Catching Up With The Women Who Were Expelled From School

Photographed by Serena Brown
Damian Hinds, the education secretary, recently asked headteachers to expel fewer students from schools. The call came after a study on exclusions by Edward Timpson, the former minister for children and families at the Department for Education, revealed that a high number of excluded students come from vulnerable backgrounds. According to the Timpson Review of School Exclusion (published in May 2019), almost 80% of excluded students had special educational needs, were eligible for free school meals or were "in need".
Through the review, it also became apparent that permanent exclusion is frequently used as a mechanism to find a child with behavioural issues the help they need. The Department for Education’s most recent statistics on permanent and fixed-period exclusions in England show that 7,720 students faced these harsh measures between 2016-2017, over 1,000 more students than the previous academic year.
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In some cases, permanent exclusion may be the only option left to teachers, yet the Timpson Review makes clear that "while exclusion is an important component of effective behaviour management in schools, outcomes of excluded children are often poor." This raises serious questions about what happens to students who are banished from mainstream education during their critical years.
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Sarah Hampton, a 26-year-old mature student at the University of Manchester, was kicked out of her secondary school in Altrincham after she stopped turning up to classes when a false and nasty rumour about her sparked verbal and online abuse from a group of girls. Hampton wanted to avoid her bullies so she stopped going to school. Rather than addressing the underlying cause of her poor attendance, the teachers asked Hampton to leave halfway through Year 10.
Sarah Hampton
Hampton was sent to a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU), a school specifically for students who have been removed from mainstream education. "It was quite scary at first because you are with a lot of kids with different behavioural problems and they're quite aggressive," Hampton explains.
The most recent statistics show that over a quarter of permanently excluded students had social, emotional or mental health issues. But Hampton admits that simply being sent to another mainstream school, or staying where she was and allowing the bullying to continue, would have probably been worse for her. "I think if I had stayed at my own school I would’ve got more GCSEs, but [leaving that environment] was probably what I needed at the time."
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Fiona Clifford, a leader in a PRU in Bradford thinks some students just need help – not to be kicked out. "The sad thing is I’ve got children in my class now who’d probably be okay in mainstream [education] if they had the extra support within it," she says.
Hampton may have been one of these cases. Finding the right help can make all the difference to the trajectory of a student’s life. According to the statistics from 2016-2017, over a quarter of permanent exclusions happened in Year 10, an important year for secondary students as it marks the start of their GCSEs. An analysis of students in 2015/16 showed that only 7% of children who were permanently excluded went on to achieve "good passes" in their English and maths GCSEs.
Jackie Ward, the former deputy head of a PRU in Lancashire and the author of a book on preventing school exclusions, believes the entire issue comes down to funding. "Local authorities are having their budgets cut. The PRU I worked in, their early intervention — where they used to come out into schools and work with children — is gone. Schools are being asked not to exclude but nothing useful is being put in place," she explains. "What we really need to do is sort them out before it gets to that stage and if they genuinely can’t cope in mainstream [education], then I would get them on an education, health and care (EHC) plan and get them into specialist schools." But specialist schools also struggle with tight budgets and can’t accommodate the increasing number of students looking to be transferred to them. "Unless somebody puts a serious amount of money in place to sort the problem out, we’re just going to be having this same sort of conversation in 10 years."
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I was angry for a long time because I felt like my life had been changed irreparably. I always wanted to go to uni, I always wanted to do my A-levels. I was really disappointed in myself.

Sarah Hampton
After completing her GCSEs at the PRU, Hampton began her A-levels at a local college. Six months later, she dropped out. "I think I was just scared to go back into that environment after being out of it so long. Perhaps I just wasn't mentally ready to go back to it again," she says. It took her four years to return to education and in that period she felt aggrieved. "I was quite angry for a long time because I felt like my life had been changed irreparably," she adds. "I always wanted to go to uni, I always wanted to do my A-levels… I was really disappointed in myself."
Shay Aziz
Shay Aziz agrees that being kicked out of school can be soul-destroying. After family issues at her home in Tower Hamlets in east London turned violent, she decided to go to school far away, feeling that the distance would do her some good. Additionally, the local schools focused on vocational qualifications, which she felt weren’t right for her.
Aziz decided to go to an academy on the other side of the city, but it wasn’t what she expected. "They’d rank every student on the board every three or four weeks, like who came in late...and they’d publicly shame you if you’re on the bottom of the list," she says.
"When I started that school, I was going through a lot in my family home." Aziz felt the domestic abuse and constant policing by a close family member reached its peak around that time. "I was just going through this massive depression and I was suicidal. I tried to take my life twice during that year, though I failed… My attendance and punctuality wasn’t great because of those factors. But instead of trying to talk to me and find out what was going on, the school gave me a lot of sh*t." Aziz was yelled at every day for her poor punctuality and missing homework. She felt as if she had hit rock bottom and ended up doing badly on her first exam. Despite receiving better results in other tests, the school used her bad grades and attendance as grounds to ask her to leave.
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After Aziz was kicked out, she felt trapped. For her, education had been a conduit to a better life. "I was freaking out because the one thing I knew for certain is that I wanted to be educated. My mum wasn’t allowed to continue with her education or work when she married my dad," she explains. "I didn’t ever want to be in a position where I rely on a man." Her environment intensified this feeling. "Being from the area that I was from – one of the roughest council estates in east London – I saw the people I grew up with end up selling drugs or getting involved with violence and even murder."

I was freaking out because the one thing I knew for certain is that I wanted to be educated. My mum wasn’t allowed to continue with her education or work when she married my dad.

Aziz tried to get into other schools but nowhere would take her so late in her studies. She wasn’t the only person from her school to get kicked out that year and she spoke to these other students about what they did. "Most of them came from the borough of Kensington and Chelsea or Hammersmith, so they went to their local councillors. They were like, 'Shay, you should go to the council because you're under 18, they should still pay for you to sit your exams.'" But coming from one of the poorest boroughs in London meant her outcome was not the same. Shay was told to give up on her hopes of completing her education.
So Aziz decided to teach herself, which included paying thousands of pounds to take her tests at an exam centre. "I had no money at the time because I was in school and my parents hadn’t been providing for me since I was 16. I’d been working in Starbucks." She took on several jobs. "I was working seven days a week and studying at the same time." It took her three years and some support from her mother to take her exams and apply to university.
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Despite the odds, Aziz received a place at Oxford to study politics, philosophy and economics (PPE). "In my mind it was like I’ve been through too much to settle for anything less." Oxford called her to congratulate her on the top grades she achieved in the first half of her A-levels, acknowledging her tumultuous journey. On the day of one of her final exams, though, a family member passed away so she missed her test, and she lost her place at Oxford. It took her two more years to get another place at a university she wanted to attend. She’s now studying at Cambridge.
Despite making it out the other side and going on to university as mature students, both Hampton and Aziz agree that they are the anomaly. "A few years ago I met up with one of the girls who was at the PRU with me," Hampton says. "Out of a group of five of us in my year, two had gone to prison and the rest of us had all ended up dropping out of college after school." Both women hope to work in public policy, Hampton in the nonprofit sector and Aziz wants to be a spokeswoman for her community.
Hampton doesn’t blame her teachers. "I think it’s perhaps the wider issue with schools now where they’re underfunded and they need to hit targets and it means cutting out any pastoral care. I don’t think that’s any individual teacher’s fault, just a problem with the system as a whole." She says people who are permanently excluded shouldn’t lose hope and should try to seek assistance before it gets to that point. "Don’t be afraid to ask for the help you need even if it means going higher up than just your teachers. And don’t give up on yourself if you are excluded. It’s never too late to re-enter education if that’s what you really want."
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