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On Their Own: How education fails to help our most disadvantaged children improve their lives.

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

Hussein Hussein - CAPE Mentors - February 10th 2020

CAPE Mentors, celebrated its first birthday last month. To commemorate this landmark, I sat down to write about my experiences over the past year. The process was painful and perhaps it ought to be. Organising children’s plight into a palatable narrative for others to read, potentially retweet and comment on is symptomatic of the problem itself: discourse around achieving educational equity is plentiful yet change is elusive. Personally, I have come to accept that the school system will not change to cater for the needs of poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged children, and though it shouldn’t be, it is completely on them to improve their own situation. Let me explain why.

The smoke and mirrors of overstated progress and convenient media coverage leaves many of the most vulnerable children within society to suffer in silence.

‘We are making tremendous strides in our ambition to make sure that all young people get a world-class education that’s right for them.’ Gavin Williamson –Sec. of State for Education - Universities UK Conference September 2019

Gavin Williamson, the man in a position to action change, believes tremendous strides are being made for all. His assessment is indicative of why things will not change. You cannot fix what you do not see. Worryingly, the problem of educational disadvantage is far greater than we appreciate. In 2020 England, there are many children who go months on end without school placement after being permanently excluded. In fact, the more vulnerable a child is, the greater their chance of having no access to education at all. This year, I supported eight students without a school, all were placed into the care of state, all were eligible for free school meals and all had been diagnosed with a special educational need. They suffer in silence and their isolation from mainstream society provides a well-trod route into the criminal justice system. Any idea that ‘tremendous strides’ are being made for all is ridiculous. The lottery of birth continues to set motion to a cycle of depressing outcomes and our current education system, that we romantically pretend is a vehicle of social mobility, perpetuates the problem.

An illusion of progress is propagated by convenient coverage, like that of the ‘transformation of education’ in Hackney, that omits the experiences of children who bend the narrative’s line of best fit. I mention Hackney, not because it is any better or worse than other local authorities, but because I grew up and support children there.

Of course, Hackney’s schools are better today than they were twenty or so years ago. A plethora of articles have been written about this turnaround, but they only scratch the surface with very few paying any attention to the fact that the population within Hackney is significantly different today to what it was back then. The simplistic tale of change pats so-called ‘super-heads’ on the back but fails to mention that Hackney boasts London’s highest rate of secondary school permanent exclusion (source: DfE Permanent and fixed period exclusions 2017 to 2018 - local authority tables).

While we laud and celebrate the educational revolution in Hackney, we fail to recognise that many children, often living within poverty, native to the borough before the Olympic revamp, continue to be excluded more readily now than they were when schools in the borough were condemned as the worst in Britain.

To improve the quality of education for all, irrespective of background, we must see the flaws in the current system and acknowledge those who continue to be disfavoured rather than make claims of grandeur about progress that is yet to be made for all.

Schools are businesses and results come first.

The tools used to measure a school’s success incentivise a business-like approach which leads to students being dealt with as assets rather than children. In a merciless pursuit of ‘outstanding’ plaudits, a process of ‘natural’ selection occurs whereby mainstream schools best survive through the seamless removal of certain groups of children to alternative provisions (APs) and pupil referral units (PRUs).

Whether we like it or not, league tables and OFSTED reports are the currency used to determine whether a school is good or bad. Schools masterfully mask the strategies they use to climb league tables and achieve good or outstanding judgements during OFSTED inspections.

In some cases, the skulduggery deployed by schools has been brought to the forefront.

‘Ten pupils in Year 11, who were on the school’s roll but attending good-quality alternative provision, were transferred to the alternative provider’s roll in January 2018. This means that these pupils are not represented in any published information about Discovery Academy … Inspectors concluded that it provided no benefit for the pupils and was carried out in the best interests of the school rather than the pupil.’

OFSTED report – Discovery Academy Stoke – 22nd -23rd January 2019

'Leaders have driven a rise in attainment that has benefited most pupils in the school …They have achieved this without paying due regard to the needs of some of their most vulnerable pupils … Some pupils who were attending Suffolk Pupil Referral Unit remained dual registered at both the school and the PRU, in key stage 3 and Year 10. However, the decision to remove these pupils from the school’s roll at the start of Year 11 was taken in the best interests of the school rather than of the pupils.’

OFSTED report – Ormiston Denes Academy – 26th -27th June 2019

Children deemed to meet a certain standard are used to help build a school’s reputation, while those who may take slightly more effort or processing are discarded before the year 11 GCSE gauntlet. Somewhere along the way the purpose of education has been forgotten altogether. Vulnerable students, who arguably stand to gain most from school, have become sacrificial lambs in a quest for plaudits and praise.

Rather than blame schools, we should review the way in which we scrutinise and measure their performance. I appreciate the importance of monitoring GCSE attainment and progress; I contend with the tunnel-vision it creates. Most children live lives that allow them to engage in education. Those who are not afforded this luxury are more readily removed from mainstream schools. Research has shown that excluded students are twice as likely to be in the care of the state, four times more likely to have grown up in poverty, seven times more likely to have a special educational need and ten times more likely to suffer recognised mental health problems.

Only when we reward schools for meeting the needs of all children, will we see a reduction in the numbers of permanent exclusions.

‘He was taken off roll under my instructions … school X has no further responsibility for this young person … Others have let this situation drag on and need to resolve it.’

The sentences above, taken from an email I received, demonstrate why I have no belief in education as we know it today. Although I appreciate my sentiment seems rather depressing, I would argue it is not. For me it is liberating. Rather than add to the wealth of commentary on much-needed educational reform, I focus my attention on the ground-level work capable of improving the lives of children suffering without a voice.

Through CAPE Mentors, I have embedded myself into the lives of those referred to us from local authorities, schools and children’s homes. At times, It has proven near impossible to mark how far this support should go: I have spent hours in police stations; broken up fights on home visits; found students reported missing; sacrificed evenings to help children settle into new homes when foster placements have broken down; and been a point of contact for them, foster carers, parents and social workers. My approach has seen success. All the children I have worked with have managed to attain school placements after prolonged gaps in their education.

Though I do not believe in the system, I do believe in the people that I have met, many doing as much, if not more, than me. From Luke Billingam at Hackney Quest, who is intelligent and capable enough to probably do anything but chooses to support children and families in the community he grew up in. To Steven Marshall, founder of Sports and Life Skills CIC, who teaches and provides work experience to hundreds of children across Islington and Barking & Dagenham. Or Knowlton Crichlow and Jonathan Charles-Brady who opened a wonderful children’s home for at risk youth in Merton. And Kiran Gill, founder of The Difference, who has brought the nation’s attention to the story of exclusion whilst also tackling teacher shortages in PRUs and APs.

Still, much more is needed and with Boris Johnson and his Conservative government at the wheel, now more than ever, is the time for us to ensure we balance conversation with action so those who need support most have access to people who care and see them as humans, not situations others need to resolve.

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