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Why do some children get excluded from school?

In this post I’m going to reviewing a range quantitative and qualitative evidence (from official statistics to case study evidence) on permanent exclusions, consider the strengths and limitations of this evidence and think about what different data sources tell us about why some pupils get excluded from school.

While exclusions aren’t explicitly on the A-level sociology spec, this topic is obviously relevant to the sociology of education, as well as the sociology of crime and deviance.

Starting Definitions

  • A permanent exclusion refers to a pupil who is excluded and who will not come back to that school.
  • A fixed period exclusion refers to a pupil who is excluded from a school for a set period of time. A pupil may receive more than one fixed period exclusion, so the fixed period exclusion rate isn’t actually measuring the number of pupils excluded!
  • Off-rolling – where a school and parent agree to withdraw the child from a school and the parent agrees to enrol them another, typically specialist institutions such as a Pupil Referral Unit. Although around 1/3rd of off-rolled students just disappear from formal records.

A. Official statistics on exclusions

The Department for Education publishes an annual report on exclusions, the latest edition published in August 2018 being ‘Permanent and fixed-period exclusions in England: 2016 to 2017.

2018 data on exclusions

  • The overall rate of permanent exclusions was 0.08 per cent of pupil enrolments in 2016/17. The number of exclusions was 7,720
  • The vast majority of exclusions were from secondary schools >85% of exclusions.
  • The three main reasons for permanent exclusions were
    • Persistent disruptive behaviour
    • Physical assault against a pupil
    • Physical assault against an adult.

Certain groups of students are far more likely to be permanently excluded:

  • Free School Meals (FSM) pupils had a permanent exclusion rate four times higher than non-FSM pupils
  • FSM pupils accounted for 40.0% of all permanent exclusions
  • The permanent exclusion rate for boys was over three times higher than that for girls
  • Over half of all permanent exclusions occur in national curriculum year 9 or above. A quarter of all permanent exclusions were for pupils aged 14
  • Black Caribbean pupils had a permanent exclusion rate nearly three times higher than the school population as a whole.
  • Pupils with identified special educational needs (SEN) accounted for around half of all permanent exclusions

What do these official stats suggest about why certain students get excluded?

There are some very stark trends which stand out from these stats – in terms of reasons for permanent exclusions it’s clear that students typically have to do something very serious to get excluded, such as assault.

These stats also suggest that getting exclusion rates are strongly correlated with certain types of student – older teenagers, poor, black Caribbean and male students and those with SEN are much more likely to be excluded, so perhaps we should be looking at what it is about these types of students that makes them engage in the type of behaviours that get them excluded? Laddishness, for example may have something to do with it? 

B: Longitudinal statistical research on permanent exclusions and ‘off-rolling’

According to this Guardian article, permanent exclusion figures do not take into account ‘informal exclusions’ or ‘off-rolling’ – where schools convince parents to withdraw their children without making a formal exclusion order – technically it’s then down to the parents to enrol their child at another institution or home-educate them, but in many cases this doesn’t happen.

According to longitudinal research conducted by FFT Education Datalab up to 7, 700 students go missing from the school role between year 7 and year 11 when they are  supposed to sit their GCSEs…. Equivalent to a 1.4% drop out rate across from first enrolment at secondary school to GCSEs.

Datalabs took their figures from the annual school census and the DfE’s national pupil database. The cohort’s numbers were traced from year seven, the first year of secondary school, up until taking their GCSEs in 2017.

The entire cohort enrolled in year 7 in state schools in England in 2013 was 550,000 children

By time of sitting GCSEs:

  • 8,700 pupils were in alternative provision or pupil referral units,
  • nearly 2,500 had moved to special schools
  • 22,000 had left the state sector (an increase from 20,000 in 2014) Of the 22,000,
    • 3,000 had moved to mainstream private schools
    • Just under 4,000 were enrolled or sat their GCSEs at a variety of other education institutions.
    • 60% of the remaining 15,000 children were likely to have moved away from England, in some case to other parts of the UK such as Wales (used emigration data by age and internal migration data to estimate that around)
    • Leaves between 6,000 to 7,700 former pupils unaccounted for, who appear not to have sat any GCSE or equivalent qualifications or been counted in school data.

Working out the percentages this means that…..

  • 4%, or 22K left the mainstream state sector altogether (presumably due to exclusion or ‘coerced withdrawal’ (i.e. off rolling), of which
  • 4%, or 7, 700 cannot be found in any educational records!

What does this data add to our understanding of why pupils get excluded?

This data suggests that the number of pupils actually excluded from school during the life of a cohort is much greater than the annual 1% suggested in the official statistics… it’s now 4%, which is much more significant.

This study thus suggests that the official exclusion stats are the tip of the iceberg and that schools make underhand efforts to get rid of disruptive students, just without formally recording them as excluded!

C: Statistical Analysis of Exclusion Data by The Guardian (LINK), 2018

Education Guardian looked at England’s 50 largest academy trusts and 50 largest local education authorities and compared the number of pupils in year 11 in 2017-18 – the students counted when GCSE results are published – to the number in year 10, a year earlier.

Nationally, there has been a huge rise in recent years in the number of young people leaving their school in the run-up to GCSEs. The average year 10/11 shrinkage rate in England was 2% in 2018 seven years ago the rate was less than 0.1%.

The trend of disappearing pupils appears to be happening at a higher rate in the academies sector.

The Harris Federation is one of Britain’s largest academy chains. In one of their schools, The Harris Girls’ Academy Bromley, lost 11% of its pupils (14 girls) between January 2016 of their year 10 and their GCSE year in 2017, a situation repeated with its 2018 GCSE year group.

Many of these teenagers will go to pupil referral units or will be educated at home. This means their grades will not be counted in their school’s exam results.

Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England, says: “Some schools are gaming the system by off-rolling some of the most vulnerable children, including some with special education needs and disabilities, in an attempt to improve the school’s exam results.

D: Case study: Outwood Academy (Link)

Outwood Academy in Middlesbrough has the highest rate of fixed-term exclusions of any school in the UK. According to this 2018 Guardian article it excluded 41% of its pupils in 2016-17.

Outwood school is part of the Outwood Grange Academies Trust, and nine other schools within the trust are in the top 50 schools in England and Wales for suspensions.

This could well be due to the Trust’s strict behaviour policy which states that pupils can be suspended for failing to respond appropriately to “a reasonable request from a senior member of staff”, which includes failing to wear the correct uniform and wearing makeup.

According to the above article some of the reasons why pupils have been suspended from the trust’s schools include:

  • Forgetting pens and year planners
  • Wearing the wrong kind of buckle on shoes
  • Refusing to take off a cancer research badge.
  • Taking a toilet break deemed to be too long.

The Trust says they are simply trying to instil a culture of aspiration by enforcing high standards of conduct, but parents are not happy, and have formed a Facebook group called ‘Outwood Academy – Unhappy Parents of Pupils.’

What do items C and D suggest about why pupils are excluded?

Taken together items C and D (like item A) put more of the blame for off-rolling and exclusions on the schools – they use such practices to get rid of kids who are going to harm their results statistics. Academies seem to do this more than LEA schools.

These pieces of research suggests it’s less about the kids, and more about the schools, and also more to do with government policy putting pressure on schools to look good in league tables!

E: Case studies of Pupil Referral Units

In 2015-16 the BBC conducted a three-part documentary series over the course of an academic year in The Bridge AP Academy, a Pupil Referral Unit in West London where most of the kids have ended up because of being excluded for behavioural issues from mainstream schools.

This is a Link to the programme website, a link to the Open University site which discusses the documentary, and a link to the documentary on YouTube. In case the above disappear, this Independent Article covers similar ground.

Although technically now a ‘secondary’ source, when conducted this documentary consisted of at least two main qualitative methods: non-participant observation of the children’s behaviour (after they had been excluded) and unstructured interviews with a number of the children about their life-experiences, most of which touch on the reasons for their exclusion from school.

What do case-studies suggest about why pupils are excluded?

These give us a completely different, more interpretivist feel for exclusions… even just one hour long documentary, or one 1500 word article touches on several individual students’ back stories – many kids that get excluded come from broken families, abusive backgrounds, and have chaotic lives – many of them have to deal with more emotional turmoil as children than most of will have to deal with in our whole lives.

Such sources make you feel much sympathetic with the kids, unlike the official stats at the beginning of this post!

Concluding Thoughts:

I wrote this post to try and illustrate the importance of taking a mixed methods approach to develop a deeper understanding of just one issue within education. Hopefully it’s done that!

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