul 24 10:00

Is this what an inclusive society looks like?

Earlier this month Edward Timpson’s long awaited review of school exclusions was published and it certainly made for an interesting read. The report highlighted the increasing rate of fixed term and permanent exclusions with this cohort disproportionately made up of vulnerable children and young people such as those with special educational needs or Children in Need. These are often the very learners who could benefit the most from a supportive and stable learning environment. Although Timpson’s review recognised that most schools work hard to be inclusive, it doesn’t paint a picture of an inclusive education system that meets the needs of all pupils. We must support and encourage schools to give all pupils every chance to succeed in life but, in order to do this, central government must create an education system that doesn’t discriminate. This is a central component of a successful social mobility agenda.

Increasing child poverty is one of the biggest problems facing this country right now - an issue which has been considered in several reports in recent weeks and months. Despite the raft of evidence that shows the causes of poverty and its harmful impact on children in terms of their health, educational outcomes and their future life chances, it still continues to grow. Only this week, Professor Philip Alston’s report on UK poverty found that there is “exacerbating inequality and poverty” in this country despite it being the world’s fifth largest economy. There is much that the government can and should do to lift children out of poverty and close the inequality gap, and there is an important role for education here that needs to be recognised. Education can empower children to break through societal barriers and set the foundation for a better adult life, but they must have the support from a stable school environment in the first place.

I’m proud of the heroic work that teachers up and down the land are doing every single day with dwindling resources to support their pupils. That said, our education system still lags behind in that not all of our learners, including the most vulnerable, are having their needs met. The fact that children on free school meals are over four times more likely to be excluded than their peers is not the sign of a meritocracy, nor does it fit with government’s rhetoric of improving social mobility for all. Being out of mainstream education for any period of time is rarely in a child’s best interest but for our most vulnerable pupils it is likely to further entrench inequalities and disadvantage. An estimated 4 million children in this country currently live in poverty, two thirds from working families - soon this will increase to 5 million. I am left wondering what our ambitions for children who live in poverty are given the government’s response to this issue. Vital early help services are severely lacking investment and schools are having to pick up the pieces while simultaneously lacking the incentives and resources to help those pupils who need it the most.

Schools are rewarded for academic outcomes above all else which means that the stakes for headteachers who want to be inclusive are high. That is why we need a culture change right across the system from Whitehall to classrooms up and down the country. The new Ofsted Education Inspection Framework’s focus on the whole educational experience at school is a positive start but it’s also up to the government to back this up with the extra funding needed and to re-consider taking forward some of the recommendations in the Timpson review that were not addressed in its official response.

Schools do much more than simply prepare children for academic achievement and every day really does matter. They provide children with a safe environment to go to each day, help them build resilience and prepare them for independence and adulthood. We need to do everything we can before taking that away from them.

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