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Should we exclude the word ‘exclude’?

While most children - including my own two - enjoyed their first few short weeks back with their friends and teachers in schools before Easter and are now getting stuck back in after the break, I’ve found myself preoccupied with thoughts about the 53,000 children who, for one reason or another, find themselves excluded from mainstream schools.

We use that word so easily. Excluded. It’s an ugly word, and for good reason. Exclusion is the act of shutting out. Its roots are from the Latin exclusionem, or “a shutting out.” The noun exclude derives from ex (out) and claudere (to close or shut). 

So my thoughts have been with children who we shut out from our schools. Who we leave out. Who are closed off. 

Why? In part because I’ve been reflecting on the findings of a recent study in which we explored the emotional experiences of mainstream students, parents and teachers during the first lockdown in early 2020 when everyone was shut out of school. Commissioned by Big Change, the Pandemic as Portal report aims to remind us of what really matters to the humans in the school system.

We heard of children’s desperate need to be back with their friends, to connect, to engage. We heard of parents’ sense of betrayal in relation to their children’s experience of abandonment. It was clear that the social and relational purpose of school is highly valued and was greatly missed. We were invited to understand children’s preoccupation with the experience of isolation, of being in ‘limbo’, uncontained and exposed, of missing the ‘buzz’ of school life. We also saw into their sense of loss of school as a space in which they can develop their own identities as individuals on their own terms and in relation to others.

For all of those we spoke to, the experience - and the various levels of trauma it involved - was temporary and had been caused by a pandemic. Although some talked about being confronted in lockdown - outside of the protective bubble of school - with choices and experiences usually associated with those older than them, they were safe at home. 

In my thoughts are the children for whom exclusion is not temporary, and is the result of decisions taken by adults behind closed doors, often for reasons that aren’t fully explained or understood. In my thoughts are those who are not safe at home. 

This is not a comment on the quality of alternative provision. The people I’ve had the privilege to meet who work with excluded children have, without fail, impressed me with their commitment, love, care and tenacity. I have no doubt that, for some children - perhaps many more than are actually there - alternative provision is far better suited to their needs than mainstream. 

No. This is about the way children get there. It’s about the sadness I feel when I think about what it must be like as a child to be shut out from the mainstream, to be labelled as ‘excluded’, to be alienated from a key space for normative social interaction. And it’s about the guilt I feel for being part of a system that does that to children.

What could the system look like if it didn’t involve exclusion as either a concept or an action; a noun or a verb? What if it was rather about referral from one part of the same system to another interrelated part? What would it mean for those in the system - including the children - if we thought of the process in these terms? Should we exclude the word ‘exclude’? 

This isn’t just conceptual, and it’s not just about semantics. Our research work in the programme so far has shown that the relatedness between the parts of the system is really important, and we’ll be exploring that in greater detail over the next year. After all, children are in those spaces. My hunch is that a change in the way we think about the system and the processes across its interdependent parts would enable the sort of improvements we all want to see for the young people in it.

Ben Gibbs is Head of Programmes at Relationships Foundation. To find out more about Relationships Foundation's work, visit their website: https://relationshipsfoundation.org.

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