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How can taking a child-centered approach to professional learning help reduce the number of preventable exclusions?

For the past six years, Whole Education has been a proud member of the vibrant and international  Networks of Inquiry and Indigenous Education (NOIIE) community. At its core is Spirals of Inquiry; a child-centred professional learning framework that has had a transformational impact on the most disadvantaged of learners for the last twenty years. Belonging, being and becoming are at the heart of the Spiral, and many of the transformations that have taken place have resulted from developing cultures that are inclusive and nurturing. 

For Whole Education, ensuring young people have a strong sense of belonging is critically important when it comes to achieving our vision: an education system in which all young people thrive in life learning and work. 

WE were therefore delighted to join the IntegratED project as a delivery partner in 2019. IntegratED aims to “reduce preventable exclusions and improve education for children excluded from school.” In this capacity, Whole Education is supporting twelve secondary schools from across England to use the six stage Spiral of Enquiry to better understand and respond to the experiences of their most at-risk learners.  

Reducing preventable exclusions

Last month, the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA), launched its Inclusive and Nurturing Schools project in partnership with the Greater London Authority. The project will collate and share the most effective inclusive and nurturing approaches, and one of the goals is to reduce preventable exclusions. The project stems from recommendations made in the RSA’s Pinball Kids report, which recommended a suitable starting point for reducing preventable exclusions was for schools to build stronger relationships with students and families.

Whole Education welcomes this initiative, as our involvement in IntegratED has further demonstrated to us the intrinsic link between inclusive and nurturing practices, the strength of relationships between school teams, students and their families and the level of risk a student has of being excluded from school.

Using the Spirals approach to develop inclusive and nurturing practice

The discoveries being made by schools engaged in our Spirals of Enquiry IntregratED work are not new. A 2018 study into the impact of school leaders using NOIIE’s Spiral of Inquiry to improve transitions for indigenous learners found:

Relationships matter most. Relationship building is the first, middle and last step in enquiry work.

Inclusion, safety and belonging were the primary concerns for students, stemming from their life experiences.

School leaders need to challenge their assumptions – listening deeply to learners is key.

It therefore didn’t come as a surprise that the quality of relationships, particularly between students and staff, arose as a key theme when our IntegratED schools completed the scanning stage of their Spiral. 

There is not one reason why many young people at risk of exclusion do not have the strength of relationships with staff that they need to thrive at school. The Spiral asks enquiry teams to dig beyond the surface, not only seeking to fully understand the learner perspective but also how existing school policies and culture are contributing to the situation. 

In doing this, our schools have made the following reflections:


A common discovery among our enquiry teams has been student perception that “staff are only there to ‘get paid and not because they care.’” This perception is particularly common towards teaching staff, who often do not see at-risk learners in contexts beyond their classroom. To address this issue, one school plans to introduce ‘relational time’ at the start of lessons in which the teacher has time to get to know the students better as individuals. Another school plans to invite teaching staff to join pastoral interventions as a way to get to know at-risk learners in a different environment. 

One approach commonly employed by enquiry teams exploring the issue of staff-student relationships is the ‘2×10’ strategy. This activity asks an adult to interact with an identified learner for two minutes on ten consecutive days. The focus is not on learning, but on understanding the learner as a ‘whole’ and, given the simplicity of the intervention, the results can be surprising.   


Some schools found that a lack of trust exists between learners and staff; “The greatest surprise was the number of pupils that said ‘I’m not in trouble am I?’ when we went to collect them from the classroom.” For some at-risk learners, there are predominantly negative circumstances behind 1:1 time with teachers, leading to an association between staff interaction and being in trouble. This damages the learner’s sense of belonging and security within school.  

Even when assured that the interaction is not being conducted under a negative pretext, a lack of trust can still exist; “We filmed our scanning phase with students and when watching back we noticed (based on body language) that the majority of students felt high anxiety when answering the questions. Some felt that being questioned was going to get them into trouble, showing a low level of trust.” 

Building trust has therefore become a priority for those schools who recognise that “you won’t ever truly succeed if you don’t trust the school or staff.” Improving trust will strengthen at-risk students’ sense of belonging, which our enquiry teams believe will help in turn to improve attendance; “Attendance will increase as students who were perhaps once reluctant to attend will now do so as they will see value in the relationships they make with staff.” 

Behaviour policies 

Challenging assumptions is a difficult but important part of the Spiral of Enquiry. It asks school teams to reflect on existing policies and school culture, exploring how they might be contributing to the identified issue. As a result, some schools discovered that well-intentioned behaviour policies have not always had the intended impact; “we have discovered that those who have been sanctioned at a serious level have not always benefitted and learned from the process as we would have wished.” 

One unintended consequence included at-risk students having strong relationships with pastoral or senior leaders but poor relationships with classroom teachers. In response, one school is exploring how they can update the behaviour policy to improve the relationships in the classroom, as well as outside. Ideas shared by colleagues at our recent Spirals of Enquiry Midway Event included moving away from a classroom removal system to a coaching based approach. In this approach, ‘on call’ staff take on the role of the behaviour coaches, working with the learner with the goal of avoiding the need for lesson removal. Another approach discussed is a system of ‘positive on-call’, where teachers can call the member of staff on duty to praise identified students. One school already trialling this approach has found it to be particularly effective with their year eleven students. 

The impact of Covid-19

The impact of Covid-19 on learners at-risk of exclusion cannot be underestimated. A recent report found that outcomes of disadvantaged and SEND learners (both of which are overrepresented groups when it comes to school exclusions) have been more negatively impacted than those of their peers.

 In addition, a report carried out by the Excluded Lives Research team found that; “heightened anxiety, bereavement, poverty, disconnection from schooling and the digital divide have heightened the risk for children and young people who were already struggling with aspects of schooling and produced new unexpected categories of risk.”

Whilst we expect the number of exclusions to drop as schools continue to manage Covid-19, the rate could rise significantly once schools fully reopen and the reintegration process begins. Reconnecting with learners and deeply understanding their experiences will be hugely important in ensuring that school culture remains as inclusive and nurturing as possible during what is likely to be a difficult time.    

Next steps

The last year has been incredibly challenging for schools and we have been astounded by the resilience shown by our enquiry teams as they continue to better understand and support their learners most at-risk of school exclusion.  

Schools are currently engaging in new learning around their identified focus, and will then develop a theory of change that outlines the action they will take (either virtually or face to face) to address the issue. The final stage of the Spiral asks enquiry teams to ask themselves, ‘have we made enough of a difference for our learners?’ and we look forward to hearing how developing their practices better supports students at risk of exclusion.   

Further reading

You can read IntegratED’s 2020 annual report HERE. 

Read about the impact Spirals for Enquiry has had in changing outcomes for learners in England in the  University of British Columbia’s Journal of Transformative Educational Leadership

You can find out more about Spirals of Enquiry and Networks of Indegnous Inquiry and Education HERE. 

Whole Education will be presenting alongside Spirals colleagues from across the world at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement on Monday 8th March. Register for the conference HERE.

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