Breaking the school-to-prison pipeline

This article was first published in December 2019.

“After being excluded in Year 7, my uncle never entered the education system again, and eventually ended up in prison.” Natalia says seeing this happen in her family was one of her motivations for starting the ‘No Lost Causes’ campaign.

Set up by Natalia, Cristian and Semi, the campaign came to public attention in 2018 when their 'School to Prison Line' posters began popping up on GCSE results day on the London Underground.

The campaign’s primary aim is to bring about changes to the education system, to move from what they feel is a system based on punishment to one based on "trust and compassion".

The school-to-prison pipeline: Sent out of class – detention – isolation – temporary exclusion – permanent exclusion – pupil referral unit – young offender institution – prison – re-offending. Credit: Education Not Exclusion/ No Lost Causes.

Semi, Cristian and Natalia are making their voices heard in a number of ways. At their graduation ceremony from the Advocacy Academy (the social justice fellowship from which No Lost Causes was born), they played out recorded stories from pupils talking about their experiences of being put in isolation at school. They want those pupils not to be forgotten – and to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

Young people do have the power to make change – and we will.

Natalia says she struggled to settle back into school after her cousin was stabbed to death. She didn’t tell any teachers what had happened, and felt like she just had to deal with it. She became lonely and frustrated. Natalia wants teachers to show more empathy towards pupils and recognise the issues they may face outside school.

In the long term, we’re wasting the potential of these young people.

Natalia believes exclusions feed into an endless cycle of alienation that often leads to crime. This is borne out by Ministry of Justice figures from 2017 which show that nearly two-thirds of prisoners had been excluded from school.

As young people we can’t limit ourselves to being political about certain issues or leave it to older generations to want to change things that ultimately affect us.

Fellow campaigner, Cristian, was also having a tough time outside of school, and his behaviour within school deteriorated. He was sent to work in a room called ‘isolation’, where pupils aren’t allowed to communicate with anyone else. He says it felt as if he had committed a crime. The more alienated he felt, the worse his behaviour became.

I got involved in the campaign because in school I saw first- and second-hand the damage that the system had on me and my friends. From no support for my mental health, to the constant exclusions of my friends, it left me frustrated at the flaws in the system.

Cristian fears this cycle of behaviour feeds into the school-to-prison pipeline. He wants to see more compassion as well as "more pastoral support, and a different approach to teacher training and student discipline."

Semi wants the education system to help all students, regardless of their social situation. Her own financial set-up meant she couldn’t complete her school coursework at the same time as the rest of the class, which led to trouble for her at school.

"In secondary school, I was unable to complete my IT coursework because I didn't have a computer I could use at home. This was because my mum could not afford to buy me a new one, at the time. She is a hardworking woman but taking care of two kids on her own was not financially easy. I didn't feel confident enough to tell my IT teacher about my situation."

Semi believes that the amount of support pupils get in the education system lays the foundation for their future achievements.

Prior to becoming an activist, I feel like the education system silenced my voice. I feel like I couldn’t say anything when I was angry, and if I did I’d just be dismissed. But now I feel like there is power within me to make change.

If you need support

You should always tell someone about the things you’re worried about. You can tell a friend, parent, guardian, teacher, or another trusted adult. If you're struggling with your mental health, going to your GP can be a good place to start to find help. Your GP can let you know what support is available to you, suggest different types of treatment and offer regular check-ups to see how you’re doing.

If you’re in need of in-the-moment support you can contact Childline, where you can speak to a counsellor. Their lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

There are more links to helpful organisations on BBC Action Line.

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