We are building the inclusive leaders of tomorrow, working systemically to reduce exclusion.
Pupil mental health and safeguarding are the fastest growing concerns for school leaders and areas in the country with the lowest educational outcomes also face complex challenges linked to health and social care. Yet there is little specialist training to upskill leaders in school-based interventions and working multi-agency to support safeguarding and mental health needs.
After their two year programme placement, we will be reintroducing a pool of specialist talent – our Difference Leaders - back into mainstream schools. As mainstream SLT our leaders will cascade their knowledge of mental health and safeguarding, lead inclusive whole school policy and drive long term systems change.
Case Study: reducing school exclusion through expert leadership
Shaun Brown arrived in post as Deputy Head at a mainstream school, having spent several years at high-performing Pupil Referral Unit. Shaun’s motivation to return to mainstream was to apply his learning from PRU to cut exclusions in mainstream. He did this in three key ways:
A diagnostic approach, asking why unusual and challenging behaviour was occurring and seeking to meet underlying need so that further incidents were averted;
An evidence-led response, using teacher training and tiered support for pupils based on best available data of ‘what works’;
Robust data-monitoring to establish and demonstrate impact.
Shaun took a diagnostic approach to reducing exclusions. This is common in teaching and learning: school leaders investigate patterns in data to see which teachers need support with teaching and learning, which pupils require intervention and which sub-groups might need extra academic engagement. However, in pastoral support, there is not always the same diagnostic approach led from SLT. The Difference believes that this is because of the status of pastoral work in the teaching profession, and advocates a high-status career route, with evidence-led training and robust data monitoring of the effectiveness of systems and staff training.
Looking at pupil data, Shaun realised that those pupils getting permanently excluded or facing managed moves were pupils who had previously high fixed term exclusions. (New DfE analysis now shows this is the case nationally, with repeat FTEs and low attendance strong independent variables with explanatory effect on likelihood of permanent exclusion.) When Shaun arrived in post, fixed term exclusions (FTE) were higher than the national average at 9.4% FTE, with repeat fixed term exclusions at 3.9% repeat FTE.
Investigating patterns in exclusions, Shaun noticed high numbers of fixed term exclusions at lesson change-over, and high repeat fixed term exclusions from within the internal inclusion unit. This was mitigated through a systems response: deploying specialist staff with strong pupil relationships during lesson changeover reduced the numbers of pupils in internal inclusion. This, in turn, made the internal inclusion unit a heightened sanction, with fewer pupils – reducing the conflicts which arose in the unit. Shaun introduced a ‘return from fixed term exclusion’ process, involving parents, to reduce repeat fixed term exclusions.
Shaun’s investigation into exclusions also revealed the link between low attendance and permanent exclusion/fixed term exclusion. When Shaun arrived as Deputy Head at Thomas Tallis, attendance was well below the national average at 93.3% attendance, and persistent absence (PA) was high at 14% persistent absence. As Deputy Head, line-managing both pastoral and SEND teams in the school, Shaun was able to instate school-wide competitions for form and year groups on attendance; and to work multi-agency to provide more wrap-around support for pupils with persistent absence.
Shaun’s diagnostic approach went one step further. From his specialist Master’s and work at the PRU, Shaun understood the link between childhood traumas, safeguarding concerns and extreme behaviour. The school already flagged to its teachers which of its pupils had special educational needs or were eligible for pupil premium. Shaun worked with heads of year and the families of pupils who were known by the school to have experienced trauma, such as domestic violence, bereavement or alcohol and substance misuse in the home. With the permission of these families, Shaun and his pastoral team shared this data with teachers, and specifically identified students with known Trauma experiences to staff. At the same time, Shaun delivered trauma training to teachers: helping them recognise extreme behaviour linked to trauma, giving them strategies to de-escalate challenging behaviour, and to work with pupils to recognise and repair damage from outbursts. Identifying pupils with known trauma helped teachers to depersonalise behaviour, and to promote compassionate and de-escalating responses to challenging behaviour.
Demonstrating the link between trauma and unexpected and challenging behaviour helped teachers to understand the concept of ‘unknown trauma’. Pupils were identified where trauma was known. But the majority of trauma is unknown. Teenagers, in particular, who are vulnerable to contextual safeguarding threats (such as sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation or abusive relationships), can be reluctant to disclose this trauma. Once staff could make the “mental leap” of connecting extreme behaviour to trauma, it was easier for them to understand that any change in a pupils’ behaviour could be indicative of a safeguarding concern. This helped them both remain compassionate in the face of challenging behaviour, and to recognise and communicate any worrying changes in behaviour with the pastoral and SEND teams.
Shaun led a whole-school, tiered approach to meeting pupils’ wellbeing, safeguarding and learning needs. In Tier 1, all staff were aware of all pupils’ wellbeing needs, their role in building strong relationships, and in noticing and communicating changes in behaviour. In Tier 2, preventative interventions were delivered with organisations with a strong track record in working with groups vulnerable to different safeguarding concerns. Tier 3 support for vulnerable children involved improved referral and collaboration with external agencies. Shaun credits his work in PRU with his ability to “speak the language of CAMHS and social care”.
Robust data monitoring
As the school went through three years of change, robust data-monitoring was used to demonstrate impact and motivate the staff team around the new whole-school approach to inclusion. Attendance improved to above the national average, rising to 95.2% attendance; and persistent absence fell by nearly a third to 10.5% persistent absence.
Most significantly, improved systems and staff training saw exclusions fall by two thirds, with FTE falling from 9.4% to 3.8% and repeat FTE falling from 3.9% to 0.9%. Managed moves also fell by two-thirds; and Shaun’s improvement of the internal inclusion unit (and his stance on the safeguarding concerns of offsite AP) meant that offsite AP use was cut by 100%.