Toward a contextual theory of school exclusion : a multi-layered view of the interaction between national policies and local school practices
This study explores the causes and dynamics of school exclusion in England by examining the interaction between national policies and local school practices. A review of the literature reveals a range of psychological-, sociological-, and school-based explanations for exclusion. However, such theories do not explore the impact of the national policy context in which school exclusions increased nationally throughout the 1990s. In this study, I suggest that exclusion is a complex phenomenon which reflects teachers' perceptions, individual schools' practices, and the pressures of national policies. The study is aimed at generating theories about the school- and policy- context in which exclusion occurs. Data for this study was collected through multiple methods: (1) a review of exclusion rates and patterns of 82 secondary schools in one LEA; (2) interviews with 44 teachers; and (3) an ethnographic multi-case study of four secondary schools using interviews, fieldwork, and school documents. The study, situated in a social constructionist framework, pursued three questions: (1) How do national policies and pressures interact with the context of exclusion? (2) How do teachers perceive the causes and dynamics of exclusion from school? (3) In what ways can a school's organisational context influence exclusion? The study found that: • Teachers have a multi-layered view of exclusion. Teachers perceive exclusion as a complex problem that is influenced by a pupil's behaviour and social background, as well as by national policy and school-based factors. Confluent pressures from curriculum, assessment, accountability, and parental choice were described as aggravating exclusion by reducing time, tolerance, and flexibility. Five areas of school organisation: 1) leadership and management; 2) behaviour and discipline policies; 3) staff culture and communication, 4) support structures; and 5) school ethos — were seen to either aggravate or prevent exclusion. • School organisational context influences exclusion practices. The study found that schools differ in their exclusion rates and patterns, and this is not fully explained by pupil factors, such as social disadvantage (e.g. free school meals, special educational needs, ethnicity). A comparison between higher- and lower-excluding schools found that higher-excluding schools had hierarchical management structures; an isolated staff culture; a compliance-driven approach to behaviour; few classroom-based supports for students; and unclear school values. Teachers in these schools described being highly constrained by national policy pressures and having little capacity for resisting exclusion. In contrast, lower-excluding schools had delegating leadership and management; a collaborative staff culture; individualised approaches for supporting students; and a community ethos. Teachers in these schools indicated a greater resistance to national policy pressures and an increased capacity for preventing exclusion. The study suggests that schools mediate, through their organisational context, the pressures of national policies, thereby shaping the context in which exclusion occurs. The study further suggests that teachers have varying capacities for preventing and resisting exclusion, and that a school's organisational context can enable or constrain this capacity. The study concludes that schools can be organised in ways that can help prevent exclusion. However, without fundamental changes in national curriculum, assessment, and accountability policies, confluent pressures from these policies will limit teachers' capacity to respond to pupils' individual needs, thereby aggravating how exclusion is viewed and used in schools.