Legislation expanding Queensland principals’ disciplinary powers was intended to decrease the number of suspensions and exclusions but has had the opposite effect, increasing the numbers of students excluded and suspended, impacting the transition from primary to secondary and feeding into the school to prison pipeline.
In 2014, the Newman government legislated to give principals greater discretion to suspend students, extend the length of short suspensions (from 1–5 to 1–10 days), and enable principals to impose community service and detentions on students outside of school hours.
Prof Linda Graham, a researcher in inclusive education at the Queensland University of Technology analysed rates of suspension, permanent exclusions, and enrolment cancellation in Queensland from 2006 to 2017.
After the legislation was introduced, exclusions briefly decreased, but reached a new high in 2017. Enrolment cancellations peaked in 2014 and decreased somewhat over the next three years. But from 2014 to 2017, suspensions per student increased by 16.67%.
While a suspension temporarily prevents a student from attending school, a permanent exclusion prohibits a student’s return to a particular school. An enrolment cancellation can only be imposed on a student over 16, and ends their enrolment in the education system. All had increased between 2006 and 2014, although suspensions had started decreasing from 2011.
Graham argues that suspensions exclude students from vital learning, worsen disengagement, and increase children’s risk of antisocial behaviour due to lack of supervision.
This widens the 'school to prison pipeline', with a disproportionate effect on students with a disability (especially those with ADHD or autism), Indigenous students, minority students, and students in out-of-home care.
“Taken together, the bulk of the research evidence indicates that suspension does not help to address the reasons for student disengagement and may in fact accelerate vulnerable students’ disconnection from school,” said Graham.
In rare circumstances, she said, suspensions and exclusions may be “necessary and justified” to protect staff and students, such as when a student engages in serious violence or brings drugs or weapons to school.
However, she said that widened powers increase schools’ ability to use suspensions for the wrong reasons – such as to improve a school’s performance in tests, to “reassure parents and school staff that the school is firm on behaviour”, as a substitute for effective methods of improving behaviour, or to mask ineffective teaching.
“Suspension does not act as a deterrent and nor does it help to produce positive behavioural change through the application of a consequence,” she said.
“For young people to benefit from the application of a consequence, they must not only be capable of considering that consequence in another future scenario, but also able to replace inadvisable behaviour with an acceptable alternative. Alternative behaviours, however, need to be explicitly taught if students are to use them.”
Suspension, she said, has perverse consequences. When used to punish a student for truancy, for instance, it can encourage them to break rules to gain relief from an environment they are unhappy in.
Between 2013 and 2014, suspension rates in Queensland increased most sharply in Prep (by 50%); between 2014 and 2015, in Year 7 (by 83%).
Graham said that rising suspension rates in Prep may reflect a decline in play-based learning in early schooling and growing academic demands on children, partly due to pressure on Grade 3 students to perform in NAPLAN. She said this is especially concerning given the downward shift of Prep age in 2015.
Meanwhile, she noted that the leap in suspensions of year 7s coincided with the shift of Year 7 to high school. Previously, suspensions would leap for students entering Year 8. In her view, this indicates serious problems in the transition from primary school to high school.
“While secondary school suspensions are typically higher than primary, hormones and adolescent behaviour cannot explain the sudden and grade-specific increase identified through this analysis.
“It is inconceivable that the 2015 and 2016 Grade 7 cohorts were more 'badly behaved' than previous cohorts that remained in primary school before them. Rather, these patterns may reflect something in the nature of secondary schooling itself.
“Although it might be argued that primary schools are too tolerant and that students are being ill-prepared for transition to secondary by ineffective discipline, there is no evidence to support this interpretation.”
Graham expressed approval of the present Queensland government’s funding of research into implementing age-appropriate learning in state schools, but called for urgent action on suspensions.
“It is incumbent on government to act swiftly when legislative change that ignores the international research evidence does not achieve its stated purpose and could instead be fuelling increases in exclusionary practices that are known to have harmful effects.”
She said other states should take heed, particularly given increases in suspensions in New South Wales, and the upcoming transition of Year 7 to secondary school in South Australia.
"This issue is not isolated to Queensland. There's a real risk that other states will face similar problems as they implement comparable reforms."
Linda Graham. (2018). ‘Questioning the impacts of legislative change on the use of exclusionary discipline in the context of broader system reforms: A Queensland case study’, International Journal of Inclusive Education. DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2018.1540668.
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