Forgotten but Not Failing: Life after Permanent School Exclusion

Forgotten but Not Failing: Life after Permanent School Exclusion

Alison Macdonald

Maybe people don’t realise that kids who get kicked out of school can actually be normal people… [they] just think they’re never gonna get a job. Never get your GCSE’s. Gonna go to prison”. I was chatting with Mike, a twenty-year-old care worker from rural Somerset about his experience of being permanently excluded from state school. Mike was explaining his frustration with the negative and stigmatising stereotypes associated with exclusion. “I literally had a conversation in the pub yesterday”, he continued, “And someone was saying ‘how the hell are you a care worker when you got kicked out of school’? And I’m like, ‘it’s because I got kicked out of school that I am a carer’”

Amidst the controversy around the ‘forgotten children’ of increasing school exclusions in the UK today, I argue that, in some cases for young people like Mike, exclusion can in fact be a positive thing. Whilst exclusion is experienced as distressing and isolating, Mike’s subsequent re-location to a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) ultimately channelled his horizon along more positive lines. In the summer of 2018, I led a small scale qualitative research project to produce a short documentary film that explored the lives of young people who have been permanently excluded from school in rural England. Although the research sample is small, their experiences go a long way in amplifying the complex structural, social and moral processes that infuse educational exclusion. At the heart of these processes is the difficult realisation that mainstream school does not work for everyone, and that in the right conditions, removal from school can instigate a more meaningful and enabling learning experience.

Permanent exclusion means a pupil is unable to return to school. 81% of total exclusions occur in secondary school and are highest amongst pupils in year nine or above. Reasons for permanent expulsion vary, but persistence disruptive behaviour is the most common cause. Although the rate of permanent exclusions in the UK has previously shown a downward trend, government statistics illustrate a rise over the past five years with 7,900 pupils permanently excluded in 2017/2018 compared to 4,950 pupils in 2013/2014.

A combination of factors contribute to the rising trend and include increased financial pressures and accountability measures, together with a lack of resources to support vulnerable children, the implementation of ‘zero tolerance’ policies and a narrowing of the national curriculum. Arguably, these factors combine to restrict the opportunity for inclusive learning environments that recognise children learn in different ways and at different rates.

Of particular concern is the use of  ‘unofficial exclusions’  whereby some schools remove pupils from the school roll without officially excluding them, and the disproportionate rates of exclusion for children on free school meals and from certain ethnic minority backgrounds, as well as children that have special education needs (SEN).

The young people in my research project could all be classed as vulnerable given the criteria above. However, when they recounted their educational experiences they focused less on these structural difficulties and more on the complexities of engaging with a morality of learning in which ideas about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pupils are constructed in school. The dynamics of this morality play out in relation to excepted and ‘proper’ modes of engagement and to which practices of exclusion police when children don’t – or are unable – to conform.

For the participants in my study, mainstream school was a place where they felt profoundly misunderstood. For them, the process of exclusion and feeling of alienation started long before they were officially asked to leave school. This translated into frustrated and disruptive behaviour. For example, Mike started ‘acting up’ in school from year nine and explained that he wasn’t able to concentrate in a room full of pupils and that he learned better on his own:

“There were some teachers who knew if I was being disruptive put me in a corner on my own and let me do the work so I can’t disrupt other people. But other teachers would just kick you out and leave you by the door. Some teachers just didn’t understand. I feel like I was just forgotten about, so I carried on being disruptive. It’s easier to not support you”.

Like the other research participants, at several points during the study Mike reflected on the fact that while he knew he was unpleasant and disruptive with teachers, he did want to learn and had some confidence in his abilities. However, the cycle of misunderstanding between himself and teachers became so extreme that he was made to feel ‘stupid’ or like a ‘bad’ person. Mike said, “Some students are amazing in school. Fantastic grades; get As and teachers love them and then someone like me, it just wasn’t like that. It was the complete opposite, so I thought well what’s the point? I’m not gonna bother”.

Mike was eventually asked to leave his school halfway through year ten. Having been told he had ‘outgrown the school’, he was informed he would continue his studies at a local Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) in the Alternative Provision (AP) sector. Until recently, the AP sector has been an overlooked and shunned dimension of our education system, stigmatised as a ‘dumping ground’ for naughty children. Heavily oversubscribed and functioning “despite the system, not because of it”, APs struggle with resource and teaching constraints yet are responsible for some of the most vulnerable children in our society.

These constraints notwithstanding, the participants in my research had overwhelmingly positive experiences of PRUs as a flourishing and safe learning environment where the process of educational and social inclusion begins. Reflecting on his experience Mike said, “People there understood you, which is what you didn’t get in school because there are so many other students you are just expected to be the same. These people only deal with challenging people, so you just feel understood, natural and happy”.

This feeling of inclusivity and understanding was further reinforced by Andy, who explained that he valued learning as an act of mutual respect, and he felt he received this in his PRU. Describing his PRU teacher he said, “She would actually sit down and talk to you. Like, you know, like she would be so much more respectful, she’d talk to you like you were a human being, treated you like an adult.  I know I was only a kid, so I didn’t deserve the respect from teachers as adults, but I think every person deserves respect no matter their age”.

In another case, a participant described how her PRU teacher even went so far as to come to her house and drive her into school to sit her GCSE maths paper. This participant had a history of being ‘pinged ponged’ from school to school with no stability nor systematic care. She laughed when I first asked her if she had been to a PRU; “I’ve lost count”, she said. Yet she remembered the teacher who turned up at her door.

For my research participants, the framework for learning delivered in the PRUs was more suited to their educational needs, and it was because of this intervention that their permanent exclusion turned out to be a good thing. Although similar stories have been documented elsewhere (e.g. BBC ‘Excluded’ ; Education Committee, 2018), this is of course not the case for all excluded children, many of whom face a multitude of complex challenges. Moreover, it is important to recognise that despite my participants’ retrospective positivity, the experience of exclusion has a lasting impact. My research participants continue to grapple with complex feelings about the stigma of being ‘kicked out’ and the social perceptions of having attended a PRU. Having encountered prejudice since leaving school, their educational exclusion endures as social exclusion , shaping personal identity and ambitions for the future.

At a time when the exclusion crisis is in the media limelight, the lived experience of my research participants gives us reason to pause. Their experiences resonate with some of the recent recommendations made by the Timpson Review of School Exclusions which urges the government to reform the exclusion process and overturn the associated negative stereotypes. Calling for fewer exclusions by making schools more inclusive, the review suggests we make better use of AP services and invest in them as valid aspects of our education system. This is a step in the right direction. If we are to seriously re-think the aims and process of exclusion, we need to carefully consider what inclusive education entails.

My research reveals that mainstream schooling doesn’t work for everyone. However, the main mechanism that currently recognises this fact is punitive expulsion which continues to equate learner disengagement with notions of failure. Instead, recognising that children learn in different ways and have complex needs could be the start of early intervention that involves proactive use of the AP sector. And while it is important to ensure high quality and consistent provisions from APs, my research participants reminded me time and time again that their PRU was effective precisely because it did not operate like mainstream school. Separating the punitive from the more nurturing elements of ‘exclusion’ and expanding our schooling to include APs as a distinctive feature of education itself, could therefore be part and parcel of what inclusive education entails.


Alison Macdonald is a social anthropologist and Senior Teaching Fellow in the department of Anthropology, University College London. Her recent ethnographic research focuses on the lived experiences of young people who have attended alternative provisions in rural England. Funded by a Grand Challenges Adolescent Lives Grant, this research involved collaboration with young people and an interdisciplinary partnership with a community teacher and documentary film maker to produce the short film – People Like Us  – that captures the seldom heard voices of young people excluded from school.

Image Credit: ‘The bus stop’ Alison Macdonald