John Harris

Journalist & Author

‘It’s like being in prison’: what’s behind the rise in school exclusions?

Exclusions in English schools have gone from a last resort to the go-to punishment for children who are deemed disruptive or simply don’t fit in. Is there a better way?

I meet Lewis just before the first lockdown, early in 2020. He is 18, and in the middle of his A-levels: a sparky, irreverent presence, with a strong sense of injustice about what he experienced at his London secondary school. In year 9, around the time he turned 14, he started being bounced around the school’s disciplinary system. At one point, he spent every school day for six weeks in a single-room facility called “the annexe”. He was also forced to spend time at home. Sometimes, work was sent for him to do; sometimes, he spent whole days doing nothing.

“I was in the top sets for a lot of things, and there weren’t many black kids in those classes, so I tended to stand out,” he says. “But also, I was acting up.” There were reasons for his behaviour: “I had a lot going on. My mum had had a miscarriage. My grandma was diagnosed with cancer. I had an uncle who was sectioned. I’m not going to be like, ‘I was a good kid.’ I was lashing out. But the worst part was, I’d spoken to some of my teachers about the reasons.”

I’ve seen children in isolation rooms on trumped-up charges. And they were full of black kids

There was no learning. Kids with headphones on, playing cards, turning up when they wanted. It was like a bad youth club

They have to sit there in silence for a day with three toilet breaks. Theoretically, they give them work, but they don’t

He’s been excluded for playing with a fidget toy that they gave him. He’s been excluded for asking for work

Children stab people when they’re angry. So we’re not forcing them into a situation where they have to react violently

They started just excluding me for the littlest things. And then they ended up getting rid of me

If 80% of kids respond well to a zero-tolerance policy, what about the other 20%? Do we accept them as collateral damage?

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