In 2006 I was alerted from inside the Department for Education and Skills that they had produced a report on black children and exclusions that was dynamite. The “Priority Review” into the disproportionate levels of black exclusions had come to the firm conclusion that this level of exclusion was due to institutional racism. This was an incendiary conclusion. Because the British educational establishment and teachers unions in particular, had always refused to contemplate the possibility institutional racism was present in Britain’s schools. Furthermore it potentially put Britain’s schools in breach of the Race Relations Amendments Act. But this report had been commissioned by the Department itself and was impossible to ignore or dismiss. Instead the Department just sat on it. They hoped perhaps, if they did not publish it, the report could go away. But a copy of the hard-hitting report was smuggled out to me. I put down a series of written questions in Parliament. The report was then leaked to the newspapers and finally, very reluctantly, the Department published a watered down version of the report, nearly a year later, in 2007.
Even in its watered down form, the conclusions of the report were clear. It said that the disproportionate levels of Black pupils being excluded from school could not be attributed solely to things like culture, class background or home life. Rather the report said what happened in school was the key to the levels of exclusion. In particular it pointed to teachers (sometimes subconscious) attitudes to black children. The report itself had clear recommendations. It wanted the department to set targets for bringing down black exclusions and in particular it wanted to the department to focus on the 100 schools with the worst record for excluding black children.
As soon as the report was published I went to see the then Schools Minister Lord Adonis to ask what was going to happen about implementation. Lord Adonis tried to helpful but the officials looked uncomfortable. I knew something was wrong when I asked if they were going to publish the league table of black exclusions. The officials looked aghast. I pointed out to |Lord Adonis that my government was committed to giving parents vital information and for black parents this information was certainly as vital as GCSE results etc. He saw my point and the officials reluctantly agreed to look into the matter. But that information has never been released.
I went on to question them about implementation. They said vague things about a pilot project. Their answers about the pilot were so unsatisfactory I asked Lord Adonis if I could have a follow-up meeting with officials to try and establish some details. He readily agreed.
But the follow-up meeting did nothing to reassure me. The pilot was going to be driven by National Strategies. The National Strategies programmes are delivered by the outsourcing company Capita They had rejected the idea of concentrating on the 100 worst schools, for reasons they would not explain. Instead their pilot was going to focus on a group of Local Education Authorities chosen apparently at random. (It turned out later that these were LEA’s who had volunteered) Many of them were in areas with hardly any ethnic minorities at all. Furthermore they were not going to work directly with schools. They were going to communicate with LEA’s and rely on them to contact schools. And there were going to be no targets of any kind. I left the meeting so suspicious of their pilot that I decided to set up my own project tracking the progress of the pilot to see what, if anything, it achieved.
The first problem my research found was that, rather than choosing Local Education Authorities in areas with a poor record for excluding Black students, the Department allowed LEAs to volunteer themselves for the project. This led to two types of LEA being involved – those with a low proportion of Black and ethnic minority pupils, and those with a high proportion of Black and ethnic minority pupils who were already involved in robust work around exclusions. The schools that would really benefit from being involved in work on exclusions – those with a high proportion of Black and ethnic minority pupils who were not focused on the issue, or whose LEA was not focused on the issue – were missed out. Furthermore, with no targets, there would be no way of judging the effectiveness of the pilot.
Eleven LEAs volunteered themselves for the pilot. They received funding for taking part. Some LEAs received resources (i.e. paperwork and DVD’s) designed to help lower the Black exclusions rate, but some got nothing. Some LEAs had regular meetings with the Department’s National Strategies group, others did not. My researchers spoke to ten of the 11 LEAs taking part in the pilot. Initially some of them did not even know that they were involved. The pilot was supposed to start at the beginning of the school year 2007, but many were not contacted until later
None of the LEAs using the resources that they were given were particularly impressed. A few commented that, the resources their schools were already using were more effective. You might have thought that the first step in the pilot would have been to hand out copies of the report that it was based on. In fact some resourceful LEAs had already been using the Priority Review report to guide their work. But, whilst some LEA’s said they had been given the report by National Strategies at the beginning of the pilot, others knew nothing of the existence of the review and were never given a copy.
Another flaw in the pilot became apparent early on. Even though their LEA may have signed on (and pocketed the funding available) there was no means of making schools in the area get involved. So, whilst some LEAs had from five to ten schools involved in the pilot, others only had three. So the suspicion must be that at least some schools with high levels of black pupil exclusions would simply have opted out.
More than one LEA was disappointed with the lack of contact communication they had with other LEAs on the pilot project. There was little evidence of best practice-sharing meetings and some of the LEAs did not even have regular communications with National Strategies.
The National Strategies group, who were responsible for rolling out the pilot project, initially tried to stop me talking to the LEAs about it. It seems the focus was on persuading LEAs to join the project and persuading them to stick with the project, rather than actually doing anything about reducing the level of black exclusions.
In May 2007, before the pilot began, the Ethnic Minorities Achievement Unit at the Department for Children, Schools and Families wrote to me about it. The letter stated:
“Working with a range of local authority, voluntary sector and partner organisation stakeholders we have developed a strategy for implementing the report’s recommendations to reduce disproportionate exclusions. The strategy will involve targeted intervention pilot work, initially with 11 local authorities with high proportions of Black Caribbean and Mixed White/Black Caribbean pupils and high or disproportionate exclusion rates for BC/MWBC pupils.” As my research discovered, there was no “targeted intervention pilot work” and the local authorities who volunteered to be part of the pilot did not all have high proportions of BC/MWBC pupils or high rates of exclusions of these pupils. The letter continues” This will involve National Strategies providing evaluation tools and effective practice examples, to inform positive intervention required in the pilot schools.” As my researchers found out, not all of the local authorities even received the tools and practice examples. The letter states that the original plan was to involve 100 schools in the pilot project, in fact the ten LEAs we spoke to involved only 45 schools.
Because there were never any targets there is no way of knowing what, if anything, the pilot achieved. It would seem that the pilot was just a way of appearing to take action whilst allowing schools to carry on with business as usual.
But exclusions remain one of black parent’s top concerns. It is time to follow the original recommendations of the report and both target the 100 worst schools for black exclusions and set clear targets for bringing black exclusion levels down nationwide.