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Gangs lure Islington pupils that schools bar

A Town Hall taskforce is probing the borough's exclusion rates

05 October, 2018 — By Emily Finch

Sheri Lawal and Colin Adams: ‘Pupils are vulnerable’

COMMUNITY leaders have called for an urgent reversal of the high number of school exclusions in the borough amid concern that these children are drawn into gangs.

A Town Hall taskforce is probing exclusion rates in Islington, which are higher than the inner London average with 32 children permanently excluded from schools last year. Fourteen of these pupils were from primary schools.

Colin Adams, who worked in the equalities and diversity unit of the Department for Education for 25 years and now manages Brickworks Community Centre in Crouch Hill, said: “We really need to think about alternatives to exclusions. Once they are put in pupil referral units they are lost unless you can get them back.”

The units, set up for excluded children and managed by local authorities, have come under scrutiny this week following the publication of a report commissioned by the Home Office.

The report by the St Giles Trust, a charity which helps disadvantaged youth, said all the children they evaluated who were involved in “county lines” drugs networks were outside mainstream education or enrolled in units.

There were also 1,455 temporary exclusions – called “fixed-period exclus­ions” – in the last academic year in Islington.

“County lines” networks involve London gang members selling drugs, usually crack cocaine and heroin, in towns outside the capital, with children delivering consignments to avoid detection by police.

The report warned that pupil referral units are “fertile ground” for gang recruitment.

Mr Adams, who sits on the Safer Neighbourhood Board, called on headteachers and schools excluding children to “think about where they end up in the criminal justice system”.

He added: “Don’t get me wrong: some children do need to be excluded, but the numbers are disproportionate. They are disempowered and on the streets all the time.

“They become vulnerable. If you don’t have qualifications you have limited choices. If you don’t have life choices you are vulnerable to joining gangs and committing crimes.”

Not all the borough’s excluded children would have gone to pupil referral units. Islington Council’s unit for primary-aged children is rated as “good” by Ofsted. But its secondary school unit was given the second-worst rating during the latest full inspection two years ago, with warnings that attendance was below that of similar establishments.

Sheri Lawal, director of Choices London which helps empower youngsters, said she saw first-hand how devastating exclusions can be for young people when her friend’s nine-year-old son was excluded from an Islington primary school earlier this year.

“I was appalled when I went to visit him at his ‘alternative education’,” she said. “There were other boys who were older, swearing and threatening the staff. He was just sitting on his own. It was so sad to see him in that kind of environment.”

She added that the boy’s mother had to give up her full-time work after his exclusion. “It was one hot mess and her son was even excluded from his new place and can only go in once a week,” she said.

According to figures from the Town Hall, more black minority ethnic pupils are being excluded than white children.

Mr Adams said this may be due to a lack of diversity training for teachers from outside London. He said: “There are a lot of factors. If you have a teacher from Staffordshire who hasn’t met many black people, a 6ft 1in black boy can be intimidating.”

Ms Lawal added: “What is accepted in one culture is not accepted in another. We might move our hands more and raise our voices. Teachers might see that as aggressive but it’s just expressive.”

The council would not comment on exclusions while the taskforce – a scrutiny committee of backbench councillors ­– is still hearing evidence.

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