The Excluded: I lie awake crying, powerless to deal with hell of son’s exclusions

David Cohen
Nigel Howard

The last year and a half has been hell. I feel like I am trapped in a juggernaut heading for doom and that I can do nothing about it.

My fourth and youngest child Tom goes to a state secondary school in west London. At his first parents’ evening we were delighted to hear he had settled well and was progressing academically. But at the beginning of Year 9, aged 13, he began getting low-level detentions for silly behaviour — talking, not following instructions, being late. It came at a time he was entering puberty and had begun hanging out with a different set of friends. Unbeknown to us, he had been introduced to cannabis. He was angry, didn’t want to communicate, spending hours alone in his bedroom. It was obvious he was struggling.

As the detentions began to mount, he became more and more disengaged. I explained to the school what was going on. I said I didn’t condone his behaviour but felt it important that they recognise he was becoming depressed. I asked them to lay off the detentions and use a different approach to establish the root of the problem, but the school took a hard line.

I arranged for a drugs counsellor from a local support service to see my son during school hours and, to my relief, he did engage. But, at the beginning of Year 10, after the school decided to carry over a punishment from the previous academic year, he started refusing to attend detentions. Things escalated and he was given his first fixed-term exclusion — sent home for one day. His crime? Not taking his coat off fast enough at the beginning of a lesson.

When I protested, I got an email that said: “You may believe refusing to take one’s coat off is a trivial matter but open defiance is viewed seriously, will not be tolerated and until your son realises this, there will continue to be problems.”

I want to work with the school to help my son… he needs compassion as well as clear boundaries

I asked the school for an early intervention plan, which they agreed to, but it never materialised. I had meetings with the head and the chair of governors, but they are not interested in addressing the reasons behind Tom’s behaviour. The system breaks you. I lie awake at night with tears rolling down my face, trying to navigate a way out of this mess.

My husband and I live in a middle-class home in a leafy part of London. Our oldest three have come through the system largely unscathed. The first starts university in September, our second is about to sit her A-levels and has received an unconditional offer to go to university, and our third, a boy, has battled through and secured eight decent GCSEs. I thought exclusions happened to other people’s children, but now I know they can happen to you.

As I write, my son, now 14, is serving his 10th fixed-term exclusion in as many weeks, mainly issued as a result of cumulative lower level sanctions for minor offences.

His behaviour has become progressively worse and recently he swore at a teacher and refused to leave a classroom when asked. He says teachers follow him around waiting for him to put a foot wrong and then pounce as soon as he does. Whether that is true, I don’t know but that is his perception.

I believe the school is now actively trying to manoeuvre my son out of the school and his educational future looks bleak. That frightens me.

I want to work with the school to help my son be the best he can be. He needs compassion as well as clear boundaries. It’s too easy to keep excluding him. You can’t punish children into submission. It doesn’t work. But saddest of all is that no one has recognised that buried deep inside this ostensibly defiant, rude teenager is a boy desperate to be found and valued. I see it in his eyes and it breaks me.

There are thousands of children across London in a similar situation. They and we, as parents, can feel as if we are up against a formidable hierarchy of headteachers and governors more concerned with Ofsted ratings and results tables than what is best for the child. Parents are embarrassed to raise it because they perceive exclusion as shameful.

I am no longer embarrassed. I will do anything to prevent my youngest from becoming yet another statistic, but at the same time, I have to admit — I have never felt more powerless in my life.

Names have been changed

How schools can access our fund

Grants of up to £150,000 over three years are available to London secondary schools with higher exclusions than the national average seeking to radically cut exclusions.

We have two £500,000 funders — John Lyon’s Charity and tech philanthropist Martin Moshal — whose funds will be administered by the London Community Foundation.

Schools interested and located in the beneficial area of JLC (Barnet, Brent, Camden, Ealing, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Harrow and Westminster) should go to jlc. london. Schools in other London boroughs should apply at londoncf. Criteria for funding is the same in both cases.

Expressions of interest by Feb 7.

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