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Artillery Row

Sadiq Khan is putting schools at risk

Exclusions are a vital tool for teachers

In July, Sadiq Khan launched his new anti-misogyny campaign with the help of a giant pink billboard in Piccadilly Circus which reads “Say Maaate”. The idea is that when you see your mates engaging in sexist or misogynistic behaviour, you should #Haveaword with them. While the project is quite clearly a giant exercise in narcissism, it occurred to me this week that I’d quite like to “Say Maaate” to Khan over his recent decision to appoint Maureen McKenna, Glasgow’s former Director of Education, as a consultant for London’s Violence Reduction Unit. McKenna’s mission is to drive down exclusions. One might think this is an admirable goal: improving pupil behaviour and reducing the number of children who commit exclusion-worthy offences. This, however, isn’t McKenna’s style. Instead, she plans to make it much harder for schools to remove disruptive, violent, or dangerous students. 

McKenna’s fourteen years as Glasgow’s Director of Education were routinely overshadowed by threats from union reps who planned to call out teachers on strike due to the risk of violence in schools. Shortly after she began her work to reduce exclusions in 2007, McKenna was met with groups of furious mothers campaigning against the move — some going so far as to chain themselves to city chambers. Hundreds of women attended a community meeting to urge McKenna to rethink her approach. McKenna regularly refused requests to permanently exclude dangerous pupils. She claimed exclusion had begun a habit, failing to appreciate thecontext of the young person, where they had come from”. She felt that all bad behaviour is “communication of a deeper issue”. While this may often be so, the decision to keep violent children in the classroom in the hope they might learn “strategies to cope” is an alarming one.

This might be a compassionate way to approach difficult pupils, yet the reality is a frightening and unsafe environment for all those around them. Last year, Mike Corbett told the BBC that teachers might be forced to walk out due to “aggressive and violent pupils” who are “still coming back in” after numerous incidents. He noted that “serious verbal abuse or sometimes physical violence and vandalism” were regular occurrences as Bannerman High School, one of the Glasgow schools celebrated for achieving zero exclusions under the McKenna regime.

When asked about the situation, the Glasgow City Council declared that “young people who are not in school are not learning and although exclusions are unavoidable in certain circumstances, our schools work with pupils to find out why they are behaving in such a way and find solutions to support any child in need.” While the excluded child may indeed not be learning, an exclusion produces a  room of children able to focus on their education without the fear of being stabbed in class. McKenna’s policy repeatedly sacrificed these children as a whole cohort.

In April of this year, 14 years after McKenna first cracked down on exclusions, the Glasgow bus drivers finally snapped. In a decision many parents found devastating, pupils from Knightswood Secondary School were banned from using the service. The company did so after students from the school repeatedly activated the emergency doors, smashed windows, and most horrifyingly in one case, assaulted the driver. McKenna’s wish to leave no children behind forced the bus company to leave every student on the pavement. In the knowledge that amongst the cohort would be numerous potentially violent students, the buses were forced to ban every child in an attempt to protect their passengers. 

Meanwhile school violence is on the rise in Scotland

Throughout her time in Glasgow McKenna managed to reduce school exclusions by 88 per cent before her retirement in December 2021. Meanwhile school violence is on the rise in Scotland. Glasgow have reportedly failed to provide data on the number of incidents that have occurred in their schools, relying on exclusion as a key performance metric. However, if students aren’t excluded for bringing weapons to school and threatening their teachers, then one must conclude this is no longer a very useful stat. 

Anxiety about violence in Glasgow’s schools is certainly growing. Pam Duncan-Glancy, Glasgow Labour MSP, has expressed concerns for the numerous teachers “going to work worried about the safety of their children in school”. The message from McKenna and the SNP has long since been clear: we will treat violent and disruptive children with compassion, but we will ignore the numerous pupils whose lives are ruined by horrific acts of youth violence. 

While this might seem to present quite a bleak picture, it is rhetoric that Khan has fallen for hook, line, and sinker. He announced in The Evening Standard that McKenna “brings strong expertise in working closely with schools and shares our ambition to give every young person the support they need to receive an education that will help fulfil their potential”. McKenna will be coming out of retirement to work in the London Violence Reduction Unit with the goal of boosting “inclusive education” by driving down exclusions in London schools. 

The story in London will undoubtedly be similar to that in Glasgow. Khan has rightfully identified that excluded children are more likely to commit acts of violence. Formerly excluded children make up half of the prison population. These numbers, however, don’t speak to the influence of exclusion on children. It is not the act of exclusion which drives these children to violence, as has been shown by the incidents occurring in McKenna’s reformed schools. Khan has created a perfect storm in which potentially dangerous children are left in schools instead of getting the help they need in specialized units. By dramatically reducing the already scant consequences for serially disruptive and violent pupils, he puts all of London’s children at risk.

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