CATEGORIES
May.13.2024

School exclusion: what this heartbreaking work tells us

By Mati Keynes, Samara Hand, Beth Marsden and Archie Thomas

Numbers show school exclusion is on the rise. But there is very little evidence to show it is an effective mechanism for improving or managing student behaviour. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students with a disability, or living in out of home care continue to be significantly overrepresented in suspension and exclusion statistics. These patterns of systemic exclusion are part of a much longer story. Ahead of the Yoorrook Justice Commission’s inquiry into the education system, what might we learn from this history that can help us to end school exclusion?

School exclusion today

Across Australia today, schools disproportionately exclude Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Data from 2019 shows that in Queensland and NSW, schools directed 25% of all exclusions at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students despite making up just over 10% of full-time state school enrolments in QLD and only 8% in NSW. The likelihood of exclusion increases even more for students with intersecting experiences such as living with disability or in out of home care. There are also connections between inadequate and unfair schooling systems and contact with the criminal justice system. However, access to up-to-date school exclusion data remains difficult, limiting public scrutiny and accountability for the full extent of school exclusion across Australia. 

The history of school exclusion

Beginning in 1883, multiple generations of Aboriginal students at Yass were segregated, excluded and denied access to public schooling. The 70-years of school exclusion at Yass is just one of many stories of school exclusion detailed in a recent research report. For the first time, the history of school exclusion of Indigenous students across Australia has been recorded in one place. It confirms what families and communities have said for generations: the education system has a systemic racism problem. But Indigenous communities have always resisted and organised to fight exclusion. The historical record is replete with stories of families fighting back in diverse ways including strikes, organised protests, letters and petitions, media and legal campaigns.  

What we found

Our research found exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students occurred across all state school systems in Australia. We found systemic exclusion, that is, exclusion in all states and territories, from the foundation of the first education systems in the 1870s to the present. We found two main types of exclusion:

  1. The failure of governments to provide access to schooling for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students by either not ensuring access or by outright denying access. 
  2. The disproportionate use of exclusionary measures, such as suspension and expulsion, against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. 

Historically, Indigenous students were excluded based on explicitly racialised justifications. Today, modern forms of exclusion are represented as race ‘neutral’, yet schools use disciplinary exclusion measures disproportionately against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, compounding the educational debt that is owed.

This history highlights the explicitly racist origins of school exclusion today. It also makes clear that school exclusion is not a new issue but rather is part of a system that has yet to fundamentally rethink how it supports young people. 

Problems with current policies

Exclusion has proven ineffective in addressing the underlying causes of student ‘misbehaviour’. In fact, most data shows that once a student is excluded, they are likely to be excluded again. Yet school systems in Australia continue to rely on exclusion as a form of punishment. 

Our research also found troubling continuities between past and present policies. From the outset, education systems gave police powers to investigate and bring charges against families for their child’s non-attendance, sometimes leading to the removal of children from their families. Today, police continue to play a central role in managing school absenteeism in many states. In Queensland, this relationship has been formalised. Of 57 secondary schools currently in QLD’s ‘School Based Policing Program’, 41 have an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student population higher than the state figure of 8-10%. This suggests a link between the racial profiling, surveillance, and over-policing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in schools, and their overrepresentation in processes of school exclusion. 

Policy fixation

Another problem is policy fixation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school attendance and disadvantage which have dominated the policy-making space in Indigenous education. Yet, there has rarely been a focus on the impact of the exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. In fact, notably, our research suggests that discipline policies, suspensions and expulsions are rarely mentioned in national policy documents and inquiries.

Finally, access to data remains difficult. This is despite national agreement for increased levels of transparency around school attendance. Limited availability of data on school exclusion in Australia prevents a full investigation of the racialised nature of exclusion and hinders public accountability.

So what does work?

First and foremost, disaggregated data needs to be made publicly available to increase transparency. Only then can we have a full picture of which students are being excluded which can be used to hold governments and schools to account.

Second, we need to shift away from school exclusion as a form of discipline towards more restorative approaches that emphasise repairing relationships over and above the need for punishment. Restorative justice practices are already being implemented in communities across Australia and numerous school districts in other countries are implementing restorative practices in schools as an alternative to exclusionary discipline. We have clear examples to draw on, we just need the willingness to do so.

Lastly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have fought and continue to fight resolutely to access schooling for their children and to resist discriminatory practices and policies. Today, organisations like the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition are taking up this fight, advocating for the end of school exclusion and for a self-determined education system that reflects and embodies Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing. 

How do we end school exclusion?

We developed a School Exclusion 101 – Youth Guide. It aims to equip young people with the knowledge and tools to challenge exclusion in schools. The guide includes an audit tool that young people can use to reflect on whether their school’s student behaviour policy (or code of conduct) is inclusive, transparent and fair. It provides a starting point to discuss ways to make such policies more inclusive.

The report underscores the need for greater attention to the historical foundations of discrimination in Australian school systems. Acknowledging this history and advocating for greater truth-telling is a pivotal step towards addressing systemic inequalities.

From left to right: Mati Keynes is a non-Indigenous historian living and working on Wurundjeri Country. Mati is currently McKenzie Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Education at the University of Melbourne. Samara Hand is a Worimi/Biripi woman born on Awabakal Country in New South Wales, Australia. She is currently a PhD candidate at UNSW, visiting scholar at the University of Manitoba, and a co-founder of the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition.  Beth Marsden is a non-Indigenous historian living and working on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country. Currently, she is ARC Laureate Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Research Centre for Deep History at the Australian National University. Archie Thomas is a Chancellors Research Fellow at University of Technology Sydney where his research focuses on how institutions like schools and the media exclude and include historically marginalised groups.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

4 thoughts on “School exclusion: what this heartbreaking work tells us

  1. Chris says:

    Is there any consideration on how the exclusion benefits the remainder of the student body that may have had their own learning experience impedded

  2. Dr Mati Keynes says:

    Hi Chris, thanks for your comment. We have considered how exclusion impacts the whole student body (see page 17 of the Youth Guide). We note that (a) students who are excluded are disproportionately impacted by disability, trauma, racism, and other issues that mean they require more support, not exclusion, and (b) that we imagine schools as places that can support all students and consider what support might be required and why it is not currently provided, rather than simply seeing some students as ‘problems’ to be moved elsewhere.

  3. Prof Colin Power AM says:

    Excellent contribution. We cannot make progress in meeting the basic needs of students especially indigenous and disabled unless w address the underlying causes and the systemic problems facing our increasingly dysfunctional education system – one that serves the privileged and discriminates against children and schools most disadvantaged. It is a national disgrace. Time has come State and National governments to address the root causes

  4. Dr Mati Keynes says:

    Thank you Professor Power. We agree that greater attention to contemporary and historical exclusions is key to addressing ongoing educational discrimination and disadvantage. While in other comparable states like Canada and the United States, histories of segregated and assimilatory schooling are well known, we have a long way to go to understand the historical foundations of discrimination in the Australian school system.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.