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Internal exclusion at secondary school: A liminal space

by Josie Faure Walker

In this blog Dr Josie Faure Walker exposes the ethical and practical ambiguity which exists around the increasingly common (and controversial) school practice of ‘internal exclusion’. Drawing upon her research with school leaders she argues that sanctions and exclusions are often misleadingly framed as a form of psychologically informed support for young people. She proposes that genuine support can only develop when a young person consents to participate in a process which addresses the difficulties and pressures they experience in the school environment. She provides interesting advice to schools who might want to take steps towards a more transparent and psychologically informed approach to ‘managing behaviour’.

It is well known that exclusion from school makes a young person more vulnerable, pushing them further to the margins. While permanent and fixed term exclusions are reported nationally, internal exclusion is not. Exclusions data reveals that permanent exclusions are reducing somewhat, while fixed term exclusions have continued to rise (Department for Education; DfE, 2021). Children are being internally excluded without the same accountability as would be the case for off-site forms of exclusion.

What is internal exclusion?

Internal exclusion is a poorly defined practice and research is limited despite it being a well-established practice in secondary schools in England. Internal exclusion involves a child being placed separately to their mainstream class on the school site. Confusingly, internal exclusion may also be known as inclusion, learning support, exclusion, isolation, intervention or nurture groups. Internal exclusion is arguably a liminal space; children placed in internal exclusion are neither ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’ of school.

Of the limited research accounting for its prevalence in England, Mills and Thomson (2018) found that more than 50% of the 143 mainstream secondary schools studied were using “internal inclusion units to support pupils at risk of exclusion”.

What do we already know about internal exclusion?

Existing literature most commonly describes internal exclusion in one of two ways. First, as a disciplinary sanction, where children are separated from their mainstream peers which may involve isolation. Due to troublesome behaviour, pupils are removed from class, which may be valued by teaching staff aiming to get on with teaching their lesson. As a disciplinary sanction, internal exclusion is closely related to the behaviourist psychological paradigm commonly applied in secondary schools, which emphasises rewards and sanctions.

It can also be presented as a supportive approach, and research claims the benefits of the smaller scale of internal exclusion ‘units’ than the main classroom and pupil-staff relationships that provide a ‘safe haven’ for pupils. This would seem to be most associated with a humanistic psychological paradigm. Internal exclusion is sometimes described in relation to both approaches, despite the conflicts inherent between these very different ways of thinking about human behaviour.

The Department for Education (DfE; 2016) acknowledged internal exclusion in terms of ‘seclusion/isolation rooms’ and aligns most closely with the disciplinary approach. However, the recently published DfE’s ‘Behaviour in Schools’ guidance has removed reference to ‘isolation’ and uses the term ‘pupil support units’ (Department for Education, 2022). While it is positive that this document offers more clarity around the use of on-site internal exclusion and reintegration into mainstream lessons, it remains the case that the underpinning aim of the unit is to moderate a child’s behaviour within the unit rather than to understand and address underlying difficulties within the wider environment and school system.

Guidance states that if schools use internal exclusion, it needs to be declared within and aligned with the behaviour policy (DfE; 2016, 2022). Yet individual application of behaviour policy by staff in practice is highly variable and what is “enacted in practice at the classroom level is a bricolage of disciplinary policies and practices, beliefs and values” (Maguire, Ball & Braun, 2010). How senior leaders interpret guidance is likely to be influenced by their own experience, beliefs and values.

How do senior leaders ‘story’ internal exclusion?

My research involved unstructured interviews with a headteacher and assistant headteacher of two mainstream secondary schools in England at the start of the Autumn 2020 school term. I wanted to understand how senior leaders made sense of the practice of internal exclusion during the period of school disruption due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

I found that senior leaders made sense of internal exclusion by making links to a wide range of psychological discourses including behaviourism, humanism, and the psycho-medical. These were at times incongruent. Often the uneasy compromise between disciplinary sanction and supportive measure, identified in existing literature, was reflected within the senior leaders’ stories of their experience.

A novel finding of this research was that practices which were ‘disciplinary’, in the sense that they involved the school imposing a restriction upon pupils’ movements or choice, were often justified using language of support. The commonly available narratives of social, emotional and mental health ‘need’ were evident. This finding aligns with Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power (1977/1991). The inclusion of the young person is framed as dependent upon them changing in some way; the exclusion is presented as the means of facilitating that change.

What does this mean for educational practitioners?

These findings provide a valuable contribution to educational practitioners’ understanding of internal exclusion and show how making these discourses visible enables them to be challenged. Thinking through the implications of my findings I formulated some advice for practitioners and schools and for educational psychologists working with schools.

Purpose

Given the confusion and contradiction surrounding the practice of internal exclusion I recommend that practitioners reflect on its aims, what they hope this will achieve in a psychological sense for the young person. What is the overall goal of using internal exclusion?

Practice

How will the activities undertaken during internal exclusion facilitate these goals, and how will this be negotiated with the young person, if the goal is ‘personal change’ rather than punishment, for example.

Communication and consent

The exercise of power over a child or young person, for disciplinary and/or therapeutic purposes requires consideration of their human rights and in particular their consent to participate. Practitioners should reflect on how their parents or carers are informed of a decision to ‘internally’ exclude. If there is ‘resistance’ from the child or their family is this indicative of a lack of ‘consent’? How is a child’s right to have a say in what happens to them respected in the process?

Accountability of policy and practice

A school or local area policy on the use of internal exclusion is recommended. The placement of pupils in internal exclusion needs to be recorded and reviewed by senior leaders, as well as involving advisory services where there are pupils that return frequently to internal exclusion.

Recommendations for Educational Practitioners

Internal exclusion needs to be critically examined to understand its underpinning rationale and role within the school as a system. It is crucial to understand the impact of this and related exclusionary practices upon children and young people’s experience of school. Rather than consider what is provided within internal exclusion, the focus should be upon the barriers to the child or young person’s inclusion in the main classroom and how internal exclusion is addressing them. It is particularly pertinent following the disruption of the COVID-19 Pandemic to explore wider educational experiences, such as the impact of strict uniform and behaviour policies and a narrowed curriculum.

Greater adult/child ratios in internal exclusion may offer opportunities for relationships to develop. In a context of economic privation, the narrative of additional relational ‘support’ can be seductive. Educational psychologists may thus inadvertently facilitate the marginalisation of children in internal exclusion. Without a critical examination of internal exclusion, children and young people may be placed there under the guise of receiving additional support yet continue to miss the curriculum learning, staff and peer interactions that they would otherwise access.

Josie Faure Walker is an educational and child psychologist and former student on the DEdCPsy programme at the University of Sheffield.

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