Longer Student Suspensions are Ineffective

The ACT Government and the Liberal Opposition want to give principals in government and Catholic schools discretion to suspend students for longer without higher level approval. They ignore extensive research evidence that longer suspensions are ineffective and counter-productive.

Under the Education Act, principals can suspend students for 5 days and can seek approval from their respective authorities to suspend for up to 20 days. The 5-day threshold was intended to provide external oversight of a sanction with significant educational, family and social consequences.

Labor wants to extend the period to up to 10 days. The Liberals want to extend it to up to 20 days. Both proposals were voted down in the Assembly last September, but the Government says it will try again.

Neither has provided substantial evidence that a change is necessary or that the 5-day limit without approval has restricted the ability of schools to deal with bad behaviour. The available evidence suggests otherwise.

School surveys show high levels of satisfaction amongst students, teachers and parents about student support and students feeling safe at school and increased satisfaction in dealing with bullying and harassment.

Amongst 2400 suspensions handed out in ACT government schools last year, only two applications were made for suspensions over 5 days. The average length of suspensions was just 2 days.

The Minister and the Opposition shadow minister also argue that the ACT should extend the period because other states do. As we tell our kids, mindlessly following what others do is never advisable. It is certainly not a sound basis for public policy.

In any case, Victoria has just cut the time students can be suspended from 10 to 5 consecutive days and reduced the maximum number of yearly suspensions from 20 to 15 days per student.

Giving principals a green light to suspend students for longer periods is likely to be ineffective and counter-productive. It is more likely to lead to further disengagement from school and increased welfare and social problems.

Australian and overseas studies show that suspension does little to improve student behaviour or achievement. Far from acting as a deterrent, suspension can reinforce negative behaviour and alienation from school. Studies have found that the rate of “repeat offenders” is high.  

Longer suspension often fails because it generally ignores external influences on student behaviour. Poverty, mental illness, neglect and abuse create tensions and stresses which lead to disruption in class and in the playground.

Research studies show that suspension occurs disproportionately for students who are male,  from low socio-economic families, of a minority ethnic background, and identified as having a disability or behind in their learning. Longer suspension only serves to further isolate these students and increase their disengagement from school, leading to further suspensions and falling further behind in learning.

Further, students who are suspended are often those who are least likely to have supervision at home. They are more likely to engage in high risk behaviour outside of school while unsupervised. Repeated lengthy suspension can send students along the path to delinquency and crime.

Suspension also creates more pressure in families already struggling to cope with complex issues including poverty. Repeated lengthy suspensions create significant employment pressures for single parents, even leading to loss of jobs because of the need to supervise children who are suspended from school.

Some of the most disadvantaged children in our schools are in and out of foster care. Many have had early life experiences of trauma, abuse and neglect and often have emotional and behavioural problems that cause them to be suspended from school.

School suspension can create significant difficulties for foster carers in their employment particularly where there are repeated suspensions. Some children in the ACT have lost their foster care placement as a consequence.

There are better, more effective approaches to student behaviour problems that can reduce suspension rates and improve behavioural and educational outcomes for students.

Australian and overseas studies demonstrate that the most effective approaches combine engaging students in their learning, support strategies for teachers, effective leadership by teachers and principals and working in partnership with parents and other agencies.

Schools also need to be able to provide for “in school suspensions”, alternative education programs that seek to re-engage students in learning, extended counselling resources based on need and restorative programs.

All this requires adequate resources for schools and other agencies. Without this there will be little change. Tough talk is cheap, but ineffective and more costly in the long run.

A more constructive approach would be to review existing policies and support programs for students, teachers, parents and carers.

Trevor Cobbold

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