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Investigating Pupil Exclusions: Using Participant Observation

Investigating Pupil Exclusions Using Participant Observation

Pupil exclusions are a serious issue in education, with millions of students being expelled or suspended from school each year. While there are legal frameworks in place to regulate the process of exclusion, pupil behaviour and factors contributing to exclusions are complex and multifaceted.

Participant observation is an investigative method used in sociology and anthropology to understand social phenomena from the unique perspective of inside observers. This article explores the use of participant observation to investigate pupil exclusions, including the types of exclusion, the role of the observer, practical and ethical considerations, and the potential benefits of combining this method with other research methods.

Types of Exclusion

Pupil exclusions can take various forms, including permanent exclusion, where a student is prohibited from attending school permanently due to severe behavioural issues, and fixed-term exclusions, where a student is temporarily excluded for a set period of time. Additionally, there are exclusions from specific lessons or subjects, self-exclusion through truanting or switching off and self-exclusion through expressed hopelessness of academic progress.

The classification of the exclusion can inform the methodology of the research required to investigate.

Role of the Observer

The observer’s role is critical in conducting participant observation research, and it must be determined whether they will play an overt or covert role. An overt role may allow the observer to blend in seamlessly with a specific group of students, understand behavioral patterns and build trusting relationships with students.

Conversely, a covert role allows for the observer to remain unnoticed, allowing the observer to gather information that otherwise may be affected by the presence of an observer. A variety of roles, including learning support assistant whose role involves working with students who have special educational needs, or the role of observing students from traveller backgrounds and observing externally hired contractors who provide lesson classes, can offer researchers unique and valuable insights.

Practical and Ethical Considerations

There are both practical and ethical considerations to factor in when conducting participant observation research on pupil exclusions. Conducting research in only one school limits the generalizability of the study, multiple observations in different environments are required to gain a more representative picture of students.

Ethical considerations involve getting the necessary permission to conduct research from school management, informed consent from the students and parents of the students being observed, and ensuring that data remains confidential. Additionally, training for observation and the method of research undertaken must be in place, to minimize the potential impact on students and to provide support where needed.

Combining with other Methods

While participant observation is an effective method to gain insights into pupil exclusions, combining this method with other research methods can offer deeper and more holistic perspectives. Unstructured interviews with students, teachers, and headteachers can provide additional data to supplement observations.

When combining participant observation and interviews together, researchers obtain a more fine-grained understanding of the issues facing students and gain additional perspectives from these participants. Combining observations from external classes or mode can also offer insight into how pupils interact in different settings.

Strengths and Limitations of Participant Observation

Participant observation has several advantages that make it an effective tool for investigating pupil exclusions. Firstly, it provides researchers with a unique perspective from which to view the behavior and experiences of students.

This perspective allows for the acquisition of detailed information that might not be accessible through other means. Additionally, participant observation has the potential to influence behavior positively.

The observer can act as a role model, reinforcing positive behaviour and challenging negative behaviour. Finally, participant observation allows researchers access to difficult-to-reach groups of pupils, providing an insight that may have otherwise remained hidden.

However, there are also limitations to participant observation to consider. Firstly, participant observation is a time-consuming process, and conducting long-term or longitudinal studies can be challenging.

Secondly, participant observation is limited to studying one particular setting, making it difficult to generalise findings to other schools or educational contexts. Lastly, there is a potential for the observer to act with bias consciously or unconsciously.

Implicit bias can influence where the observer spends their time, what behaviour they perceive to be important or insignificant, and how they interpret the students’ attitudes or behaviour.


Participant observation is a valuable tool in investigating pupil exclusions, providing a unique and detailed perspective on student behaviours and experiences. By examining the different types of pupil exclusions, the role of the observer, practical and ethical considerations, and the potential for combining researcher methods, we can see how participant observation can work effectively in studying pupil exclusions.

Despite its strengths, it is critical that researchers take the limitations of this method into account to ensure that the observations are accurate, ethical, and valid. Overall, when employed appropriately, participant observation is an invaluable tool for conducting insightful and meaningful research into pupil exclusions.

Functionalist Perspective on Education

The functionalist perspective is a theoretical framework that emphasizes the importance of social institutions in promoting social order and stability. According to functionalism, society is like a living organism, and each institution serves a specific function to keep society functioning.

Education is one of those key institutions that play a crucial role in maintaining social order, and in this article, we will explore the key concepts of the functionalist perspective on education as well as the criticisms levied against it.

Key Concepts of Functionalism Perspective

Education is seen as a system in the functionalist perspective. Schools function as a system with parts that work together to provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to function in society.

The curriculum is designed to transmit a common set of cultural values, such as nationalism, work ethic, respect for authority, and conscientiousness. Another key concept of functionalism is that education serves several functions beyond transmitting knowledge.

Social cohesion is achieved by creating a shared sense of identity and shared values among students. Education brings diverse individuals together and provides a sense of unity and shared purpose.

Additionally, education serves to select individuals for their future roles in society. The education system identifies and prepares individuals for specific occupations, and they are encouraged to pursue these paths based on their abilities and interests.

Finally, it also provides a form of social control because it helps to instill norms and values that align with societal expectations.

Criticisms of Functionalist Perspective

Critics argue that the functionalist perspective ignores inequality in society. This perspective assumes that every member of society has equal access to education, but this is often not the case.

In reality, students from low-income families, racial and ethnic minorities and those with disabilities face obstacles to attaining education equal to their more advantaged peers. Further, the limited focus on individual experiences of students, particularly those who might face structural barriers, has led to the dismissal of the pedagogy needed to engage them effectively.

Another criticism is that the functionalist perspective doesn’t adequately address power dynamics in society. It assumes that social institutions serve the needs of all members of society, but in reality, these institutions often serve the needs of powerful groups over those of marginalized ones.

Education, particularly the type of knowledge that is transmitted, often serves the interests of the ruling class in society. This perspective overlooks issues of power and how the ruling class shapes and uses educational systems to create a docile, subordinate and compliant workforce.

Finally, the functionalist perspective is also criticized for assuming a rigid view of social order. It assumes that social institutions work in unison to maintain social order, but in reality, there is a constant struggle for power and resources taking place which can disrupt and challenge social order.

Social order can be unsettled by many factors including social changes such as migration, technological advancements, and globalisation. The way the education system responds to social change can often serve to entrench inequality further.


Despite the criticisms of the functionalist perspective on education, it remains an influential framework for understanding the role of education in society. Its emphasis on social value, shared cultural values, and role of education in preparing individuals for their future roles in society is still valid.

However, it is essential to recognize the limitations of functionalism and look towards other theoretical frameworks such as conflict theory or critical theory, with a focus on structural barriers faced by individuals including minorities, the low-income population, and disabled people to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the role of education in society. By broadening our understanding of the different theoretical frameworks, we can more aptly address the issues facing education in the modern world and plan reforms that genuinely reflect the needs of diverse individuals and society as a whole.

In conclusion, this article has explored the use of participant observation to investigate pupil exclusions, including the types of exclusion, the role of the observer, practical and ethical considerations, and the potential benefits of combining this method with other research methods. We also delved into the key concepts of functionalism as a theoretical framework for understanding education, along with its criticisms.

While the functionalist perspective provides a valuable perspective on the role of education in society, its limitations must be acknowledged. By using a range of theoretical frameworks to investigate education, we can develop a fuller understanding of its complexities and create more effective policies and practices to support learning.


Q: What are the different types of exclusion? A: The different types of exclusion include permanent exclusion, fixed-term exclusion, exclusions from specific lessons or subjects, self-exclusion through truanting, and self-exclusion through expressed hopelessness of academic progress.

Q: What are some practical and ethical considerations when using participant observation to investigate pupil exclusions? A: Some practical and ethical considerations include obtaining permission from school management, informed consent from participants, ensuring confidentiality of data, limiting the study to a single school, and providing training to observers.

Q: What are the key concepts of the functionalist perspective on education? A: Key concepts include education as a system that serves several functions, creating social cohesion, transmitting cultural values, and selecting individuals for their future roles in society.

Q: What are some of the criticisms of the functionalist perspective? A: Some criticisms include overlooking inequality, ignoring power dynamics, taking a rigid view of social order, and limiting focus on individual experiences of students.

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