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Oasis Academy, Sheppey, Abbey School, Faversham and Archbishop's School in Canterbury see highest suspension rates in Kent

An academy trust which runs a Kent school with some of the highest rates of pupil suspensions in the county says the after effects of Covid are to blame.

In comes following a Freedom of Information request, by former Gravesend Grammar head Peter Read. It revealed some non-selective secondary schools are using fixed-term suspensions sometimes ten times the amount of others in the same district.

Schools face a challenge when it comes to suspending children
Schools face a challenge when it comes to suspending children

In the case of the Oasis Academy, split over two sites on Sheppey, during the last academic year of 2021-22, the school issued 706 fixed term suspensions. While this figure will be swollen by the same pupils being suspended multiple times, the number represents one in two (51%) of the 1,394 pupils it had on its roll during the period.

It is however dramatically down on its pre-Covid figures. For the school year 2018-19 there were 1,120 suspensions at the school - the equivalent of a staggering 78% of its pupils.

The average suspension rate in Kent's secondary schools - both before and after Covid is around 11%.

Elsewhere in Swale, Sittingbourne's non-selective Westlands School had just 67 suspensions - the equivalent of just 4% of its pupils.

But Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis academy group which includes the school on Sheppey, insists the island's challenging cohort and steps to address high suspension rates were "derailed" by the pandemic.

Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Community Learning which runs the secondardy school on Sheppey. Picture: John Nurden
Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Community Learning which runs the secondardy school on Sheppey. Picture: John Nurden

He explains: "We're absolutely opposed to suspensions - we didn't want them ever to happen. We actually have a very low exclusion rate across our other schools.

"We're working towards a zero exclusion rate. But to do that a whole load of other things have to happen. Some of those are within our power and some lay beyond it.

"The Sheppey school has been inadequate for the last 50 years in its various guises. My attitude, without excusing anything, is there's a long tail to this.

"Until Covid we were making progress. An Ofsted interim report we had before the pandemic to monitor progress was the best report the school had ever got. Numbers were going up, the work the school was doing in the community was really good and the education was really improving.

"But Covid on Sheppey was devastating – in terms of mental health, it had a huge impact and the school has not recovered from it. The momentum we had was derailed."

Oasis Academy's Sheerness campus in Marine Parade
Oasis Academy's Sheerness campus in Marine Parade

In Canterbury, the Archbishop's School issued 287 suspensions - the equivalent of 50% of the pupils on its register. Pre-Covid, the figure was just 13%. Yet Canterbury High, nearly twice as large, last year issued just 131 (12%).

Oasis was rated 'inadequate' and the Archbishop's 'requires improvement' in their most recent Ofsted reports.

A fixed-term suspension will see the child told to spend a certain period at home – a move which can not only lead to them falling further behind in their studies, but can also fracture an already delicate relationship with the school and the education system itself.

Peter Read, who is in the process of retiring from running his KentAdvice.co.uk website said: "I cannot understand why certain schools need to apply that last sanction far more frequently than other schools.

"It doesn't seem, in general, to help a school's performance. What I do know is that schools have a very difficult situation with pupils where there is no parental support for the school or where the pupil cannot see the point of being there.

"But the challenge is for schools is to go the extra mile and find out how to manage some of these children. They won't be able to sort them all out, but why is it some schools can't manage them in the way others do?"

Mike Walters is chairman of the Kent Association of Headteachers, as well as executive principal of St Anselm's in Canterbury, Ursuline College in Westgate and St Edmund's in Dover.

He said: "There are two clear reasons why you have different numbers from school to school – one relates to the cohort of children the school is serving. So some will serve more children who are likely to exhibit challenging behaviours which, in turn, will eventually lead to higher levels of suspension.

"The other factor is each individual school's headteacher and governing body makes their own decision about where thresholds lie for suspensions. So some will take a much firmer line on certain behaviours and others will not.

"So, some will say if a child swears at a member of staff that is instantly a suspension, while others will manage that through other mechanisms.

Mike Walters is chair of the Kent Association of Headteachers
Mike Walters is chair of the Kent Association of Headteachers

"I think what complicates matters further is the differential experience and impact of Covid. So in some schools, children will have come back and been able to get back into routines very easily, others that will have been much more difficult.

"The vast majority have resumed without too much difficulty. What there has been, though, as one would expect, is a not insubstantial minority of children who have experienced all sorts of difficulties in getting back to school which we've had to deal with.

"That manifests itself sometimes in conduct issues, which does lead to suspensions."

However, the discrepancies in Canterbury seem to contradict the argument of a "challenging cohort". Likewise, in Ashford, the John Wallis Academy recorded 398 suspensions for its Years 7 to 11 (the equivalent of 51% of its roll). Yet Towers School saw just 226 (18%).

"There are schools that perform well in difficult areas which don't need high suspension rates," adds Peter Read. He believes many of those who do are exponents of the so-called tough love approach to schooling, where strict behaviour standards are demanded of children and there are strong discipline rules.

The Abbey School, Faversham, got a bruising Ofsted report recently
The Abbey School, Faversham, got a bruising Ofsted report recently

The Abbey School in Faversham was cited by many as one of these after it drafted in "Britain's strictest head" to boost behaviour standards.

Ofsted inspectors who visited the school earlier this year found its strict rules were considered “oppressive” by pupils, many of whom were left “unhappy and do not feel safe". It resulted in Ofsted branding it inadequate.

According to the figures, 383 suspensions were dished out – equivalent of 37% of its pupils and up from just 12% pre-pandemic.

The number of suspensions is expected to drop however. Ofsted has, in recent years, changed its methodology when inspecting schools. Instead of exam grades carrying such a high premium, it now looks at the curriculum and behaviour as key barometers to a school's success or otherwise.

Peter Read added: "Schools are now looking at what Ofsted want and will be following it.

The Archbishop's School, St Stephen's Hill, Canterbury. Picture: Google
The Archbishop's School, St Stephen's Hill, Canterbury. Picture: Google

"Several schools in Kent have tried the tough love approach and they've all abandoned it, with the exception of the Abbey School.

"Tough love doesn't work. Just suspending or punishing children is not right."

Mike Walters said: "I'd like to think people aren't making their judgements based on what Ofsted may say, but I think it's increasingly apparent that the tough love approach of very firm discipline is not playing particularly well in Ofsted inspections.

"That's largely because when parents and children report the consequence of that, they feel anxious about school and don't feel safe or not listened to. Quite rightly, I think, Ofsted inspectors take a pretty dim view of that.

"School leaders recognise that it's not ideal to have pupils out of school – you don't want to be suspending children unless there is no other option. But I think we'll continue to see a decline in the frequency of the use of suspensions – alongside a little more innovation from people as to what they can use as an alternative."

Oasis Academy's Minster campus on Sheppey. Picture: John Nurden
Oasis Academy's Minster campus on Sheppey. Picture: John Nurden

So just what other methods are available to schools?

One is switching a child to a different school rather than taking the ultimate step of kicking them out of a school permanently.

Mr Walters added: "Managed moves is a mechanism used nationally to give children the opportunity to have a fresh start, as an alternative to permanent exclusion is when it's supposed to be used. I think there are cases where it's also used just to give a child another chance in another school if they have other difficulties around friendships or anxieties around a particular school."

It is believed schools which form part of an academy chain deploy the method when it comes to suspensions too. It not only provides the child the ability to stay in education while away from the school where the trouble was, but, cynics might argue, also allows them to keep the number of fixed terms suspensions to a minimum - something which may reflect them in a better light when it comes to their next Ofsted inspection.

Judging the success, or otherwise, of moving children in such a way is extraordinarily difficult to establish.

If you expel someone, somebody else has got to pick them up

One senior education figure in the county, who did not want to be named, suggested the success rate was around 40-50%. Not overly compelling but, as they put it "that's 50% of children who were facing permanent exclusion and falling out of the education system altogether". Which paints it in a rather different light.

The Oasis Academy, however, is vowing to improve its figures and has just employed six youth and community workers who will look to work with children who would otherwise be excluded from the school.

Peter Read concluded: "If you expel someone, somebody else has got to pick them up. If you arrange an agreed transfer, the child is not scarred for life, and it might work."

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