Why are five-year-old children being kicked out of Queensland state school classrooms?

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Nearly 8000 absences for drug-related incidents (mainly due to vaping), as well as hundreds of incidences of Queensland school children disciplined for bringing weapons to school have seen students as young as five kicked out of school for classroom violence.

But although the state government data reveals there were 78,026 school disciplinary absences (SDAs) delivered to students in 2022, the concerning figures represent an improvement – down by around 5000, when compared to 2021.

Schools in Far North Queensland (FNQ) saw 38,000 students receive 5700 suspensions.

Across the entire state, violence against peers and teachers leads to hundreds of disciplinary actions being enforced every school day – and forces closer examination of how the issue is being handled, with some experts critical of the ways certain groups of students seem targeted more than others.

Kids as young as five expelled

The overall drop in numbers followed a Department of Education push to address the issue of high SDA rates amongst students in the early primary years at Queensland schools.

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But despite that push, the numbers still seem shocking, with twenty students in Years 1, 2 and 3 excluded from their respective schools last year. The reasons behind many of the exclusions were related to physical violence. In the case of one Year 1 student, that violence was against an adult, while another Year 1 student demonstrated violence towards another child.

Within the cohort of Queensland’s preppies, 685 absences as a result of disciplinary action were registered in 2022 – a mix of both long and short long suspensions. In 2021, there were 1077 absences related to disciplinary action for preps.

According to Queensland Association of State School Principals president Pat Murphy, it is rare for principals to exclude Year 1 students.

Principals used suspensions and exclusions as a last resort, said Mr Murphy, with strategies around working with the student, teachers and parents, always recommended as first steps.

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Disproportionate measures must be addressed

Education Minister Grace Grace has expressed deep concerns about the over-representation of absences among certain cohorts and believes more should be done to address it.

“The best place for kids to learn is in the classroom and we continue to implement policies – such a free kindy – to ensure our kids have the best start at life,” Ms Grace said. “However, I want to be very clear: I have never, and will never, expect teachers or students to work or learn in unsafe environments, and any behaviour that puts that at risk should not be tolerated and should be dealt with accordingly.”

Dr Christian Rowan is the Opposition education spokesman and has accused the state government of “manipulating the data to solve a political problem, rather than address the root cause of behavioural issues”.

“These latest statistics certainly highlight the government’s failure to address skyrocketing vaping and substance misuse in Queensland schools,” Dr Rowan said. “There are important questions as to whether the state government’s student disciplinary statistics are a true reflection of what is happening in our schools, given we know that school principals have been contacted by the Department of Education, who are questioning student suspension and expulsion decisions.”

In response, Ms Grace called Dr Rowan’s claims as “outrageous” and called on him to share proof of his claims immediately, “if he has any evidence of this”.

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“If not, he should stop smearing the hardworking teachers and public servants that record and collate these statistics,” she said.

A longstanding concern that First Nations students, as well as students with disability are being excluded and suspended from school more frequently than their peers is something that clearly needs to be addressed.

In a 2022 report, both Queensland Advocacy for Inclusion (QAI) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service Ltd (ATSILS) contacted the Queensland Human Rights Commissioner to request an inquiry into the way school disciplinary absences are used in Queensland state schools.

The report included evidence that a disproportionate numbers of suspensions and exclusions were handed down to certain groups of students. The statistics showed that First Nations students and students living in out of home care accounted for more than one-quarter of school enrolments in 2020 (28 per cent) but received almost two-thirds of short-term suspensions (62 per cent). More than half of short-term suspensions handed down in 2020 were repeat suspensions for students within one of these priority equity groups.

More support needed to create sustainable outcomes

But with excluded and suspended students denied access to school, the learning opportunities that are missed can have a long-term impact that can lead, according to experts, to an increased risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system. Using suspensions and exclusions sparingly, with supportive interventions, students, families, and teachers all experience better, more sustainable outcomes.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live