The number of students being suspended or expelled from Australian schools is “skyrocketing”, according to news reports. These note a 10% increase in suspensions over two years at NSW primary schools and that students in south-western Sydney are being suspended more than four times as often as students in other parts of the city.
Suspension and expulsion is widely used in Australia, the UK and the US to respond to problematic behaviour. But evidence shows these tactics aren’t effective in changing a student’s conduct, and carry major long-term risks for their welfare. Students most affected tend to be those with higher and more complex needs, such as those with disabilities and mental health issues.
Instead of punishing young people, parents should be encouraged to work with schools to improve their child’s behaviour, and governments should install programs to tackle teacher stress. In the case of some schools, this might mean honestly tackling the quality of teaching and leadership, as well as teacher attitudes to students with disabilities.
Not the best strategy
Suspension refers to when a student is sent home from school after a serious incident (such as physical assault on a teacher) while a decision is being made about how to respond. Exclusion (also called expulsion in NSW and Victoria) is either for a set period or permanently. It can mean a decision has been taken by the principal or school leadership that the student cannot attend the school as a result of their behaviour.
Providing education for children is the legal responsibility of state governments. A decision to exclude a student means the child either attends an alternative education provider or is home-schooled, depending on family circumstances and judgements of the professionals (typically the principal or senior staff team) involved.
A 2017 Victorian Ombudsman report noted school expulsion was an escalating educational issue. It concluded many schools were not equipped with the resources, expertise and assistance to provide support to children with higher needs.
Research shows students who are expelled have a higher future risk of engaging in criminal and anti-social behaviour, or consuming drugs. Excluded young people also have lower odds of a stable, happy and productive adult life.
– David Armstrong
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