Opinion: Reducing school exclusions needs a system-wide approach

My first two years of secondary school were miserable.

The transition from primary to high isn’t always smooth and my experience was sullied by a prolonged period of nasty bullying that resulted in a a guidance teacher pulling me aside to query the frequent Monday absences.

Nowadays, I’m sure the school would have got to the bottom of the problem but this particular teacher was content with my (probably not very convincing) reply that everything was fine.

Thankfully the situation resolved itself when I met nicer friends in third year and the rest of high school was just as it should be – a mixture of hard work, many thrilling crushes and at least one treasured friendship that has endured.

My other memory of high school circa 1987/88? A succession of teacher strikes, but far more disruption to classes caused by unruly pupils.

One English teacher’s preferred method for dealing with this was to stop the lesson immediately and force the entire class to write lines.

Lesson upon lesson was spent copying lines on the blackboard when we should have been un-picking poetry and savouring literary classics. The ‘problem’ pupils may not have received the support they required, the sharing out of their punishment led to resentment and everyone lost out on education.

In later years, I recall a teacher, clearly at breaking point, slamming the entire contents of her desk onto the ground, picking up her handbag and running out of the classroom after a female pupil refused to stop answering back.

READ MORE: Pupil exclusion rates plunge in Scotland as ‘nurturing’ approach bears fruit 

I’m not sure what the policy was at that time on school exclusions but those experiences suggest there might have been a drive to keep pupils in the classroom.

That’s no bad thing of course but my school and perhaps others at that time were probably lacking in supports for the pupils who required it – interventions that would have benefitted everyone.

It is positive then to read that improvements in the way schools are handling misbehaving pupils are said to be having a major effect on exclusion rates in Scottish schools.


The Herald reported earlier this week that rates have plummeted as dedicated support and “nurture” units help keep more youngsters in school.

Scottish Government figures for the state sector show that, in 2020/21, only one learner was “removed from the register”, which is when an excluded individual does not return to their original school and is instead taught elsewhere. This is down from 3 in 2018/19 and 60 in 2010/11.

The 2020/21 session also saw 8,322 cases of temporary exclusion compared with nearly 15,000 in 2018/19 and 26,784 in 2010/11. Overall, the temporary exclusion rate plunged from 39.9 per 1,000 pupils to 11.9 between 2010/11 and 2020/21.

While decreases between 2018/19 and 2020/21 are partly attributable to learners spending less time in school due to the pandemic, clear evidence of a sustained, longer-term reduction will be welcomed by education leaders.

READ MORE: More Scots pupils doing advanced highers online 

However,  educational experts have warned that the “patterns of inequality” remain, with those recorded as having additional support needs (ASN) or living in deprivation much more likely to be barred from education premises.

Research shows those removed from school are less likely to progress to tertiary education and high-quality employment. They are also at greater risk of becoming involved in crime, either as an offender or victim.

To us, they were just badly behaved pupils who interrupted our classes, we didn’t give it much thought. As adults we can now appreciate, there was probably a lot more going on under the surface.

Some of those pupils would have had additional support needs that had never been picked up -awareness and understanding of Autistic Spectrum Disorder and perhaps even dyslexia would have been limited.


Others might have had chaotic family lives, their worries and frustrations spilling over into bad behaviour towards teachers and the bullying of other pupils.

Glasgow City Council has for many years moved away from exclusions, instead creating “enhanced nurture” facilities that are located onsite in mainstream schools.

Exclusion is used only in extreme circumstances, with teachers given specialist training so they are better able to assist distressed children and young people. 

The strategy has won UK-wide praise, particularly in London.

READ MORE: Scottish child payment to double to £20 a week 

As a Children’s Panel member, I have learned that school is one of the most important safety nets for youngsters. Teachers are often the first to spot signs of neglect or abuse and hearings are immeasurably improved by the presence of one in a panel room. 

Repeated absences are often in themselves a reason for a hearing to take place with statutory supports put in place to try to ensure children can attend.

However, Professor Gillean McCluskey, co-director of research at Edinburgh University’s Moray House School of Education and Sport, says teachers will say again and again, that getting access to supports – particularly around mental health – is difficult.

She said:”The partner agencies – I’m not blaming them, I’m saying they’re also under-resourced, mental health in particular, a really big issue, but social work as well – all these [are] under-resourced, under-recruiting, they’re recruiting poorly, they’re not retaining staff. There are big issues.”

Figures published earlier this week showed that hundreds of young people in Scotland have been stuck on waiting lists for mental health support for more than two years.

Kevin Stewart, Minister for Mental Wellbeing, acknowledged that the situation was far from good enough and an extra £40m has been allocated to improve services and clear waiting list backlogs by 2023.

For exclusions to remain a last resort it is essential that pupils have access to the right supports at the earliest point and that shouldn’t just be the responsibility of schools. 

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