The Children’s Commissioner’s exclusion inquiry reveals entrenched discrimination and ‘illegal’ exclusions.
In March, the Children’s Commissioner published the report of her first formal inquiry on schools exclusions after eight months of evidence-gathering by her team supported by a panel of experts. They listened to children and adults alike, as well as taking account of written evidence across the country. Besides analysing the nationally published data by the Department for Education (DfE), additional data from Ofsted, the Local Government Ombudsman, and a representative sample of forty local authorities was used.
One of the triggers for the inquiry was a survey commissioned to gather views of a representative sample of 2,000 children and young people on what makes a school a triumph, a challenge or a disaster. Eight out of ten said they had experienced disruption in learning caused by the bad behaviour of a minority, yet nine out of ten insisted schools should never exclude a child. One in seven said that their school always got exclusions decisions right.
The report, They never give up on you, notes that both permanent and fixed term exclusions have fallen steadily over the past decade. In 2009-10, 5,740 pupils were permanently excluded representing 0.08 per cent. Although this is miniscule in percentage terms, the number would fill about ten secondary schools. However, 179,800 pupils (2.4 per cent) were excluded on a fixed term basis at least once, 97 per cent of these were for periods of less than a week. In primary schools alone, some 620 children were excluded permanently, including 220 under-7s. Around 37,000 primary age pupils were excluded for a fixed term.
Pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN) were eight times more likely to be permanently excluded compared to their peers. Pupils with SEN statements were seven times more likely to be excluded whilst those without statements were nine times more likely to be excluded. More than two-thirds of all permanently excluded children have some form of identified SEN. Black Caribbean pupils were almost four times more likely to be permanently excluded and boys were eleven times more likely to be permanently excluded than white girls of the same age in similar schools. The same boys were thirty-seven times more likely to be permanently excluded than Indian girls, who had the lowest rate of exclusion. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children were four times more likely to be permanently excluded. The permanent exclusion rate for boys was approximately four times higher than that for girls. Boys represented 78 per cent of the total number of permanent exclusions. Children eligible for free school meals (FSM) were around four times more likely to be permanently excluded.
The rate of fixed-term exclusions were also higher for these groups. Seventeen per cent of Irish Traveller children, 15 per cent of Gypsy and Roma Traveller children and 11 per cent of Black Caribbean children received such fixed-term exclusions. Boys were almost three times more likely than girls to be excluded and accounted for 75 per cent of all fixed-term exclusions. Children on FSM were around three times more likely to be excluded for a fixed term.
An analysis was made to ascertain the relative importance of these factors, one against the other and in combination. To illustrate the impacts on individual children, the report asks us to imagine two hypothetical young people: Jack and Jill who are both of the same age, and attend the same school. Jack is of black Caribbean background with SEN and lives in a low-income household and hence on FSM. Jill is from a white British background, does not have SEN and lives in a more affluent household. The analysis showed that Jack is 168 times more likely than Jill to be permanently excluded from school before the age of 16, and 41 times more likely than she is to be excluded for a fixed term. This ‘One stark figure’, according to the Commissioner, ‘should make us all want to confront this scandal’. Although the report refrains from using the term discrimination and also the terms race and class, it asserts that little has been done in policy and practice to tackle the disturbing entrenched discrimination by race, class, gender and SEN over the decades.
Counter intuitively, analysis also showed that children from the relevant ethnic groups were much more likely to be excluded when they were in a small minority in a school than when they were with larger numbers of children from the same ethnic group as themselves.
Consequences and criticisms
The report reviews the research on the consequences of exclusion. Many children who have been permanently excluded do not re-engage with formal education before school-leaving age. Forty per cent of 16-18 year olds who are not in education, employment or training (NEETs), had previously been excluded from school. Over half of young offenders in custody have, at some time before they ended up there, been excluded from school. The report estimates the cost as £10,000 for the management costs of each exclusion; £14,000 for supporting each excluded pupil in a pupil referral unit, and £64,000 to society over a life time.
Most significantly, the inquiry found evidence of several examples of schools excluding pupils ‘illegally’ by requiring the young person to leave premises without recording it as a formal exclusion. These ‘sharp practices’ included unrecorded short-term exclusions to allow children to ‘cool off’, students being ‘sent home’ and not allowed back into school until after a meeting had taken place with their parents, students being sent home as pressure was exerted on the parents to move them to a different school, and in one extreme case, a head teacher sent some Year 11 pupils home from Christmas until May, else they would have faced permanent exclusion. Furthermore, some academies were attempting to avoid scrutiny of their exclusions by external Independent Appeal Panels (IAP), and refusing to hear appeals from parents.
Both these matters are breaches of the law and the report calls on the secretary of state to fully investigate these accusations and take appropriate statutory measures to curtail these practices. It also calls on the government to conduct research to identify the full extent of unlawful exclusions.
The inquiry found that exclusions were often used for trivial reasons such as breaches of uniform rules or the wearing of jewellery. The report considered this inappropriate and calls upon the DfE to issue guidance on the principles of exclusion thresholds. Two such principles would be that exclusion should only happen to protect health and safety of pupils and prevent disruption to learning. They should be used as a last resort and under exceptional circumstances in case of assault or carrying weapons or supplying of illegal drugs. The report recommends that there should be a presumption against permanent exclusions from primary schools and no primary school should permanently exclude a child in Reception or Key Stage 1. Furthermore, a school should not act unilaterally to permanently exclude a child who has the school named as specified provision on a statement of SEN without triggering a review of the child’s statement.
The inquiry examined good practice regarding strategies to prevent exclusions and models being used as alternatives to exclusion. Many parts of England operate ’managed move’ systems as an alternative to formal exclusions whereby when it is untenable for a pupil to continue in one school, a move to another is managed by agreement without a formal exclusion. The report recommends that the DfE issue guidance on good practice and professional development of school leaders, teachers and trainees which includes all the necessary strategies to create a good learning environment and prevent exclusions.
The report calls on Ofsted to monitor exclusions data for schools over a rolling three-year period and if trends give cause for concern, this should trigger a full inspection. Furthermore, Ofsted should classify schools automatically as ‘inadequate’ if unlawful activities are found.
To close the gaps in the differentials in exclusion, the report pins hope on the implementation of the Equalities Act 2010, clear guidance from DfE in collaboration with the Equality and Human Rights Commission and robust inspection of exclusions by Ofsted. However, the inquiry puts its reservations starkly: ‘The evidence does not give us confidence that schools will carry out this necessary work without further insistence by Government.’
The real problem is that the Coalition’s policy is moving in the opposite direction. The Education Act of 2011 has removed the rights of a parent’s to appeal to an Independent Appeal Panel against permanent exclusion and replaced this with an Independent Review Panel with reduced powers which cannot require a school to reinstate a pupil whom they judge to have been unfairly excluded. The government has also moved to make the statutory guidance on exclusions less prescriptive. Rightly the report calls for the reinstatement of the Independent Appeal Panel.
Michael Gove’s education revolution has further fragmented the stratified education system by the creation of free schools and academies with power moving into the hands of private sponsors and operators. This increasing privatisation is going to make schools less accountable to parents and the local community which they serve. Hence we see academies flouting school regulations and there is no reason to believe that free schools will not do the same. Elected local authorities that once could hold school management to account have been neutered. The competitive pressures through league tables and the spectre of being labelled a ‘failed’ school by Ofsted have produced a school culture where management resorts to covert exclusions to suggest better performance.
Both the right-wing media chorus and the government consider a head teacher’s authority to be sacrosanct with little concern for accountability. However the damage to the lives of children through discriminatory exclusions and its social costs are so high that the best policy would be to remove exclusion as a sanction whilst providing head teachers with a well funded multi-agency professional team and local frameworks to deal with disruptive pupils. If schools in other European countries can work without exclusion as a sanction, so can schools in this country.