The truth of this was illustrated to me recently at a reintegration meeting. A pupil, Joe, let’s say, had been excluded for a fixed term following a major incident, one that had shaken his school’s orderly community. Pupils had been frightened, the police called, Facebook was on fire with the episode and parents were talking.
I’m not going to share Joe’s history except to say that he experienced prolonged trauma as a much younger child and the impact of this on his functioning was clear. He’d learned that adults are not to be trusted and was permanently excluded from two primary schools because of the presentation of this belief. Police call-outs were not infrequent during his lengthy spell at the PRU.
Joe was rescued as a Year 7 pupil, by his current Headteacher. And it was a rescue. Imagine the outcomes for this bright but broken boy if the door back into mainstream education had remained shut.
He’s now in Year 11 and meltdowns are rare; years of nurture have enabled some significant rewiring and emotional regulation is not the problem it used to be for Joe. However, his terribly compromised early years mean that he will probably always be vulnerable and this episode was a reminder of that. Nobody was hurt in the incident, but someone might have been.
Joe would have been permanently excluded from many other schools, certainly any ‘no excuses’ institution, but the Head’s acute awareness of her duty of care would never have allowed that. The fixed term exclusion was served at a neighbouring school – she couldn’t be sure he would be safe, unsupervised at home – and the ground was prepared for his return.
Obviously, there had to be a risk assessment and there was discussion too about whether Joe might need some additional support during the stressful run up to his exams. Staff had noticed how wound up he was becoming, with all of the exam talk, prior to the episode. This was part of preparing the ground.
But it was also important to prepare the village.
The Headteacher held a special assembly to talk honestly about the incident and the reasons for her decision-making. She explained what happens when cortisol and adrenaline flood our bodies, about fight or flight, about the devastating impact of chronic stress early in life. In so doing, she asked for the compassionate understanding of her pupils. And it was given. Because pupils appreciate being respected. ‘No excuses’ is fundamentally disrespectful because it assumes that young people are entirely without compassion or subtlety of thought. That’s actually more of an adult issue, it would seem.
The reintegration meeting concluded with some discussion about Joe’s future in the school. Not that it would be foreshortened should there be a repeat incident. Rather that it might not be extended into post 16: the Head’s main worry was that Joe wouldn’t achieve the GCSE English grade required for VI form study, and the science A level she taught. (He hated extended writing and simply wouldn’t do it.) This really troubled her.
“I just don’t think he’ll thrive anywhere else”, she said.
There, in that sentence, ethical headship, love and what it means to have built a village.