The Victorian Ombudsman (VO) report into school expulsions ignores the elephant in the room, namely whether violence is increasing in our schools and, if so, is it the cause of an increase in expulsions.
Background to the report
The VO report has narrow Terms of Reference (TOR), namely to audit the Dept. of Education and Training’s (DET) compliance to the expulsion process (referred to as Ministerial Order No. 625 – Procedures for Suspension and Expulsion), and to advise whether a number of at-risk groups – for example, children in OoHC and indigenous children – generally, are over-represented in school expulsions.
The TOR are narrow because they do not seek to answer ‘why’ such children are over-represented; merely if they are over -represented. The report also excludes analysis of suspensions and informal expulsions which, as pointed out by the authors, is critical to understanding poor school attendance of disadvantaged groups.
Unsurprisingly, the report finds that DET does not consistently follow the expulsion process. Further, the following observations were noted:
- There has been a 25% increase in expulsions over the period 2014 to 2015.
- It should be noted that in terms of a base rate, there was a 0.009 percentage increase in expulsions between 2014 and 2015
- Students in OoHC account for 2% of the student population but 5% of expulsions.
- With regard to indigenous students in OoHC, 30.5% of students were suspended while in secondary school and 11.4% were suspended from primary school.
- 5% of expelled students were male.
Issues with the VO report
As noted earlier, in a formal sense, the ‘why’ question is not part of the TOR; however, the main body of the report appears to focus on this question. My concern is that the level of analysis undertaken does not warrant some of the Report’s implied conclusions.
The elephant in the room
The elephant in the room is twofold: (a) is violence increasing in schools and, if so, (b) is it the cause of an increased rate of expulsions.
- The media abound with reports of increased violence towards principals and other staff, resulting in increased Workcover Surely then the VO report should address this issue, i.e. is violence increasing and, if so, is it contributing to an increase in expulsions (and, for that manner, suspensions and informal expulsions).
- The report states that 32% of expulsions are classed as a ‘threat to health and safety’ but provides no analysis of the severity of such threats. A teacher or student who is assaulted and requires hospitalisation as a result is not the same a student involved in a playground punch-up.
- The report’s use of ‘vignettes’ gives the impression that the primary cause of increased expulsions is schools failing to adequately respond to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who are experiencing behaviour problems.
- 17 vignettes are provided as examples of children who have been expelled from school. Some 53% were primary school-aged children who, in the main, were diagnosed with ASD. All vignettes were based on parents who approached the VO (i.e. hardly a random sample of all expulsions).
I have no way of knowing first-hand if violence is escalating in schools, but surely a reasonable hypothesis for the Ombudsman to investigate is whether an increase in school violence is driving increased rates of expulsions.
What needs to be done?
Poor school attendance by young people in OoHC – especially those in residential care – is one of the most difficult issues facing the sector. As the VO report makes clear, it is beyond dispute that disadvantaged children are more likely to be excluded from school, therefore increasing their level of disadvantage.
What is required, then? In my opinion, an analysis of a random sample of students who have been formally expelled, suspended or otherwise informally expelled from schools is vital to:
- determine the behaviour exhibited by students that resulted in them being excluded from school
- decide if the exclusion was truly warranted, on the basis that the school could have undertaken other strategies to keep the student at school whilst not compromising the safety or well-being of other students or teachers
- inform any training requirements that might be necessary for schools to implement such strategies.
 Investigation Into Victorian Government School Expulsions, Victorian Ombudsman 2017
 ‘Informal expulsions’ are instances where a student (or their family) is encouraged or forced to leave a school without undergoing a formal expulsion process.
 i.e. the proportion of students expelled as a proportion of all students in Victoria.