A girl was expelled from my school, probably for drinking and/or meeting boys. I remember her pale face romantically shrouded behind the ‘san’ curtains where she was impounded overnight before her parents collected her. Her year rioted in Enid Blyton-esque protest, rampaging through corridors with scarves tied to their hockey sticks, and, to us younger girls, the whole episode seemed wonderfully glamorous.
This was in the 1970s, when being expelled from public school was more common, partly because heads were struggling to contain the new problem of drug usage-Oundle dramatically expelled nine boys in one day. Now, leading schools try to pre-empt the issue with rehabilitation programmes.
For the less adventurous, being expelled had a thrilling chic, a notion advanced by the success of people such as Richard Branson (thrown out of Cliff View for visiting a girl’s room) or The Lady editor Rachel Johnson (expelled from Bryanston for ‘attitude’), or by envy at the enterprise of the persistent practical joker. The boy sent down from Stowe in the 1980s for pranks including parking a 2CV in the chapel and filling up a statue of George III so that it peed persistently must have enjoyed cult status. He now runs a successful business.
In reality, expulsion can be much duller and sadder. Nowadays, it’s usually for something more socially serious than a Molesworth-type jape, and is exacerbated by pupil, school and parents inevitably having different takes on the incident. The ‘expellee’ feels misunderstood, the school exasperated and embarrassed, and the parents are assailed by feelings of failure, fury or panic. The actor Stephen Fry, expelled from Uppingham for fraud, once said: ‘In hindsight my symptoms [of depression] really surfaced here, but the problem was, to almost everyone, they just looked like bad behaviour.’
A boy who was asked to leave for ‘deteri-orating behaviour’ following his parents’ divorce recalls: ‘My parents were sympathetic, but I felt let down by the system. They couldn’t find anywhere else for me to go except a school in Canada, so, although I loved it, I emerged without any useful British qualifications. It seemed an outrage that a school that charged a fortune in fees could just give up on a child. I’d like to think we’re more aware now of the social problems children can face.’
The mother of a boy expelled from prep school for buying cigarettes recalls the desperate ensuing weeks. The news of his disgrace came via a telephone call during the summer holidays, and, unfortunately, the boy took the call. ‘I found him sobbing on his pony’s neck,’ she says. ‘Our first reaction was panic. There were no suggestions as to where he might go next, and I think our son, who had been unsettled at school, felt cast adrift and hard done by. It was only by phoning friends that we heard about an excellent little school in Oxfordshire (now defunct) that took boys with varying problems. There, he was under the wing of a wonderful housemaster who could unlock the characters of these boys, and life moved on.’
The advice from Janette Wallis, an editor of The Good Schools Guide, is not to panic. ‘Sometimes, the shock of expulsion works wonders,’ she says. It can give the child a fresh start, and the parent a chance to find a school that will suit them far better.’
Last year, more than 8,500 pupils were permanently barred from State-sector schools. There are no official figures for independent schools, but expulsion is considered a last resort-Rhys Gray, whose father famously took Marlborough College to court to prevent his expulsion, had accrued nearly 400 offences before the school had had enough. ‘Expulsion is extremely rare, and not a step a head takes lightly,’ says Vicky Tuck, principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College. ‘It can be quite devastating, at any stage of the academic cycle.’ Stowe headmaster Dr Anthony Wallersteiner agrees. ‘It’s in extremis only, when everything else has failed. You can’t underestimate the psychological impact of packing your bags and saying goodbye to your friends. It’s almost tribal.’
What to do after expulsion
1. Except after the gravest of crimes, it’s worth having a follow-up discussion with the school, especially if a group of pupils has been expelled. The school may note that your child was a follower rather than a ringleader
2. The head will usually help find a new place by giving a ‘worth-another-chance’ recommendation to other schools, so don’t alienate them. You should certainly expect this if your child is ‘asked to leave’ rather than expelled
3. If the head won’t help, don’t be embarrassed about approaching other schools yourself-but be honest. Don’t say that your child was unfairly treated or is a misunderstood ‘rough diamond’
4. Some schools pride themselves on their ability to turn a child around. Often they don’t trumpet this, in case it puts off other customers
5. If you have evidence of unjust treatment, you can try to fight expulsion, but be realistic. Education-law specialist Peter Woodroffe says: ‘Most parents want an appeal to the governors against the head’s decision or an apology. In most cases, that’s like drawing teeth!’
6. Schools don’t expel casually. What may seem a modest offence may have been the last straw. If it was knife use or drug-dealing, you’re probably looking at a State school or home schooling
For advice, contact ‘The Good Schools Guide’ (www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk)