8 August 2023

Sadiq Khan’s terrible ideas have no place in London’s schools


There are some terrible ideas in education that just refuse to die.

Whether it’s ‘learning styles’, ‘project-based learning’, ‘teaching kids critical thinking’ or some other equally unevidenced concept, like the monster in a horror movie, just when you think you’ve seen the last of them they rise from the dead to cause more havoc.

One of these zombie positions is that too many kids are excluded from school, especially those with special educational needs or from certain ethnic minorities. Some go on to argue that exclusion makes kids more likely to get involved in crime or end up in prison. None of these things is actually true, but it doesn’t prevent people from stating these spurious claims as facts, or them influencing the mood music.

I started teaching in 2002. By then the Labour government and Ofsted had let it be known that schools would be judged poorly if they regularly suspended or expelled students. They pushed the idea that if kids misbehaved it was down to poor teaching or them not being supported enough.

It was never an official ban, but it didn’t need to be – the threat of a poor Ofsted result was enough to stop headteachers from doing the right thing. Also, even if a school did risk expelling a pupil, the decision could be appealed and overturned. What that meant was a cadre of children who were not just ill-behaved, but almost untouchable.

Unsurprisingly this was a total disaster for schools and led to many appalling situations where disruptive, sometimes violent kids were able to cause chaos and worse. On the plus side, the Government could boast that behaviour had never been better, as exclusion stats were falling.

Fortunately, when Michael Gove and Nick Gibb got into the Department for Education they put a stop to this. They introduced new statutory guidance on exclusions that made it clear that heads not only had the power to exclude kids, but also the legal and moral responsibility to do so if it was necessary to keep schools safe and orderly. They also removed the right of appeal, so schools knew that once a child had been expelled they would never be forced to take them back against their will.

These reforms meant that schools now had the means to ensure that teachers could teach and pupils learn in a safe environment. Exclusions rose a bit, as you’d expect, but peaked well below where they had been before New Labour.

However, none of this has stopped the zombie ideas on exclusions from stubbornly clinging on. This time it’s one-man gimmick factory Sadiq Khan who is sounding the trumpet of pointless reform.

He’s announced that he’s bringing in Maureen McKenna to work with his Violence Reduction Unit. She oversaw work in Glasgow that apparently reduced exclusions by 90% and, we’re told, led to a fall in violent crime as a result. Good news all round then you might think?

Alas, no.

First of all, like we saw in the 2000s in England under Labour, there’s no evidence that exclusions in Glasgow fell because behaviour had actually improved. Exclusions were just discouraged in favour of alternatives like ‘managed moves’, whereby naughty kids change school for a ‘fresh start’. Talk to those working in Scottish schools right now and they will tell you how much behaviour has deteriorated. There have even been strikes by staff to force their leaders to get a grip of things! That is the last thing London’s schools need.

And what about the claim that the decline in exclusions led to a fall in youth violence? Yes, it did fall in Glasgow, but it fell even more in England, where exclusions were on the rise!

For Khan, there is also the small matter that the Mayor of London has zero power over schools. Oh, and the fact that London has the lowest rate of exclusions in the whole of England.

So, aside from London not having a problem with exclusions, the mayor having no powers in this area and the ideas he’s proposing being terrible, this sounds like a splendid proposal.

Like ULEZ and universal primary free school meals, the zombie exclusions policy is another illustration of how Khan and Labour’s political antennae continued to malfunction. That such a bad idea is still wafting around the political system is worrying enough in itself, but it’s also indicative of the kind of half-baked, misguided policies we can expect if Labour win the next general election.

To be clear, we all want fewer kids excluded and more calmly behaving and learning in class. No head wants to suspend or expel a pupil, and doing so is only allowed as a last resort. The evidence is clear that the current framework keeps people safer and sees very few pupils excluded.

The Mayor of London is, of course, entitled to his view and he can use his platform as he sees fit. But when it comes to keeping schools safe places, he can’t be allowed to screw things up again. I hope school leaders and others stand up to be counted this time.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.