“I’m tired of my students ending up in prison or dying”: the teacher fights to end school exclusions | Education

ZAhra Bei had been working as a teacher in London schools for nearly two decades when she began to see education in a new light. She started her career as a business studies teacher in a secondary school and was soon promoted to head of department. She loved teaching, she loved children, but over time she began to notice changes.

Bei had come to London alone when she was 16, leaving her Somali-born mother at home in Italy. She went to college, studied for a BTec, enrolled in college, then did a PGCE and started teaching. It was a huge personal achievement and she felt “really proud” of herself.

The job was demanding, the hours were long and Bei was also raising a young son, but over the years she detected a change in the way students – and staff – were handled. “We started to see the behavior policies start to get tighter. You would have a long hallway of children, sitting isolated at these tables, bored to death,” she said.

Schools in England have increasingly adopted so-called zero tolerance policies, where breaches of the school’s code of conduct can result in children being removed from class and placed in a separate area where they work alone, in silence, away from their peers. Critics say isolation can be detrimental, not only to a child’s upbringing, but also to their emotional well-being. Proponents say such measures are essential to ensure the rest of the class can learn without interruption.

But for Bei, her school was beginning to feel more like a business than the community she had joined. “You just feel like, well, that’s not what I signed up for. And I remember I was given my leave overnight, with no other job to go to.

It was the start of Bei’s journey to No More Exclusions (NME), a grassroots movement focused on racial justice in education, which she helped found in 2018. Its mission is to highlight racial disparity. persistent in school exclusions and to end the policy of excluding children from English schools, while developing anti-racist teacher training and curriculum principles.

Since Bei started noticing these changes in schools, exclusion rates in England – both temporary and permanent – ​​have risen sharply. Permanent exclusions in England rose from 5,082 in 2010/11 to 7,894 in 2018/19, while even in 2019/20, during Covid and lockdown, schools still managed to exclude 5,057 children.

Fixed-term bans or suspensions hit a 13-year high in 2018/19 with a total of 438,265, falling to 310,733 due to pandemic disruption. Racial disparities are stark, with exclusion rates for black Caribbean students up to six times higher than their white peers in some local authorities, according to a recent Guardian analysis.

Although many in the education sector are concerned about exclusions, NME’s position is more radical than most who argue that some exclusions will always be necessary in the most extreme cases.

Bei started working with children outside of regular schools in 2007, first in a “new arrivals center”, mainly for refugee children from Afghanistan, Yemen and Romania, but also to welcome some local children. threatened with exclusion. Today, it would be an alternative reception framework for children who, for various reasons, cannot attend mainstream school.

“These are the kids no one wants to teach,” Bei said. Many were Year 11 teenagers whom schools were reluctant to accept because they would lower GCSE results. “As a migrant myself, I felt a connection to these children,” she said.

She stayed there for three years before joining a student guidance unit (PRU), for children who have been excluded from mainstream education or who risk being excluded. Many PRU children were black, with special educational needs and undiagnosed disabilities. Many were unable to read or write properly and felt shame and stigma. “Yes, the behavior was difficult. There were chairs flying around – and that’s not a metaphor. But there was something that kept me there,” said Bei, who taught business, citizenship and Spanish.

“There was a lot of anxiety among the children. Like, ‘I’m a reject. I recognized him and I was like, “Well, I’m not buying your bullshit, I can see through it and I’m not letting you go.” And I know that even though they pretended they didn’t care about school, they did.

“Many of the kids I taught at PRU were definitely neurodiverse, but those needs weren’t addressed as such. Instead, we had the behavioral route. No less than 80% d ‘of them – maybe more – were dyslexic, autistic, dyspraxic and needed extra help with reading but didn’t get it. And so we let them down, and we keep letting them down.

She stayed for 10 years, but around this time she began to question the role of PRUs and whether children should even be there. “It was like a bullpen,” she said. “It was my 17th or 18th year as a teacher and I’m a little ashamed to say that it was probably the first time that I really looked at education in a critical way, through a lens of social justice.

“It took a long time for the penny to drop and for me to leave – what about their human rights? What about their access to science labs, a gym, counselors? All the things regular kids would have?

There was a restructuring at PRU and Bei left to study for a Masters in Social Justice and Education at the Institute of Education at University College London. Since then, she has fought against racism and social injustice in education. She is currently working on her doctorate and her studies informed the efforts of NME, which was set up around her kitchen table, with the help of some of her former students who had experienced the injustice of the system first hand. educative.

Tashaun Aird, who was killed in Hackney, London, in 2019.
Tashaun Aird, who was killed in Hackney, London, in 2019. Photograph: Metropolitan Police/PA

“I just got sick of hearing that my students would end up in jail or die,” Bei said. “I’m not running away from reality. Their realities are very harsh. Schools are a protective factor in the lives of children and young people. You remove the protection factor and expose them to all sorts of risks. She cites the case of 15-year-old Tashaun Aird, who was killed in Hackney, London, in 2019 after being permanently barred and sent to alternative disposition. “What we have at the moment is not working. Can we at least agree that it doesn’t work? »

Thanks to the work of NME and others, the issue of exclusions and the harm they cause has moved onto the education agenda, and there is growing pressure for change from parents, teachers, unions and public figures, including former Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield. In addition to raising awareness and campaigning for a change in the law on exclusions, NME also points to sources of advice and advocacy for families affected by exclusion.

“Unfortunately, we receive emails from desperate parents every week,” Bei said. “And when I say desperate, I mean desperate – saying, ‘My child has been excluded, my child has been put in solitary confinement. I have to go to a meeting and I don’t know how to talk to these people. I feel like the decision has already been made. Since Child Q,” she adds, “the floodgates have opened.”

In March it emerged that a 15-year-old girl, known only as Child Q, was strip searched while on her period by police who were called to a school in Hackney after teachers claimed that they could smell cannabis. For many, the incident was indicative of the racism affecting black pupils in English schools. For Bei, it revealed how schools can end up complicit in criminalization and carcerality.

“A lot of us can’t handle rage,” she says. She worries about the police in schools, about schools abdicating their responsibilities to protect, and the adultification of black children.

“The decision that I have made, personally, is that I will not be in class until things change. I am almost in a self-imposed exile. What we want to see is accountability and we want to see change.

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