Abandoned: Abolition in education

England’s schools funnel its most marginalized young people towards the criminal justice system, writes Zahra Bei. But educators and young people are reimagining what’s possible.

Shut out: Too many children are young people are being discarded by England’s education system. IEVGEN CHABANOV/ALAMY

I met Hal* during my second year working as a teacher at a Pupil Referral Unit. He had a propensity to walk out of lessons. Sometimes he would pace up and down the hallway of the small building, aimless and angry. Other times he would peer in through the glass panels of the classroom doors. On occasion Hal would just sit in the hallway on his own, quietly. All the staff were fond of Hal who was a tall, handsome, sociable, funny, smart Black boy in his mid-teens. Over time, he became known as ‘Hallway Hal’ – affectionately, we were told by the headteacher. Hal could not articulate why he preferred the hallway to the classroom and neither could we.

In England, Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) are ‘alternative provision’ schools for children and young people who have been excluded from mainstream education. Placements in these units cost the state, on average, over $18,300 more per pupil than mainstream schools. Yet, only one per cent of PRU students achieve the grades needed to progress to further education after the age of 16. Most children and young people in PRUs are boys (although the numbers of excluded girls are increasing), socio-economically disadvantaged and, disproportionately, racialized as Black.

Abolition gave me a way to go on being an educator at a time when I was seriously doubting it all

Hal, like too many other children, had found himself excluded from the mainstream without having his educational needs met nor identified. No reasonable adjustments (to which he was legally entitled) were ever made for him because no official assessment of need was ever carried out. Hal was likely traumatized, not by his home environment or upbringing in a single-parent household, but by the cumulative experience of being excluded from ‘the norm’ for simply being his Black, male, working-class, disabled self. Hal’s referral from mainstream school pointed to ‘wilful refusal to comply with basic rules and expectations’ and the most common grounds for permanent exclusion in England: persistent disruptive behaviour.

School-to-prison pipeline

During my time at the PRU, I met many Hals – students that we as educators were unequipped to engage, understand and ultimately care for appropriately. We had inadequate resources, understanding and analysis, and insufficient reserves of humility. Many of us also made plenty of assumptions, underpinned by isms. We were never offered any training to begin to meet the multiple and complex needs of the students in our care – despite all of them being automatically coded as ‘SEND’ (Special Educational Needs and Disability) on arrival.

Educators should critically interrogate the punitive nature of how schooling is organized and how the school-to-prison pipeline functions. This process of marginalization begins in schools, with tactics like seclusion rooms, and is compounded by structural discrimination and inequality leading to children and young people being funnelled towards the criminal justice system.

In England, boys are three times more likely to be excluded than girls. Children with additional needs and disabilities are up to six times more likely to be removed from mainstream education, while for the most socio-economically disadvantaged it’s four-and-a-half times more likely. Black Caribbean and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children have continued to be the most excluded ethnic groups from mainstream education, in spite of decades of reforms and initiatives.

Over 80 per cent of children in young offender institutions have been excluded from school and over 60 per cent of adult prisoners in England and Wales were suspended or excluded as children.

Many young people do not thrive in mainstream education because they are not supposed to – the system is not designed to let them. We are told there is no money for extra support, early intervention and prevention, yet the money earmarked for measures that punish, stigmatize, and amputate children’s futures is easily found.

New and recycled reformist initiatives in education come and go, each one claiming to be closing whatever the latest ‘gap’ is but without addressing structural barriers. Too many well-meaning teachers, and other professionals, who enforce seemingly benevolent policies, are inequality supervisors within a system that (re)produces inequitable outcomes for the same groups of children and young people, year after year, by design.

As education psychologist Vanessa Parffrey has said: ‘Naughty children are bad news in a market economy. No one wants them. They are bad for the image of the school, they are bad for league tables, they are difficult and time-consuming, they upset and stress the teachers.’1

No going back

I came to abolition because of excluded children like Hal. For me abolition was first and foremost a political act of refusal to be complicit with the education system and the many permutations of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Over time I began to come to terms with my own miseducation as an educator. I was uncritically trained and unprepared in many ways to be the type of teacher that truly liberates. I was deeply invested in a so-called meritocratic and colour-blind system. Like so many in the profession, I precariously navigated teaching some of the most historically excluded children and young people with good intentions, saviourism and rising anxiety. Halfway through two decades in the classroom, thanks to students like Hal, I irrevocably shifted to the abolitionist stance that the system is not broken and that it cannot be fixed or reformed – it functions as intended.

Abolition gave me a way to go on being an educator at a time when I was seriously doubting it all. It gave me the hope that things could be different. Learning from other abolitionists has been part of this journey. Lessons in liberation, an abolitionist toolkit from the Education for Liberation Network and Critical Resistance, urges educators to think about how we can and must, collectively, build three things both inside and outside the classroom: our analysis, our knowledge and our power. From a UK perspective, Brick by Brick by Cradle Community is a truly pioneering resource for anyone willing to engage with abolition as more than just theory, setting out what we need to dismantle, as well as the building work in front of us.

The process of marginalization begins in schools, with tactics like seclusion rooms, and is compounded by structural discrimination and inequality leading to children and young people being funnelled towards the criminal justice system

Abolition may seem a far-fetched, idealistic proposition to many, yet in recent years the failures, inequalities and injustices brought about by decades of neoliberal policies in education and beyond – such as marketization, austerity, high-stakes testing and institutional abandonment – have led to multiple calls for abolition and system change in England, even from the most liberal and ‘moderate’. Those that have gathered momentum are the ones making a clear case for dismantling existing educational structures that do not serve the majority, alongside viable radical alternatives. These include Abolish Eton; Abolish Academies (academies being government-funded schools run by trusts); and Abolish Ofsted and League Tables (a call to scrap the body responsible for school inspections, backed by the UK’s largest education union).

Abolish Exclusions by No More Exclusions (NME) is part this groundswell. Since its kitchen table inception at the end of 2018, NME has come a long way. It was founded by Black teachers (including myself) and young Black excluded people with a freedom-dream – one in which education is anti-capitalist, anti-racist, feminist and internationalist. Our mission is ambitious, perhaps even radical: to build a Black-led grassroots, abolitionist, anti-racist movement in education, with racial justice and free quality inclusive education for all within five to ten years. NME’s latest publication What about the other 29? And other FAQs grapples with a wide range of education-specific questions through an abolitionist lens.

Radical alternatives

In spite of the pandemic, interlocking crises, multiple state failures and the bleak landscape in education policy, there are also schools in England that give real hope, led by courageous headteachers and with educators who are willing to do things differently. Barrowford, a primary school in Lancashire, has no punishments and no rewards (as decided by the pupils) and a strong focus on relationships, children’s agency, critical pedagogy and restorative approaches. Van Gogh Primary in South London also foregrounds the importance of relationships, with the school conceptualized as both family and community, and behaviour as communication. The New School, also in London, is a non-fee-paying democratic school where the students do not wear a uniform, have a say in what they learn and how they learn, and community and inclusion are embodied values.

All three schools represent successful challenges to the dominant punitive and exclusionary logics of education in England, and we need more of them. At their centre are relationships, nurture, love, care and restorative practices, with The New School working with abolitionist practitioners on developing and embedding restorative and transformative policies and tools.

Education in England desperately needs radical change. Exciting abolitionist experiments are underway with teachers, young people, parents and others building the necessary alliances and collective power with the potential to transform education. That might just free us all.

* This name has been changed.

1 Vanessa Parffrey, ‘Exclusion: failed children or systems failure?’, School Organisation, 1994.

As a Person Affected

As a person affected I’m sick of running around not knowing my next step
As a person affected I’m marginalized and upset
As a person affected I’m up all night - insomniac getting no rest , but they excluded my protest
As a person affected I’m my own contest
As a person affected I expect accountability
As a person affected I feel like the world is angry and racial biases are killing me
Some scholars, some of the community say they care
As a person affected they’re just like the MPs who claim to help, far and few between I’ve seen myself, is anyone hearing?
I’m trying to fix an issue I’ve never had trouble declaring
To my detriment I understand my emotions ,
Being Black, vocal and passionate is anti social
Me, I love to speak about injustice, protecting my friends , a lesson to the public
Police said I’m a gang member involved in recent foolery,
But I feel like part of a thriving community
Yeah I got kicked out of school, me to you know the regular message, disruptive in class he plays the fool, specifically he, if it’s she nails too long hair issues, the problems braids or weave, am I talking about you or am I talking about me, or am I talking about something you’ve definitely seen ... ha let’s just ignore it talking about race gets boring, it’s not important
Exclusions are ok? And humane
No bearings on our aspirations, not for the teachers personal gain even thou the facts so blatant, my slim chance of success before death aren’t adjacent, to those of me being dead, selling drugs or visiting stations, police and teachers are thieves trying to rob me of my future and dreams, and race ain’t the reason see, politicians don’t get punished for indecency, no doctors note I’m sick just believe me please , gangs and guns aren’t improving me , the narratives changed your movements ceased, my losses were substantial before the pandemic, thoughtfully thou blacks not aggressive
By Kadeem Marshall-Oxley
No More Exclusions Trustee and Youth Lead

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that persistent disruptive behaviour was the only legal grounds for permanent exclusion in England. This has now been amended to say that it is the most common grounds for permanent exclusion.