18 July, 2012

Push-outs and zero tolerance in Australia

Push-outs and Zero Tolerance fail to deliver in the US
In the US zero tolerance is being abandoned as a core strategy to improve school safety and student achievement (IIRP). This shift is closely associated with widespread concern about the long term implications of push-outs.
  • Zero tolerance is usually implemented by suspensions and expulsions for unacceptable behaviour and can easily result in permanent push-outs
  • Push-outs disrupt a students' education and place them in situations where they are more likely to do dangerous and unacceptable things. This frequently moves students to the periphery of society permanently. For many the effect is a "school-to-prison" pipeline
Is Australia different?
Zero tolerance has not be explicitly adopted in Australian schools and we don't use or have a term that is equivalent to push-out. But does this mean that the phenomena do not to be found in Australia? Certainly not. 
Both zero tolerance and push-outs are alive and well down-under, but politely masked by a number of factors including failure of the student to meet the "required standards" of behaviour and/or academic progress. Families, communities and even school systems (unconsciously) collude with schools to maintain the masking of intolerance and exclusion.

Understanding push-outs
Particular students are excluded (pushed out) from particular schools for a wide range of reasons
  • Despite receiving government funding, non-government schools select their students from those who apply and in the process usually exclude the the least promising. That is, many students are pushed "out" from non-government schools before they are "in"!!  In contrast many of the same non-government schools offer scholarships to the most promising students in order to ensure that they get "in".
  • Should difficulties arise after being enrolled, students at non-government schools can be pushed out by having their enrolment terminated without much difficulty
  • Government schools may suspend students for short periods for less serious behavioural issues or exclude students permanently for serious matters. The school system then attempts to find an alternative school placement for the excluded student.
  • Students with high levels of special needs are less likely to be enrolled in non-government schools and may not be "main-streamed" in government schools if the schools cannot make provision that meets their needs.
  • Some students exclude themselves by refusing to attend school often as a result of social, emotional or material issues that make it difficult to meet the school's requirements
  • The latter students may also behave in unacceptable ways that result in their being excluded by the school
  • Or they may be pushed-out by their fellow students through bullying and harassment
  • Also families sometimes fail to enrol their children in school, fail to support attendance or even discourage attendance by their children for personal reasons
  • And families (and their children) can be pushed out from communities
In Australia, non-government schools are widely believed to provide better quality education. And this belief is supported by school performance data available from the MySchool website. A high proportion of non-government schools may well be safer and have better student outcomes (learning, attendance, parent satisfaction...) precisely because of their zero tolerance and the use of push-outs to other schools, particularly to government schools.
To a lesser extent some government schools have similar practices. The net result is that there is a movement of the most needy students away from the provision and social capital that could best meet their needs.

At the same time, some of the most courageous and genuinely high performing schools are to be found at the periphery although this is far from obvious from the available school performance data.

Schools that use zero tolerance have no real need to develop more inclusive strategies such as school-wide positive behaviour support and restorative practices.

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