(RE)think piece

Time to break the school-to-prison pipeline

Time to break the school-to-prison pipeline

David Breakspear

David has lived experience of the revolving door of crisis and crime and has been using his first-hand insight into the criminal justice system to campaign for change. He is part of Revolving Doors’ lived experience membership, and in this piece he describes his experience of the school-to-prison pipeline, a path that takes many children from disadvantaged backgrounds from school exclusion to prison. He advocates for a system where children are supported rather than excluded from school and channelled into the criminal justice system.

In 2022, the government released figures regarding permanent exclusions and suspensions in England for the academic year 2020/21. In that year, 3,928 children were permanently excluded from school.

In 2019, the National Crime Agency found that 100% of children involved in County Lines had been excluded from school, and that school exclusion is a contributing factor to child criminal exploitation.

In 2017, the Institute of Public Policy, estimated out of 85,975 people in prison in the UK, 54,164 had been excluded from school.

In 2013, the University of Edinburgh conducted research into the problem of overcrowding in Scottish prisons. The Co-director of the study, Professor Susan McVie, concluded that: “one of the keys to tackling Scotland’s high imprisonment rates is to tackle school exclusion. If we could find more imaginative ways of retaining the most challenging children in mainstream education and ensuring that school is a positive experience for all Scotland’s young people, this would be a major step forward.”

How much more evidence do I need to provide to show the massive impact the school to prison pipeline has? Not just on children, but also on their families – as the impact of intergenerational imprisonment must be considered.

Meaning the unborn children of children excluded from school can find themselves following in the footsteps of their parents, and themselves become future victims of the school to prison pipeline.

Offending and reoffending may not be stopped by early intervention, it may not even be stopped with the abolition of school exclusions, and to be fair, I will add, unless there is no other alternative but to exclude a child, but it must always be as a final resort. However, offending and reoffending will never be reduced if the school to prison pipeline is in full flow.

I’m a person who experienced the school to prison pipeline. A journey that began with exclusion from school, being put into care, sent to a detention centre, and then onto youth custody centres before finally graduating to ‘big man’s jail.’

This journey took from my teenage years through to my late forties to travel and exit. I was released from prison for the last time in 2017.

My responsibility? 100%, as no doubt it was for the estimated 54,000 people in prison in 2017 who had been excluded from school as children.

Our accountability, as a society? Now that’s a different question, and one I’ll leave for you to answer.

In 2020, BBC News online, published a story regarding schools in Glasgow. In Glasgow, over the previous ten years, school exclusions were reduced by 88%, and in the same time, youth crime dropped by 50%. Glasgow’s Director of Education, Maureen McKenna, said,

“Schools were excluding people again and again. I just didn’t think they were reflecting enough about the context of the young person, where they had come from. In one of our secondary schools there were 770 exclusion incidents in one year, there are only 190 pupil days. It was like a revolving door – pupils are in school, an incident happens, straight out the door again. How were we ever going to improve outcomes and change lives? That is what education is most powerful at doing, changing people’s lives, but they have to be in school.”

Education – changing people’s lives. I do often wonder how my life would have been different, if I hadn’t had been excluded from school for what was deemed ‘challenging and disruptive’ behaviour. Intervention, support, an ear to hear me, and a shoulder to cry on rather than arbitrary punishment might just have made the difference. Instead of walking out of the prison gates, I might have been walking out of the tunnel at Twickenham, or Cardiff Arms Park (as the home of Welsh rugby was back then), as an England, or Wales, international rugby player.

I played for the school, I played for my district and the next step to county wasn’t far away for me and then – boom. No school to represent, and no more school rugby for me. In a twist of irony, I broke my ankle playing against a team at Dover Youth Custody Centre and never played adult rugby again.

A classroom didn’t work for me. Being placed on report and detentions didn’t work for me. Suspensions didn’t work for me, and permanent exclusion most definitely didn’t work for me. If more focus and support was given to what I excelled at – rugby – rather than just punishing me for my perceived faults, then who knows how I would have been in the classroom.

American psychologist Dr Ross Greene wrote:

“Kids with trauma history don’t need more punishment. And, quite frankly, they don’t need more stickers.”

I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers, but one thing I am positive about, is that in continuing to exclude children from school, we continue to set them up for failure – some before they’ve even been born.

It’s time for a rethink.