Monday, May 10, 2021

According to Government statistics, the rates of permanent exclusions from state schools is increasing. The numbers increased to over 40 per day in 2016/17 up from 35 per day the previous year. And when you add in the frankly immoral use of ‘unofficial (or hidden) exclusions’ the actual figure is certainly higher. Each one of these exclusions is a personal tragedy for the young person with correspondingly reduced life chances and increased risk of involvement in crime, poor physical and mental health and involvement in violence. The reality really is stark, as the IPPR report ‘Breaking the Link between School Exclusion and Social Exclusion’, published in October 2017 stated:  

“Too often this path leads them straight from school exclusion to social exclusion. Excluded young people are more likely to be unemployed, develop severe mental health problems and go to prison.”  

And this is in no way to undermine the impact of the any support that is available or the commitment of those working with these young people.   But despite this work and commitment, figures suggest that more than half of UK prisoners were excluded from school. The IPPR report also suggested that exclusions are rising because schools are: 

“struggling to care for children with complex needs”.  


“Excluded children are the most vulnerable: twice as likely to be in the care of the state, four times more likely to have grown-up in poverty, seven times more likely to have a special educational need, and 10 times more likely to suffer recognised mental health problems.” 

When you add in the growth of zero tolerance behaviour policies, and the fact that some schools appear to remove pupils before GCSE’s to boost school performance – the situation is hardly one where social inclusion is being prioritised. And the personal and societal impacts and costs are rising. 

Young people who have experienced (and are experiencing) toxic stress through ongoing and persistent trauma are likely to have impaired executive function – the brains air-traffic-control system. These learnt skills include making choices, following rules, coping with frustration, regulating emotion and planning. This is very likely to become evident when they reach puberty and begin at secondary school. 

But important though this is, it is still dealing with young people who are likely to have experienced trauma well before they attended secondary school. The same trauma that may be leading to behaviour problems in secondary school would, likely, have been present when the child was at primary. The children may well be identified at this stage, but the associated behaviour issues are generally easier to manage than with teenagers, and so often the opportunity to explore the causes of the behaviour are missed. But as the child develops and approaches puberty their brains begin to go through a period of intense development again (neuro-plasticity). At this point the previous damage caused by toxic stress is likely to exacerbated and this coincides with transition to secondary school. Mildly challenging behaviour may well become progressively more serious ultimately leading to school exclusion. 

WAVE is keen to work with primary schools so that they can better identify the impact of early life trauma and to co-develop trauma-aware strategies for the whole school. The aim is that children can be better supported if all school staff and parents understand the potential impact of trauma and of the resultant toxic stress on a child’s developing brain. If we can support primary schools to better identify and support these children, then the children are better able to avoid later issues including exclusion from school and other negatives.  

There is no doubt that if we can create trauma aware primary schools as part of trauma aware communities then we will reduce the cost, personal, financial and societal of the negative impact of toxic stress on children, young-people and the adults that they will become. 

If you would like to know more about how WAVE can help your school then:



Peter Watt is Strategic Projects Director at WAVE.