Trigger warning – this blog post discusses self-harm, suicidal feelings and bulimia.
I was excluded for six weeks in year eleven, shortly before my GCSEs. I was very unwell at the time: I’d attempted suicide twice, spent my sixteenth birthday in hospital, and had an eating disorder for several years. I found school difficult and was often absent or walking out of classes. However, the immediate trigger for my exclusion was when the school found out that I’d been self-harming. They told me they were worried about the effect it would have on younger students if they were to notice. I left that day and only came back to sit my exams.
I remember the period of exclusion as one of the worst points in my life. Without the structure of school, my bulimia spiralled out of control. I was binging and purging all day every day, which landed me with long-term physical health issues. I never went outside or saw anyone, I slept all day and stayed up all night watching Buffy boxsets. I wasn’t given any kind of educational provision and taught myself the content for my GCSEs.
In terms of the long-term consequences of exclusion, I got really lucky. I dropped two GCSEs, but still managed to get good grades and went on to do my A-levels. I did my undergraduate degree and master’s at Oxford, where I’ve stayed to do my PGCE. I’m aware that this isn’t the case for most who experience exclusion. Most of those with lived experience of exclusion would never have the chance to train as teachers. For example, only 18% of students who receive a fixed period exclusion, like me, achieve good passes in English and maths GCSE.
The emotional effect of the exclusions was huge. I didn’t have a supportive home life and I’d been discharged from CAMHS after my first suicide attempt, which they told me was ‘emotionally manipulative’. At school, my history teacher gave me a lot of her time, which probably saved my life, but I wasn’t offered any counselling or alternative provision in school. I felt like I’d been let down by all the adults in my life and I remember realising that I’d have to find a solution myself if I wanted anything to change. I left home after my GCSEs and moved to London, where I started to get better, but the feeling of having no safety net and having to solve everything by myself has stayed with me into adulthood.
My life now
I was recently diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 25, which explains many of the difficulties I had at school. As a teacher, I work with lots of students who remind me a lot of myself, who are labelled as ‘difficult’ and ‘high-profile’ and often excluded. One of the hardest parts of training to teach has been listening to the way teachers talk about these students, saying that they don’t belong in mainstream education or calling them lazy, disruptive and attention-seeking. I suspect this is also how teachers talked about me (in fact, they said it to my face more than once). So many ‘disruptive’ behaviours (walking out of lessons, talking out of turn, swinging on chairs, scribbling on desks) are just ways that neurodivergent people cope with a difficult and overwhelming environment. Teachers desperately need better training on neurodivergence and adolescent mental health if they are to provide disabled young people with equal access to education.