School Exclusions in Australia: Critical policy analysis of education legislation guiding disciplinary school practices

Year: 2019

Author: Sullivan, Anna, Johnson, Bruce, Slee, Roger, Manolev, Jamie, Tippett, Neil

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Australian schools, like elsewhere, commonly use exclusionary practices, such as suspension and exclusion, to help ‘manage’ student behaviour. Designed to ‘support a change in the behaviour of students’ (e.g. Department of Education and Children's Services, 2007), these exclusionary practices involve removing students who disrupt the ‘good order’ in schools and threaten others’ safety. Evidence from both inside and outside of Australia suggests that such practices can negatively impact on children’s health, wellbeing and academic achievement, and are often employed disproportionately towards particular groups (e.g. Hyde & Robson, 1984; Slee, 1995; Parkes, 2012; Strand & Fletcher, 2014). However, aside from a small number of isolated examples of practice, little recent research has explored how exclusionary practices are being applied within Australian schools.

At present, each Australian state and territory provides its own legislation and policy guiding the use of suspensions, exclusions and expulsions. Thus, there are marked differences in the way exclusionary practices are currently being defined and enacted.

In this paper, we present initial findings from the School Exclusion Study. More specifically we will report on the first phase which involved a national audit of education legislation that guides the implementation of disciplinary school practices. The audit identified and assembled legislative documents from all Australian states and territories. Drawing on methods from critical policy analysis research we examined each Australian jurisdiction’s relevant legislation, before selecting four states for additional in-depth analysis: South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria.

Our analysis shows that education legislation across jurisdictions that deal with the administration of school suspensions and exclusions in Australian schools are similar in their prescriptive guidance. However, there are variations in the details of the legislation. Variations include aspects of school exclusions such as authority, grounds for exclusion, duration, scope, student support, fairness and provisions for appeal.

We argue that exclusionary practices are encouraged by legislation as an effective means to manage repetitive or severe difficult student behaviour in schools. This not only applies to the aggressive and antisocial behaviours, but also to the disruptive and disengaged behaviours. However, we contend that the legislation largely ignores the powerful influences on student behaviour, that is the classroom, school and broader society (Sullivan, 2016; Sullivan et al, 2014).