School expulsions in Victoria have increased significantly – by more than 25% in the past year – resulting in an ombudsman investigation.
These latest findings show vulnerable children are significantly over-represented, and families are struggling to appeal expulsions and find alternative education placements for their child when they are expelled.
So how effective are expulsions? Are we expelling too many children? And is this an appropriate and effective action to take?
Lack of data around school expulsions
While there is little research in the Australian context that explores the rise in school expulsions, schools seem to be taking a less permissive approach to disruptive behaviour.
Although the statistics are not readily available, news reports quote the following Victorian Department of Education suspension and expulsion rates for 2015. In primary schools, 2,160 students suspended and 26 expelled; and in secondary schools, 11,282 students suspended and 172 expelled. In Queensland in 2015, 1,525 students were excluded. And in NSW in 2014, 262 students were excluded from school.
Such approaches reflect the views by some that young people are not developing or displaying appropriate levels of civic responsibility so a zero-tolerance approach to behaviour is necessary.
But research shows mass punishment or individual punishment as a deterrent rarely works – and if it does, it is not the only way to establish positive outcomes.
Why do children get expelled from schools?
Each Australian state has explicit education policy relating to suspension (the temporary exclusion from class and/or school for a specified period) and exclusion (cancellation of enrolment).
While each varies slightly, all claim that expulsion should be only considered as a last resort.
Students may be expelled from one or more schools for a defined period and in some circumstances, all schools permanently.
Throughout the process the school and the principal must keep the family fully informed. The student and family have the right to appeal any decisions made.
While ultimately the reasons given for suspension or exclusion relate specifically to student behaviour, a number of studies have found that it is not necessarily the behaviour, but rather the individual student – including their attitude and academic commitment – that influences the school’s response.
The attitude of the school, its socioeconomic status and level of diversity also impact on the level of suspension and/or subsequent exclusion.
While antisocial, unsafe (drugs and alcohol) or violent behaviour are the most common reasons for suspension and exclusion, a recent trend has emerged that includes the inappropriate use of online and social media to demean, intimidate or threaten peers and school communities.
The use of punitive measures, such as exclusion, often reflects a breakdown in communication between schools, families and students and preferences an educational focus on meeting the priorities of the majority over the individual.
Excluding children from school for any period, puts their personality and social development at risk.
Exclusion during primary years
The long-term effects of being excluded from school are significant at any age, but when such measures are implemented at the primary school level (approximately 5-7% of all exclusions), the consequences are magnified.
During the primary years many of the key skills of social development, behaviour and self discipline are learnt and practised.
By excluding young children from these opportunities, the ability to cope and thrive in pressured environments will be challenged.
On the other hand, there are significant management challenges for teachers and schools when individuals repeatedly disrupt classes with threatening behaviour.
School pressure, peer pressure, distractions and student-teacher interactions are nominated by the students as the main cause of problem behaviour. They also note that relationships are built slowly but can be broken down easily.
Other research has shown that suspension from school leads to increased antisocial behaviour and actually increases the likelihood of future suspensions and ultimately exclusion.
Pressure on principals
In an increasingly commercialised education systems, school principals are under pressure to protect their school’s “brand” as the public reach of a schools image is no longer confined to the visible uniformed student during the morning commute.
The behaviour of students (and teachers) is now far more widely scrutinised via social networks and other media.
As such, the impact of any activity that threatens the schools image must be dampened.
Firm action against individual students provides a clear and visible message that a school is asserting and strong moral focus.
Inclusive approaches and positive behaviour techniques such as “positive classroom behaviour support” that respond to individual needs within the group context are equally, and in most cases, more effective than punishment-based systems. Such approaches work with the students and their families to identify the underlying needs of the individual and utilise peer and specialist support where possible to improve connectedness within the school community. Such approaches take time but are effective in the long term.
The primary effect of punishments and exclusion reinforces to the student that their needs are not able to be met.
In primary school, the child may not have the skill to behave, and exclusion from the learning environment, where such skills can be developed, will not assist in achieving good behaviour.
Research shows that improving teacher skill in preventative behaviour management can lead to less referrals to the office for action.
Authors: Jonathon Sargeant, Lecturer in Inclusive Education and Classroom Management, Australian Catholic University