Zero Tolerance policies, a tool that entrenches anti-Blackness in UK Schools

By Ife Thompson

Since the advent of the US-based charter Schools in the early 1990s, there has been a steady increase in UK schools towards the use of zero-tolerance behaviour policies. This is a behavioural policy that increases the likely hood of pupils in general, but Black pupils in particular, of being placed in Pupil Referral Units (PRU) or Alternative Provisions (AP). The abrupt expansion and normalisation of zero-tolerance discipline policies has helped to entrench racist educational outcomes for Black children. This is because zero-tolerance policies severely limit discretion in individual cases, are not in line with equality law and solidifies the removing students from school.

Zero tolerance disciplinary policies warrant particular exploration, firstly because of the racially discriminatory impact it has on Black students, and because of questions regarding their effectiveness and legality.

In this short piece, I will explore how institutionalised racism is furthered and maintained through the education system under the guise of Zero-Tolerance policies. I will draw on secondary data alongside Blam UK’s personal caseload to unpack these points.

Before we begin, I have some explainers for key terms that will be discussed in detail within this piece: 

  • Alternative provision (AP): alternative provision is education for pupils who, because of exclusion, illness or other reasons, would not otherwise receive suitable mainstream education. AP education includes education arranged by schools for pupils on a fixed-term exclusion; and pupils being directed by schools to off-site provision to improve their behaviour.
  • AP academy: PRUs that convert to academy status become AP academies. PRUs can convert on their own, as part of a chain of academies, or with the support of a sponsor.
  • Pupil Referral Unit (PRU): an establishment run by a local authority which is specifically organised to provide education for children who would not otherwise receive it. This can be, for example, because they are excluded or have a mental or physical health condition that means they cannot attend their normal school.
  • Zero Tolerance Policies: Originally developed as an approach to drug enforcement (Skiba & Rausch, 2006), the term became widely adopted in schools in the early 1990s as a philosophy or policy that mandates the application of predetermined consequences, most often se- vere and punitive in nature, that are intended to be applied regardless of the gravity of behavior, mitigating circum- stances, or situational context. 

School exclusions in the UK disproportionately affect Black pupils, the evidence of these disparities is overwhelming and well documented. Just this February, The Guardian found that exclusion rates were five times higher for Black Caribbean pupils in parts of England.

These disproportionate exclusions are being fuelled by the zero-tolerance policies in operation in many UK schools. The use of these policies continues to be anti-Black, in that the headteachers applying these “policies” continue to do so in a manner that holds Black students to a different/ higher standard. Casella (2003) argues, “punishment negatively affects those who are already negatively affected by poverty, racism, academic failure, and other realities”

In all our school exclusion caseloads, we have seen white headteachers approach the exclusions we deal with from a racist standpoint. Many use racial stereotypes to justify the harsh exclusions and then hide behind the notion that the behaviour policy “ties” their hands due to the zero-tolerance approach the school has in place. This is in spite of the fact that all school policies must be read in line with the Statutory School exclusion guidance, which states exclusions must be a last resort. From our direct caseload, we see headteachers use the zero-tolerance policies to showcase that the only option available is a permanent exclusion.

International research from the Global North, can further help us understand the context in which disciplinary processes operate for Black children. A US study found that after controlling for more than 80 individual and school characteristics normally associated with poor academic performance, as well as differences in rates of delinquency and more serious offending, researchers found that Black youth were more likely to be disciplined and more likely to receive harsh discipline (such as out-of-school suspension) when those punishments were discretionary. In the UK, The National Education Union (NEU), have stated that zero-tolerance approaches to discipline were resulting in schoolchildren spending inappropriate and harmful amounts of time in isolation, and that they are “inhumane” and “damaging to pupil mental health”.

Some of the most rigorous research conducted on the subject of zero tolerance shows that out-of-school suspension can severely disrupt a student’s academic progress in ways that have lasting negative consequences. The UK’s Children’s Commissioner stated that “excluding a child makes them much more vulnerable to exploitation by criminal groups, and that currently if a child is excluded their prospects of returning to mainstream education are extremely poor”. This is of concern as the current exclusion system we have in place allows for a two-tier education system to thrive, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) found that only 4% of excluded pupils pass GCSE English and Maths compared with 64% in mainstream school. These figures cannot be looked at outside of raicalisation, as Black children are overrepresented in exclusion figures and thus in the APs/PRUs themselves, meaning they are disproportionately being afforded inadequate education. Black Caribbean pupils make up 3.9% of children in PRUS whilst only 1.7% of children in Mainstream school. The current school exclusion system is setting Black children up to fail by mainstreaming anti-Black exclusion policies which lead to a high number of Black children accessing an inadequate and inferior educational provision that will not enable them to reach their full potential. 

Furthermore, the long-lasting negative effect of the zero-tolerance approach can be seen within the  ‘PRU-to-prison pipeline’ in London. According to the HM chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales, 89 percent of children in detention from 2017/18 have been excluded from school. This shows a direct link between school exclusions and young people being propelled into the criminal punishment system.

Due to the often lack of transparency with the school exclusion process and the lack of access to legal aid for parents, we are seeing schools get away with the unlawful use of Zero Tolerance policies. A recent report by the Legal charity Justice found ‘School do not often understand their legal duties when it comes to exclusion and that they often use Zero-Tolerance policies in way that amounts to an unlawful fettering of their legal duties’. We are concerned that these zero-tolerance policies not only promote decisions that are irrational, they also enable schools to (unlawfully) by pass their legal duties  under Equality Act s.149 to eliminate discrimination, in the contrary Zero-Tolerance policies further entrench racial discrimination. 

Further, research has found Zero-Tolerance policies  to be Anti-Black. In 2018, Researcher Stephen Hoffman, also found expanding zero tolerance exacerbated already severe racial disparities in school disciplinary outcomes. Such research has led to two US charter school chains that formed some of the biggest inspiration for the growing “no excuses” behaviour culture in England’s schools to review their tough discipline policies in the wake of the George Floyd killing. They stated they are doing this to create more equitable outcomes for Black students. UK Schools need to be attentive to the change in the wind and do away with institutionalised anti-Blackness, by ridding themselves of the constraints of Zero-Tolerance policies.

In order for us to have a more equitable school system school exclusions must be overhauled, in the absence of radical change, schools must stop using zero-tolerance policies altogether. The Government also needs to put safe guards in place to stop Black children from being subject to racist, exclusionary and illegal exclusions that in turn have an adverse effect on their futures and wellbeing. 

We at BLAM UK are campaigning for the total overhaul and subsequent removal of the current discriminatory school exclusions policy in place in England. It is important for schools, professionals and parents to support the important work that is done by other community organisations like Blam UK, No More Exclusions and National Education Union, in the campaign to remove the discriminatory policies in place within UK schools.

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