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'Excluded at Seven' revealed the children behind the data

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Before watching Channel 4’s documentary ‘Excluded at Seven’, which aired last night, I was nervous about how the programme would represent its child stars. I didn’t want to see pupils’ issues being sensationalised for a cuter version of reality TV. The opening lines of the Radio Times preview didn’t fill me with hope about this: “Harvey likes to thump things. Doors, walls, noticeboards – he kicks and bashes them…”. From watching the programme, this new arrival to the school evidently does thump things. Whether he’s really enjoying it, or whether it’s his only way of showing what’s going on in his head, I couldn’t be sure.

Luckily, the programme itself was child-centred, using its privileged access to show the children in a generally positive light. It is based at the Rosebery School in Kings Lynn, where children who have been excluded from previous schools (and all the children profiled had been excluded 10 times or more so far) work to overcome their barriers to participating in mainstream or special schools. The programme showed insights into the lives of pupils in the school’s youngest class. It also followed the narrative of one child moving away from this setting and another child taking their place in the class, meeting the challenge of settling back into school life post-latest-exclusion.

At first glance, a lot of the programme consisted of a cameraman’s genius of catching a child’s punchline with perfect comic timing. It served a purpose though; it made the pupils endearing, so that when their disruptive moments were caught on camera, the behaviour seemed more like a symptom than a character trait of a ‘naughty child’.  We also saw the children interacting with each other, and how much more critical these friendships are to them than the usual playground alliances in schools. Staff likened the pupils’ friendships to “family”, and some of the more heart-wringing scenes showed how much these children share their journeys with each other, leaning on each other for support along the way.

Most of the staff generally play a background role in the documentary, but headteacher Sharon Donaldson’s starring role as a calmly authoritative figure clearly had a strong influence on the pupils. While new pupil Harvey is slamming doors repeatedly, running around and climbing on furniture in distress, the headteacher never raises her voice in anger but gives clear instructions and warnings, and expertly offers options for him or ignores outbursts as needed. We saw the headteacher having meaningful one-to-ones with a range of pupils where they developed understanding of their emotions, built their self-esteem and planned for upcoming change.

We watched as the children took on this wisdom and applied it in real life situations. Jordan responded to Harvey’s struggle to settle in, as loud bangs and shouts erupted outside the classroom door, by telling his peers “I think Harvey’s nervous”. Another child added “I think he doesn’t like school”. Jordan, wisely replied, “Don’t listen to what’s happening, just do what you’ve been asked to do”, and the children continue to quietly scribble away in their books.

Later, Jordan told the interviewer: “Everyone has times when they’re angry, even the best people - the best, wisest, goodest person you know”.

The programme did make me question why a child had to be excluded 10 times or more before they were provided with the remedial provision they clearly needed. The headteacher explained that all of the children had stories where someone has been hurt or property damaged, and that violent behaviour is what leads to an exclusion. If only there were more school places for this type of provision, so that children could access it before their needs reach this critical point.

The programme taps into a current stream of news relating to exclusions in schools. Last week, the DfE published its data relating to permanent and fixed exclusions in England for the 2015/16 academic year, indicating that exclusions have increased for the second year running. Schoolsweek reported that 0.08 per cent of pupils in all schools were excluded in 2015-16. The BBC explained that this equates to 35 pupils per day across state primary, secondary and special schools. The rate of permanent exclusions had been decreasing up until 2014.

The documentary looks at the everyday reality of this – but for 7-year-olds. Although this age group doesn’t feature as much in the headlines, a dig into the data reveals that there were 230 more permanent exclusions and 6, 085 more fixed term exclusions in state primary schools in 2015/16 than there were in 2014/15. The Institute of Public Policy Research found that half of pupils excluded from England’s schools have a mental health issue, and the DfE’s data indicates a number of vulnerable groups to exclusion, including boys, pupils eligible for free school meals, pupils of Irish traveller, Gypsy and Roma heritage, and pupils with SEN.

There was a mention of SEN in the programme. One child is referred to as having autism, and another, ADHD – others may do too, but it is not picked up in interviews. Clearly there are emotional and behavioural needs, which would have existed before the exclusion but may also have been exacerbated by it. We see this materialising throughout the programme. For example, it is genuinely upsetting to hear Harvey say that coming to this new school is “the last chance he’s going to give people”.

Fortunately, it seems that last chance is going to work out for Harvey. Another child, Alfie, approaches Harvey outside the classroom in a moment of respite between shouting and physical demonstrations. He says, “Would you like to come in now? You could sit next to me. I could help you”. Alfie then smoothly walks back into the classroom. Harvey eventually chooses to follow him into the room, and is immediately given some personalised learning by an encouraging teacher. It’s clearly a crucial moment for Harvey as he turns over a new leaf.

At the end of the programme, when an interviewer asked Harvey how it was going at the school, he replied, “Good … I’ve made friends … and found some weird bugs”. Fingers crossed the friends and the bugs keep Harvey on his road to success – I’m certainly rooting for him.

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