Thrown Away or Fresh Start? Life After Permanent School Exclusion

Thrown Away or Fresh Start? Life After Permanent School Exclusion

In the first of a series of posts reflecting on Grand Challenges’ recent Adolescent Lives initiative, revealing the impact of the research undertaken on this topic, Siobhan Morris finds out what happens to adolescents who are permanently excluded from school in England today.

As part of the Grand Challenges Adolescent Lives initiative, Dr Alison Macdonald from UCL’s Department of Anthropology recently collaborated with Lasse Johansson, a documentary filmmaker at UCL and Sally Dennehy a state school teacher in Somerset, on a project entitled, ‘Beyond the “Engagement” Paradigm: Participating in young lives in rural Somerset‘. The project sought to understand adolescence in the context of permanent school exclusion in non-selective state schools and to challenge societal misconceptions about the ‘excluded kid’.

The project examined what happens to ‘forgotten kids’ who are permanently excluded from school, unpacking the social and personal complexity of social ‘re-engagement’ amongst young adults as they strive to carve out a life for themselves in rural England today.

To address these questions, the team spent time conducting interviews and ethnographic research with adolescents who had been permanently excluded from school. These interviews formed the basis for a film capturing the story of two young men, aged 20, living in the rural west of England who were permanently excluded from school at the age of 14 and received the remainder of their education in a Pupil Referral Unit. The film explores their reflections on the experience of school, their memories of the journey through exclusion, and ends with a portrait of their lives and ambitions today.

The project has identified significant implications for education policy. In England, exclusions have risen by 40% over the past three years, with 35 children being told to permanently leave their school every day. The project’s findings have shown that communication between schools and alternative provision academies is essential for the well-being of vulnerable students. However, they argue that this should not be achieved solely by preventing exclusion in the first place. Instead, noting that we need to re-think the role and meaning of exclusion and understand that exclusion can sometimes be the start of a positive process of re-engagement.

Consequently, the project highlights the need to move away from polar thinking around inclusion and exclusion towards a more holistic understanding of adolescent learning. In addition, they advocate that the voices of young people themselves must be included in such debates and should be influential in shaping policy.

As Dr Macdonald explains, such conclusions were arrived at as “bringing together our different disciplines of film, anthropology and education challenged us to think about research in new ways. Putting the participants’ voices and ideas at the centre of the film was an important goal, and Lasse helped us to engage in film techniques that empowered our participants to have their say and dictate the terms of filming. The process of making the documentary also became a structure and activity through which we got to know the participants, combining ethnographic research with participatory film techniques. This was an especially effective mode of conducting research because it was by thinking through the film content that the qualitative data on lived experience of school exclusion came to life.”

Adopting UCL Grand Challenges’ cross-disciplinary approach enabled the project to develop participatory research with young people by making a film in conjunction with them that captures their views of education and everyday life. “Going beyond our single disciplines opened up a research space that not only pushed our individual knowledge bases as we shared a great deal of skills and expertise, but it also enabled us to address several aspects of our project aims at the same time: produce ethnographic data; produce a social impact film; shift previously held assumptions (including our own) and engage in participatory research methods.”

Following the project’s success, Dr Macdonald has subsequently gained ethics clearance to continue the project’s ethnographic work for another year. The film has also been presented at a teachers’ inset day to inform teaching on this topic. Looking to the future, the project team plans to promote the film among teachers and make it available for teacher training and inset days, publish the project findings in both a public engagement forum and anthropology journal, and substantially develop the project in preparation for a larger funding bid.

Further information about the project is available here.