Why does England exclude so many pupils?

A recent article highlights the huge discrepancy between exclusions data for England and Scotland and tries to work out why the gap is so huge.

The article notes that almost 98% of pupils permanently excluded in the UK in 2016-17 were from schools in England. Contrast this with Scotland whose rates of permanent exclusion are consistently lower, reaching a ‘historic low’ in 2014-15 when only five students were permanently excluded. The tables below (page 1145) show the different trajectories for the two nations:

  2012/13 (% of school population) 2016/17 (% of school population)
England 267,520 (3.51) 381,865 (4.76)
Wales 13,879 (3.00) 16,907 (3.67)
Scotland 21,934 (3.27) 18,376 (2.68)
N Ireland 5,772 (1.81) 6,805 (2.14)

Figure 2. Total numbers of instances of recorded non-permanent exclusions

Figure 3. Non-permanent exclusions across the UK as a percentage of the school population of state-funded primary,secondary and special schools

The article suggests that one reason for the discrepancy between English and Scottish exclusion rates might be the two nations’ different policy approaches to exclusions. Scotland’s Included, Engaged and Involved strategy takes a long-term approach to prevention and early intervention, with a heavy focus on helping school staff build positive relationships with at-risk pupils. In this policy, exclusion is a last resort:

The overarching aim of this guidance is to support schools, communities and their partners to keep all children and young people fully included, engaged and involved in their education; and, to improve outcomes for all Scotland’s children and young people with a particular focus on those who are at risk of exclusion. (Scottish Government, 2017, p.7)

There is a strong emphasis on developing an understanding of the impact of an exclusion on the life chances of pupils who may already be disadvantaged in terms of deprivation, special needs or other challenging home circumstances. Schools are advised to use restorative and nurturing practices, to consider teaching and learning approaches and to work with other support agencies to try and keep pupils in school.

The paper contrasts this approach to that of England, which it describes as ‘much more punitive in tone’ (p.1149). The article notes that England’s Advice For Headteachers does not explore alternatives to exclusion and focuses largely on descriptions of punishments, powers to challenge pupils and strategies like isolation and seclusion. These two very different approaches were corroborated by interviews with stakeholders from the two nations. 

This difference in approaches is visible in current online debates about behaviour management, which are often presented as extremes.  Some advocate punitive zero tolerance behaviour policies which others point out may fail to enable students to become self-motivated adults.  Still others argue for nurturing environments which adapt to accommodate students’ needs, and this is countered with the argument that these may let those with the most challenging behaviours off the hook. There are not many educators arguing for a middle ground. 

One much-debated strategy is the use of exclusion rooms and isolation booths which are both celebrated as successful support mechanisms for struggling students and derided as punitive solutions which do little more than remove the problem student from their entitlement to an education. A second recent article takes a more measured view of this approach. It describes an in-school seclusion unit in a school in London, which is set up as a sanction for students with challenging behaviours, but actually functions as a place of care and nurture for internally excluded students. The article attributes this to the caring approach of the lead member of staff in the unit who seeks to build relationships, to understand and to find caring solutions, rather than to punish. 

The article shows that the use of exclusion rooms and isolation booths is not the factor that decides how challenging behaviours should be tackled – it’s the human being in the room that makes the difference. And if a student receiving a sanction is cared for by the right member of staff, at the moment of the exclusion, it can make a real difference to the student’s response, and more gently and efficiently support re-integration into the classroom.

This seems to confirm the importance of Scotland’s focus on relationships, a focus which really has changed the lives of many troubled students. For these struggling students, it’s the person, not the place nor the policy that matters.

Barker, J., 2019. ‘Who cares?’Gender, care and secondary schooling:‘Accidental findings’ from a seclusion unit. British Educational Research Journal45(6), pp.1279-1294.

McCluskey, G., Cole, T., Daniels, H., Thompson, I. and Tawell, A., 2019. Exclusion from school in Scotland and across the UK: Contrasts and questions. British Educational Research Journal45(6), pp.1140-1159.

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