An inclusion charter – signs of progress?

An inclusion charter – signs of progress?


Written by: Jessica Perera


As the Department for Education tells schools and local authorities not to adopt ‘no exclusions’ policies, and Southwark Council sets out the basis of a very different approach, we look behind the arguments.

Just days before Southwark Council in South London publicly announced a new progressive  education inclusion charter[i], the first of its kind in England, with a target to keep 100 per cent of children in education, the Department for Education (DfE) released rather different guidance on suspension and permanent exclusions in England, in which it states on the first page:

Schools and local authorities should not adopt a ‘no exclusion’ policy as an end in itself. This can lead to perverse incentives for schools not to exclude even when exclusion may be a way for a pupil to access Alternative Provision which will help ensure an excluded pupil remains engaged in education. In some cases, a ‘no exclusion’ policy can present safeguarding issues and expose staff and pupils to unreasonable risks. Instead, schools and local authorities should work to create environments where school exclusions are not necessary because pupil behaviour does not require it.

Challenging the status quo

Ever since the Black Lives Matter movement erupted in the summer of 2020, the demand to end school exclusions has been gaining momentum. The new DfE guidance is in many ways a nod to the inroads such campaigning has made, as is the weight that Southwark Council has given to the argument. Its inclusion charter, which aspires to abolish permanent exclusion altogether, includes a new code of conduct for schools, the council and all partners on the safeguarding board (including the Metropolitan Police Service).

The inclusion charter, which was drafted in 2021 and appears to have come into effect in 2022, was instigated by Southwark as a response to the 2020 Keeping Children in Education conference[ii] and as follow-up to its 2020 Education and Business Scrutiny Commission report, Education: Exclusions and Alternative Provision[iii], in which the rationale behind instigating 100 percent inclusion was explained as less about foregrounding ‘disruptive’ and ‘excluded youths’ and more about answering ‘how we can help vulnerable children’. The charter seeks to create school environments that use a ‘trauma-informed’ approach to address a ‘wide range of complex educational needs’ of children. ‘Misbehaviour’ which presents in school is likely to be linked to living with multiple and compounding stress factors. And for school exclusion activists, this language shift will be welcomed as a small step in the restorative process of humanising children often treated with contempt and regarded as undeserving of understanding.

In particular, Southwark is engaging with a process of creating school environments where exclusions will only very rarely be actioned, because the causes of so-called misbehaviour are being actively addressed. Contrary to the DfE’s argument that no exclusions should not become an end, Southwark Council’s end is completely justified by the means.

The elephant in the room – Alternative Provision

However, Southwark’s policy is currently ‘aspirational’ (ie, it’s not policy that comes into immediate effect) and the wider context of Alternative Provision in the borough suggests that its 100 percent inclusion approach comes with small print that needs scrutinising. First, it should be noted that the charter’s ambition for 100 percent ‘inclusion within education’ should not be confused with a commitment to inclusion within mainstream education. Southwark is promising instead inclusion within educational provision, and this includes Pupil Referral Units/ Alternative Provision, where the standard of education is not equivalent to that provided in mainstream education.

Second, the charter does not actually make any promises to abolish the use of Alternative Provision. Instead, it includes a clause to ‘develop and continually evaluate high quality Alternative Provision for children who may need to be outside mainstream settings’. This is despite registering concerns in attendant documents[iv] that in Southwark there is a disproportionate practice of excluding children on free school meals, with special educational needs and/or with a black Caribbean heritage, the latter experiencing exclusion at a rate six times higher than that for white British children.

Cabinet member and contributor to the Inclusion Charter, Labour councillor Jasmine Ali, has commented about the Alternative Provision offered in the recently regenerated building SILS 3 in Southwark, which won a coveted Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) award. RIBA states on its website that SILS 3 is a ‘new pupil referral unit [PRU] that is inviting – comfortable, light spacious and airy – while also being secure and tough’. In the past, SILS has been described as just secure and tough, imitating a prison with different wings that could be locked to prevent SILS school children from accessing different parts of the building. Putting a highly prestigious RIBA seal of approval on a PRU goes some way towards undermining Southwark’s Inclusion Charter, as it acts as a get-out clause for schools and the local authority, permitting them to continue removing some children from mainstream school.

Addressing safeguarding arguments

The Inclusion Charter says it will continue to remove from mainstream education those involved in ‘rare instances where exclusion is unavoidable to safeguard children’. On the face of it, this seems reasonable – schools must be safe environments for staff and children. However, the backcloth to the concern about safeguarding issues in schools has been a highly emotive debate about ‘juvenile sex abusers’, with between a fifth and a third of all cases of child sex abuse in the UK involving ‘perpetrators’ under the age of 18.[v]  The government-commissioned Ofsted rapid review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges in 2021 makes a number of compelling arguments about the need for schools to monitor peer-on-peer sexual misconduct and provide better education to children around this issue. But according to Professor Simon Hackett, who conducted the largest UK study of young people who had been sexually abused by other young people, the way that much of the present discussion treats children as ‘mini versions of adult sex offenders’, or ‘paedophiles in waiting’, is profoundly unhelpful. The reality is that child perpetrators come with ‘their own histories of abuse’. ‘Part and parcel of an enmeshed experience of trauma, neglect and pain’ (exactly the same things Southwark Council says it wants to address). Furthermore, the lack of ‘public knowledge around this’ has only served to promote ‘a distorted and stereotypical view of child sexual abuse’ as well as ‘inappropriate criminal justice responses that are designed with adults in mind’.

Social and racial justice – it’s all folly!

Regrettably, some educationalists and behaviour experts are now in the vanguard of closing down on the kind of humane and imaginative solutions that Hackett and campaigners advocate. Take the government’s advisor on school behaviour, Tom Bennett, ie, the behaviour tsar, who, some months ago, took to Twitter to condemn the Institute of Education (IOE) for allegedly ‘platforming’ the ‘extremist advocacy group [No More Exclusions]’ who he accuses of ‘campaigning to make children and staff unsafe by forcing abusers and victims to stay in the same school’. Leaving aside Bennett’s use of highly emotive language to label No More Exclusions ‘extremist’, Bennett also makes no attempt to engage with its arguments. At no point in the IOE-linked Guardian article did the founder of No More Exclusions, Zahra Bei, argue what Bennett accuses her of. Rather Bei’s argument is that school exclusions urgently need to be recognised as social and racial justice issues which disproportionately affect black children (and GRT children) and the fallout from an exclusion often leads to social death (ie, slow marginalisation from participating in wider society, for example being sent to prison) and sometimes death itself (among teenagers and young adults, serious youth violence or ‘knife crime’ is connected to exclusion from school and the protective socialisation that schools afford.

Bennett is not the only one ignoring Bei’s and other school exclusion activists’ arguments. Chris McGovern, a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street, retired headteacher and chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, in The Folly of Southwark Council’s Zero Exclusions Policy, an article on the website of conservativehome, spelled out the ‘threat’ headteachers will face if their powers to exclude are removed. Both Bennett’s criticism of the No More Exclusions campaign and McGovern’s defence of exclusions are built around a refusal to engage with the social and racial factors that lead to exclusions in the first place. In neither piece is the demography of children being excluded and placed in Alternative Provision acknowledged. Given that the Campaign for Real Education opposes the teaching of politics and sociology and is dismissive of any attempts to bring anti-racism or anti-sexism into the classroom,[vi] McGovern’s omissions fail to surprise. He does not mention that Southwark Council’s initial interest in creating an inclusion charter stemmed primarily from an articulated social and political need to address the disproportionate impact exclusions in the borough have on poor black children. Apparently, addressing social and racial injustice is all folly for Chris McGovern!

Put children’s needs first

What is less clear is how successful Southwark Council’s Inclusion Charter will be, considering that it has recently refurbished its main Alternative Provision building, a strong indication that plans to exclude children from mainstream education remain. This, combined with an emerging moral panic around the threat of child sexual abusers roaming free in schools in which headteachers’ hands are tied, seemingly provides a strong basis for resentment against those who aspire to see all children, whatever their behaviour, provided for in mainstream education. As this highly emotive and sensationalist debate continues to obscure or embellish the truth of the no more exclusions argument, let’s not lose sight of the vulnerable racialised children who turn up to school each day exhausted by the circumstances of their lives and who need to remain in school in order to have some normality, some socialisation and some security.

[i] See the bottom of this link for supporting document attachments called ‘cabinet papers’, including the Inclusion Charter.

[ii] The Keeping Children in Education conference was organised by Southwark Council and included professionals from schools, educational support groups and the local authority, and focussed on ‘identifying the best positive actions to keep children in school’.

[iii] See page 30 of the report for a full list of contributors and interviewees.

[iv] See the bottom of this link for attendant documents called ‘cabinet papers’.

[v] Hackett, S. (2014) Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours. London: Research in Practice.

[vi] Roberta S. Sigel, Marilyn B. Hoskin (2013) Education for Democratic Citizenship: A Challenge for Multi-ethnic Societies, Routledge, p.41

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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