School-to-prison pipeline: maybe we are at fault after all

It’s taken me days to write this! This is a real thought piece that has changed completely as I’ve run through the logic in my head, so hear me out and I’d love to know your thoughts on this too. You know, I’d actually prefer to be persuaded that I’m wrong and then I wouldn’t feel so guilty that I’m part of a system that might actually be making life much worse for children. Long story short: an article was recently published arguing that instead of excluding pupils, we should all work harder to accommodate them more, otherwise they might end up in prison. The thing is, I’m wondering whether these pupils are being excluded and then ending up in prison because we accommodated them too much.

So, I am a school leader who moved half way across the country in order to join a trust dedicated to the provision of an excellent education to disadvantaged children and I now work in a school situated on one of the most deprived estates in the country. When I read these articles, I do wonder why there is an underlying assumption that educators do not care enough. It’s like they’re trying to guilt trip us even when all methods to facilitate inclusion have been exhausted, the coffers are empty and everyone is emotionally, mentally and physically drained, but I’m trying not to get too defensive about it all. I’m sure you all know that people like me really do care. It could just be that commentators are merely looking from the outside in and thinking that there is always more that can be done. You know, they’re probably right. There is always more that can be done if the status quo is to constantly look for more that can be done, but where do we draw the line? Suddenly I’m thinking about the triple marking fiasco – how did that start? It started small with a tick or a cross or a see me and then gradually ramped up as everyone looked for more and more that could be done for each and every child and soon each and every child didn’t bother to double check their own work or really listen in class because they knew the teacher would give them a multi-coloured private tutorial inside their workbook. Those children also knew that if they didn’t bother with the original work, or the marking, or the return-to-marking-marking, then it would be the teacher who’d get told off (because the leadership were checking up on the teacher’s marking rather than the quality and quantity of children’s work) and not them. Maybe we’re all trapped in a cycle of rising expectations similar to triple marking as more and more people get involved in this one child’s life.

There are actually a number of points the author raises which I agree with – a school’s ‘unmet needs’ is quite a good analogy because the very schools who struggle most with behaviour tend to be situated in deprived, white working class areas and will therefore struggle to attract and retain those specialist and experienced teachers who could give a few solid years of hard graft as part of a team investing a great deal in consistency, culture and community (rather than firefighting). Further, despite evidence showing that extra pay doesn’t help to attract good teachers, I can’t help but think that our national pay structures ought to take into account the fact that a cohort of 30 disadvantaged children will present a higher workload for the class teacher because of the sheer volume of extra safeguarding, pastoral and social needs. And if people don’t want extra pay, then perhaps the key to attracting good teachers to these schools/areas is funding extra time out of the classroom on a par with NQTs – this would help with their mental health because working with disadvantaged cohorts can very quickly wear class teachers down and then they make plans to work in a middle class school instead. We don’t want this to happen not just because children can switch off as they become resigned to a revolving door of aloof supply teachers but also because the teachers who leave are valuable, caring and hardworking people who deserve support rather than an attitude that there are plenty more fish in the sea.

One of the author’s proposed solutions is for schools to be released from the top down pressure of focus on results and attainment and then pupils who present with extremes of behaviour could be accommodated more and therefore be retained in school. While I agree that there is rather too much pressure on headteachers to come up with the results goods about 5 minutes after they’ve taken on a school, I’m not sure that lowering the bar would be the best option. Firstly, a lowering of both academic and behaviour expectations across an entire school would then potentially reduce or eliminate the life choices of well over 350 already disadvantaged children (our context), not to mention wearing out hard working teachers even more. When I think about the home lives of some of the children I am responsible for educating, it would be awful if they then had to put up with witnessing and being desensitised to more violence, chaos and disruption, displays of uncontrolled anger and having the only positive thing in their life turned into yet more daily hours of misery. Further, many of the children we educate have SEN and I am their protector – children with ASD, for example, who are not as confident and who need calm, routine, rules that are clear in order to quell anxieties and free their minds for maths. However, this is not just about the rights of all the other children, this is about the rights of the one child who might be excluded – we all want him to have an education and we all agree that when we reach the point of permanent exclusion there will have been many decisions along the way that have sought to accommodate this pupil’s disposition that have just not worked enough to put him on the path to better behaviour (and therefore academic) success. At what point do we admit that if something isn’t working and we’ve tried that something repeatedly and with increasing fervour over time, the solution might not be to go the full gambling addict and do that something yet again and with even more oomph in the hope that this time it’ll finally work. I’m sure we’ve all had this sort of discussion about discovery maths and realise after many iterations of doing more and more discovery maths that the answer was not to do discovery maths in the first place.

My solution is to step back, get scientific about the origins of this child’s behaviour and then get in early, meeting his real needs rather than creating various official, rubber-stamped ways to accommodate his wants. Perhaps this is easier said than done though! In order to ask those important questions, we have to accept that:

  • Children can and do choose their behaviours and actions
  • Children who have SEN and disabilities can and should learn simple social rules
  • Children who struggle with self-control need to be taught and have the chance to practice to automaticity those basic habits that all the other children have, rather than be allowed to go through life thinking that everyone should placate them
  • There is a difference between needs and wants

I have been lucky enough to work with pretty much all age groups. I started off with the teenagers and gradually worked my way down into KS1 and EYFS. You know, when I see a young lad refuse a teacher’s instructions at 5 years old, I see the 15 year old young man that he will become and I know exactly what he will be like in year 11. There are all these patterns that point to a pathway that some of these children are on and that pathway goes way, way back. Most of the commentators seem to look at what happens when the excluded child is a teenager, and most people working in EYFS (where the path starts) don’t branch out into working in older year groups. When that behaviour butterfly flaps its wings and then causes a storm somewhere else in the world, I am probably one of very few educators who sees both the behaviour butterfly and the storm that results. There is something that is common to most younger children who are on the dodgy pathway and it is that their behaviour at 5 is still very toddler-like. It’s as if they got to 2 years old and that toddler pushback was not dealt with, rather, the home situation accommodated them instead and the parents just accepted that that kind of behaviour was sort of part of the child’s natural personality. And I do hear about and from parents who have younger children who are due to start school, ‘Oh, he’s a hitter. They will have to watch him because that’s just what he likes to do.’ Another common theme is that these children tend to lack ability to communicate with words and social graces. They’re incredibly frustrated and this constant frustration definitely contributes to the embedding of quick-to-anger personality traits and habits of thought, as well as holding them back from accessing early literacy and numeracy education.

As you know, I have concerns about the EYFS framework in that it accommodates the MO of a child who’s learned at home that he can do what he wants if he stamps and shouts hard enough and actually embeds those thought habits around choosing the instant, easy and fun over delayed gratification, effort and hard graft (even if it doesn’t present initially as poor behaviour – this is about basic psychology). Combined with a tendency to kick off if he doesn’t get his own way, it’s all to easy to allow this cute little fella to choose to not read or write, you know, so we must accommodate him a little more – maybe he’s just not ready, eh? It’s a bit of a shitstorm really because this child is not only having his current disposition accommodated and augmented, but he is now falling behind in his learning and he KNOWS it and feels like an idiot compared to the uber-confident girls.

We bide our time and then in year 1 we can really make a difference: evidence-informed pedagogy, knowledge-rich curriculum, dramatically different just-sit-down-and-learn with the teacher teaching from the front and lots of practice to make links and make permanent. Funnily enough, both behaviour and academic attainment dramatically improves too (when progress measures go from baseline, our school will rocket up the league tables). I know that many children are re-set onto a better and happier path in life during this time. The children love their learning and receiving praise. Pity the disadvantaged child in a school where noisy play/discovery based learning is the main influence all the way into year 2 – he might be clocking up lots of letters after his name as those labels get added and people wait for him to magically re-wire his own brain, reverse poor habits of thought and action and suddenly be ‘ready’ to learn like his peers, but he certainly won’t be clocking up letters after his name as a man.

What happens to this boy who tends to kick off as he moves up the year groups? A school that has that trad culture embedded will slowly but surely turn things around for this boy as he spends the majority of his time concentrating, staying calm, being polite and learning. This is not just about psychology but also about biology – think about all that adrenalin coursing round the body of a child who is running around in a noisy classroom where it’s all carousel teaching and ‘active’ learning vs the amount of adrenalin produced when corridors and classrooms are calm, quiet and orderly. However, the annoying thing about developing new habits of thought and actions is that it takes a long time and it needs to be consistent. This is why I think primary schools in particular should do the following:

  • Provide CPD for staff so that they understand why we need to have those whole school habits and routines and why this needs to happen every minute of the child’s time in school – everyone agrees that grammar needs to be explicitly taught in discrete lessons and then practised to automaticity before children can be expected to deploy that knowledge in their creative writing, and yet many cannot see that it is exactly the same for the habits of not calling out, walking rather than running, not hitting other children in frustration, working hard rather than giving up
  • Perhaps use pupil premium to tackle illiteracy and deficits in speech and language as early as possible rather than use it to provide clubs and middle class trips (sorry guys, I don’t support the theory on ‘biologically primary knowledge’). Yes, this seems mean, but I see a definite link between lack of ability to communicate and early tendencies towards defiance and eventual violence/not fitting into society – no child likes looking like an idiot in front of his peers no matter how much you big up his ability to run really fast
  • Develop metrics for measuring behaviour and expect to see improvements over time. For example, noise levels in corridors and classrooms (no, this isn’t a ‘learning buzz’, this is massively ramping up adrenalin and causing a lot of distress and cognitive overload for children) or whether children are using the ‘Star sitting’ (or whatever the school uses)
  • Develop whole school routines and expectations that have the overall objective of calming the body and freeing the mind for intellectual thought. For example, we have ‘Fantastic Walking’ which ensures our children walk in single file, no talking, heads held high and hands loosely clasped behind the back. Yes, Ofsted/consultants might hate this, but we found that giving children something to do with their hands turned around the words and phrases used in the corridor by staff from negative to positive. Instead of ‘stop poking him!’ we’ve now got ‘Fantastic Walking!’ It’s pretty new and our next steps are to ensure it happens all the time, including when going to the lunch hall! You know what? Children love it. I need all staff to be consistent with their expectations though
  • Identify the weak links in the chain of consistency that might allow poor habits to re-emerge because for many children it is very very easy to slip back

I looked into some research on habits and to my dismay I found out that it can take up to a year to learn a new habit but just days to learn a bad habit. It is for this reason that I dared to put that last bullet point in. You see, sometimes tiny little moments add up and children go back to that path of self-destruction with every return becoming more and more likely to be hard-coded and eventually irreversible. Every time a teacher avoids asking a boy to sit properly because she hasn’t got the confidence to confront him and is perhaps worried that he would kick off, so a tiny little seed of defiance is sewn and a little bit of power is transferred to him for an entire year that the next teacher will have to deal with. This will probably rile many teachers but there are also those who choose not to confront either because they prefer an easier life or have this weird thing going on in their head where they sort of take things personally, thinking that asking the child once should be enough and if he doesn’t remember the next time then it’s the fault of SLT/the child and everyone else can deal with it. Some teachers actively allow minor flouting of rules and expectations because they do not extrapolate beyond their year group and therefore never see how allowing boundary-blurring behaviour because he seems to be doing OK in his tests might escalate once the testosterone starts trickling in at the same time as his next innocent and unsuspecting teacher merely asks him, for the first time, to actually sit properly and write in silence. Sometimes the innocent and unsuspecting teacher is the year 6 or year 11 teacher.

So, this boy continues to push those boundaries (because all children do at various points – let’s remember they are little children and not mini professors) and is given a little more leeway, so he pushes more. A couple of years later, the teacher is avoiding expecting him to finish that paragraph because she knows he’ll just chuck the book on the floor and flounce off, slamming the door on his way out and running down the corridor giving everyone the finger. For every one of these boys, there are 5 more who are given tacit permission to be a bit silly, not quite pay attention to their handwriting, maybe ignore some of the instructions and despite the quality of explicit teaching and knowledge-rich curriculum, what actually goes into their heads and stays there isn’t much at all. Of course, they still want attention and to feel good, but this will never come from acing a maths test unless we choose to work hard and do some extra homework, so they end up choosing to be a bit of a class clown because it makes all the girls laugh. These small accommodations clock up and are self-perpetuating, sometimes leading to whole-school decisions such as banning regular maths competitions lest this boy and fellow pupils like him kick off. Our book thrower gets given a time-out card and then a reduced timetable and then and then and then…….

It’s not all on the teacher though (and it never should be). Leaders need to run a tight ship with whole school culture, routines, expectations and consequences being systemised rather than an ad-hoc mishmash of this, that and ‘do more’. One mistake I see is when a cohort of children develops a reputation as being ‘the nice class’. Where there is a large variety of whole-cohort ‘personalities’ between year groups and classes, what has happened is that this group of children has adapted over time and this adaptation is due to a succession of strong teachers steering and leading them on the straight and narrow. Then, leaders make the decision to put ‘the nice class’ with a teacher who has a history of struggling to control classes and who isn’t as thorough with sweating the small stuff, building relationships and ensuring consistency of whole-school routines, rules and expectations within the classroom. Everyone acts surprised when the ‘nice class’ after a short space of time isn’t so nice and within that class will be those children who take a mile when they are given an inch. It doesn’t take long for some children to switch back to the path of self-destruction they were on when they arrived at school. What was needed was for leaders to do as much as possible with whole school systems to avoid the creation of such variety of whole-year group ‘personality’ in the first place. It doesn’t help that some leaders are blessed with a whole school of ‘nice’ because of the hard work of the community of parents in the background – visiting inspectors and consultants then extrapolate from the superficial activities and somewhat lax rules and routines of the ‘nice’ school and assume them to be causal, marking down the contrasting school in a disadvantaged area for being too strict or having too much of that evil teaching from the front business. Secondary teachers and leaders don’t get to see these sorts of patterns because all the children from different schools are shuffled like a deck of cards when they arrive at year 7 – I recommend visiting primary schools and really looking carefully for and asking pertinent questions about the differences between average behaviour and attainment between year groups and classes because the history will be very interesting, possibly causing some self-reflection around the ‘truth’ that teacher autonomy is such a good thing.

If I could, I would love to really investigate the pathways that excluded children were on before they got excluded. I would interview the parents, the children and their previous teachers. I would go all the way back and look at their workbooks and compare them to their peers. Along the way, we could measure adrenalin production, levels of concentration, literacy and numeracy, oh there is so much that could be analysed. My hypothesis would be that a million tiny decisions and interactions gradually increased the amount of leeway this child received, accommodating him in more and more ways while reducing expectations either surreptitiously (eg. the teacher not confronting) or overtly and systematically (the SENDCo mandating his receiving easier work and time out on a computer game) such that he had the habit of thought ‘I can do whatever I want and if I’m unhappy then it is everyone’s fault but mine’ utterly hard coded. I reckon the pathway for this child diverged from his peers well before he arrived at secondary school and that instead of putting him on a better path at an early point by tackling his underlying thought processes and psychology, our decisions just ensured he remained on it until the inevitable happened. When I talk to friends and family who were on that path and managed to get their lives back on track, it wasn’t because their school or family put in place yet more and more to accommodate them, it was because they reached some kind of crisis point of failure, a moment of truth and realisation and then decided to take control of their own lives by dramatically altering their own thoughts and actions and sticking with them until it became routine. For many, the crisis point happened early enough and they were OK because their wider community had better expectations and standards, providing a route to put them back on track so long as they chose to work bloody hard. For some, the pathway of accommodating their wants extended into the wider community where the drugs and crime awaited and the crisis point becomes the moment they die. I would not want this for any human being.

So I have managed to write my longest blog ever and talked about everything from the very first toddler tantrum to the moment a drug addict dies. Sure, it’s not cut and dried but what I see are pathways and that we need to ensure that from a very young age all children are on as similar a pathway as possible even if it means being strict from the off and expecting all children to work hard and behave before we reach for the label and that time out card.

Who’s with me?


7 thoughts on “School-to-prison pipeline: maybe we are at fault after all

  1. When the Guardian ran an article on the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ a few days ago, I commented that “When schools start making excuses for misbehaviour, they are effectively telling that child that he or she is in some very important way inferior to others, so they are being held to a lower standard. Psychologically, this is disastrous for all parties concerned. And then we wonder why we have a teacher shortage.” Interstingly, this comment got a lot of ticks–I would have thought that the average Graun reader would be an enthusiastic proponent of the “all behaviour is communication” ideology.

    This said, a brilliant post. On the question of workload, I think the only plausible solution is the use of carefully selected TAs to relieve the burden. They won’t have to be deprogrammed from EYFS nonsense, and hence are much easier to train. For example, with our Wave 3 intervention, we found that TAs had no trouble understanding that when a pupil makes a mistake, the best course is to correct it immediately, ask the child to repeat the correct response, and review the same item within the next minute or so. They readily apprectiated our rule that their job was to ensure that the child was always “getting it right”. By contrast, qualified teachers were much more likely to use a Socratic approach–attempting to elicit the correct response by questioning and discussion, which not only wastes time but focuses the child’s attention on failure. Perhaps one of the most disastrous ed school fallacies is that ‘mistakes are the portals of discovery’. Tell that to your SEN pupil.


  2. We must teach all students explicitly and systematically throughout their development, the appropriate ways to relate to each other. Teaching these skills and strategies must be taught with compassion and accommodations made as necessary.


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