REVEALED – Families at ‘breaking point’ as school exclusion numbers skyrocket
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The number of fixed term exclusions at Suffolk primary schools has soared in recent years – prompting calls for an overhaul in the Government’s education system.
New data has revealed an “education crisis” at Suffolk schools, with hundreds of children sent home for offences including assaults on adults and fellow students, verbal abuse, damage and persistent disruptive behaviour.
Dozens of exclusions have also been dished out for bullying, racist abuse, sexual misconduct and drug and alcohol related offences, with the overall number of fixed term exclusions at primary schools at its highest in four years.
Figures from the Department for Education (DfE) show 1,741 fixed term exclusions imposed on primary school children in 2016/17, compared with just 988 in 2013/14 – an increase of 77%.
This cannot be put down to a rise in student numbers, as the rate of fixed term exclusions has also increased – from 1.84% of the student population in 2013/14 to 3.01% in 2016/17.
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Government critics have claimed the figures show “hundreds of children are being left behind” as a result of “suffocating real-term funding cuts” and a curriculum not fit for purpose.
While the data does not show such a dramatic increase at secondary schools in Suffolk, the rate of fixed term exclusions has jumped from 6.05% to 6.54% in the same time frame. Meanwhile, the number of permanent exclusions at secondary schools for 2016/17 was higher than in any other year examined, with 69 students expelled in 2016/17, compared with 55 in 2013/14.
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Overall, 5,255 fixed term exclusions were handed to primary school students between 2013/14 and 2016/17, compared with 10,920 at secondary schools.
A total of 82 primary school children and 189 secondary school students were permanently excluded in that time.
Families at breaking point
Jack Abbott, Suffolk County Council (SCC) Labour spokesman for children’s services, education and skills, said the damage caused by exclusions was pushing families to “breaking point”, claiming he had been “inundated with requests for help”.
“The sad reality is these numbers only tell half the story,” he said.
“Increases in ‘elective’ home education and part-time timetables are other indicators. The damage exclusion can do to a child’s education and wellbeing is clear and families are being pushed to breaking point.
“I have been inundated with requests for help, all different in their own way but united by the fact that provision for their child is inadequate, ineffective and, in some cases, non-existent.
“The hardest part is that, for every family that comes to me, there are a dozen more who are fighting the same, exhausting battles.
“This cannot go on. The Conservatives in government and at Suffolk County Council must turn this terrible crisis around.”
Children are being let down
Graham White, spokesman for the Suffolk division of the National Education Union (NEU), said there are “no sinister reasons” for an increase in exclusions – rather, children are being let down by a lack of funding and strict curriculum regime which pits schools against each other to achieve the best results.
“Pupils are disruptive for a number of reasons but the main one is because they feel the school and curriculum are not meeting their needs,” he said.
“At primary the emphasis on grammar rather than creative writing is causing increased anxiety and disaffection, it is also making pupils feel they are failing.”
Mr White largely blamed a lack of government funding for the crisis, adding: “The constant cuts to education funding has forced schools to increase class sizes so those pupils who most benefit from smaller classes and more individual attention lose out.
“The cuts to funding have also resulted in less teaching assistants and behavioural support with the result that those pupils who benefit most from those staff lose out again.
“The net result is disaffected pupils who then become disruptive so they do not need to be in school for a fixed period. These pupils then become someone else’s ‘problem’ – be it another school or a pupil referral unit (PRU).”
In order to tackle rising exclusion rates, Mr White called for an overhaul in the Government’s approach to education, with a greater focus on an enjoyable and accessible curriculum.
“We need to reduce exclusions,” he said. “We need pupils in school. We need to devise a curriculum which is enjoyable, accessible for all and constructive to enable pupils to show what they can do and to prepare them for their future lives as citizens and workers.
“Every child matters so can we ensure that every child gets the best education they can and all needs are catered for irrespective of cost or convenience?”
According to figures from the county council’s Labour group, two-thirds of exclusions in primary schools were given to children with special educational needs.
Mr Abbott added: “It is an appalling statistic and underlines the impact of budget cuts and eroding support services.”
What are students being excluded for?
There has been a huge leap in the number of fixed term exclusions for assaults on adults at primary, secondary and special schools – with an increase of 92% since 2013/14, and figures consistently rising year on year.
A total of 540 exclusions for such incidents were dished out in 2016/17, compared to 281 four years previously.
The number of fixed term exclusions for damage related offences has also risen by 70% – from 67 in 2013/14 to 114 in 2016/17.
The other categories showing an increase in the number of fixed term exclusions were assaults against a pupil, verbal abuse of a pupil, bullying, drug and alcohol related offences and persistent disruptive behaviour.
The only offences with fewer fixed term exclusions in 2016/17 than in 2013/14 were verbal abuse of an adult, racist abuse and sexual misconduct – although numbers have fluctuated year on year in each category.
How do the schools compare?
The data obtained from the DfE shows a distinct correlation between secondary school standards and the number of students expelled.
For 2016/17, eight out of the 10 secondary schools with the most permanent exclusions in Suffolk were rated Good or Outstanding, with just two ranked Requires Improvement, and none deemed Inadequate.
Meanwhile, just four of the 10 secondary schools with the most fixed term exclusions were either Good or Outstanding, with four rated Requires Improvement, one ranked Inadequate and one yet to be formally inspected.
Mr White claimed this distinction was down to pressure piled on schools to keep their grades and attendance levels up – meaning ‘problem’ students are forced out.
“League tables and the focus on exam results at each key stage ‘encourages’ schools to exclude those who potentially will not enhance their league table position,” he said.
“Outstanding schools wish to maintain that status so they do not want disruptive pupils bringing down results or impacting on absence figures.
“It is not schools in general who are letting pupils down – it is the Government, because of funding and its insistence on the assessment and curriculum regime and setting schools in competition via league tables.”
However it is important to note those schools with the highest number of exclusions did not necessarily exhibit the highest rates per pupil. For example, the number of students expelled at Copleston High in Ipswich amounted to just 0.17% of the student population, a lower rate than at many schools which did not make the top 10.
Ormiston Denes Academy is among the top 10 schools with the most permanent exclusions and the top 10 schools with the most fixed term exclusions for every year since 2014/15, topping the table four times.
In addition, Ormiston Denes, as well as Ormiston Endeavour and Benjamin Britten Academy, has an extremely high rate of fixed term exclusions for 2016/17.
For Ormiston Denes, the number of fixed term exclusions (230) works out as 23.19% of the student population.
For Ormiston Endeavour it is 23.63%, while for Benjamin Britten it works out at 23.55%.
This does not necessarily reflect the number of students excluded – as some pupils may have received fixed term exclusions on more than one occasion.
How does Suffolk compare to other parts of the country?
For each year since 2013/14, the number of fixed term exclusions at both primary and secondary schools in Suffolk is higher than each of the London boroughs.
The number of permanent exclusions at Suffolk secondary schools also exceeds Essex’s total for every year since 2013/14.
When pupil numbers are taken into consideration, the rate of fixed term exclusions at Suffolk primary schools was the second highest in the country for 2016/17 – beaten only by Telford and Wrekin in the West Midlands.
What does the council have to say?
Gordon Jones, cabinet member for children’s services, education and skills, said the council is “challenging schools where both fixed term and permanent exclusion rates are increasing”, arguing that its expects exclusion to be a “last resort”.
“There are a complex range of reasons that lead to pupils being excluded from schools,” he said. “School leaders, including governors, make the final decision about exclusions in all types of school. However, the local authority and regional schools’ commissioner are working closely together to promote the development of inclusive practice in Suffolk and as part of this work we are challenging schools where both fixed term and permanent exclusion rates are increasing.
“Suffolk County Council has a range of support services to offer advice on alternative approaches to exclusion, but the final decision rests with school leaders. Given the potential impact of exclusion on a young person, we would expect exclusion to be a last resort.
“We are committed to providing support to children, young people and their families where their placement in schools is vulnerable. Our county inclusion support service (CISS), a Suffolk County Council outreach programme, provides advice and guidance for schools to enable them to maintain school placements.
“In addition, our family services teams work with children, young people and their families to support them with their education pathway and build effective communications and relationships with professionals, practitioners and schools.”
However Mr Abbott, from the opposition, claimed the county is “in the midst of an education crisis” with “hundreds of children left behind”.
He echoed Mr White’s concerns about league table competition, arguing: “What we are seeing is the consequence of a results-at-all-costs culture, as well as suffocating real-term funding cuts, a shrinking curriculum and an absence of leadership from Suffolk County Council.
“We know which children these exclusions are affecting. In primary schools, pupils eligible for Free School Meals are five times more likely to receive a fixed-term exclusion than their peers. For pupils with a statement/EHCP the exclusion rate is 28.3% but for children without Special Educational Needs (SEN), that figure drops to just 0.99%.
“The message is clear; if you are from a poorer background or have SEN you simply do not fit in Suffolk’s increasingly exclusive education system. It is a sickening indictment and one that should shame those in power who have allowed Suffolk to sleepwalk into selective education.
“Without urgent increased funding and effective support, the vision of inclusive schools where every child matters will remain just that. A vision.
“We should support, champion and reward schools who aspire to be inclusive and give them the tools they need to succeed.”
Setting out his vision for change, Mr Abbott said Suffolk needs;
• Early intervention and outreach services in areas such as speech and language and mental health;
• An emphasis on tackling identified need when it appears, not just waiting for a formal diagnosis;
• To fight on behalf of families to get them the support they urgently require, rather than leaving them isolated, desperate and facing financial and emotional ruin;
• An education and healthcare system that differentiates and meets the needs of children, no matter their individual circumstance.
He said: “Yes, this will require political will and proper investment - but the cost of doing nothing is simply too high.
“We should put education on a pedestal where it belongs. A pursuit of excellence must be relentless, our aspirations for every child must be endless and the barriers facing pupils must be torn down. Anything short of this is a failure and right now too many children are being failed.”
What does the Government have to say?
A DfE spokeswoman acknowledged an increase in exclusions, but stressed that being forced to leave school should never mean an child’s education is compromised.
“We want every child to benefit from an education that gives them the opportunity to fulfil their potential,” she said. “While we know that there has been an increase in exclusions, there are still fewer than the peak a decade ago.
“We have launched an external review, led by Edward Timpson, to look at how exclusions are used and why certain groups are disproportionately affected.
“Exclusion from school does not mean exclusion from education. It is vital that young people who are excluded from school still receive high-quality education.
“This is why we are transforming alternative provision to improve outcomes for these children, backed by our £4million innovation fund that has created nine new projects around the country.”
The DfE wrote to schools last year to remind them of the rules regarding exclusions. It clarified that any school ‘off rolling’ on the basis of academic results is breaking the law.
What do the schools have to say?
The ten schools with the most permanent and fixed term exclusions for 2016/17 were all invited to comment on the figures, and in particular Mr White’s suggestion that ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ schools ranked so highly in the permanent exclusions category due to pressure to keep their grades and attendance levels up – although it is important to note that Mr White did not name or reference any individual schools in his statement.
Helen Winn, headteacher at Ipswich Academy, which had a total of nine permanent exclusions in 2016/17, said the school would continue to work with parents to support students.
“As a highly inclusive school, we have had very considerable success in reducing exclusions, which is reflected in Ofsted’s latest monitoring report,” she said.
“Inspectors noted that exclusions this summer term were half the level of summer 2017. That said, we continue to work with parents and outside agencies to support students while ensuring the school is calm and conducive to study.”
A spokesman for Ormiston Academies Trust, which controls Ormiston Denes, Ormiston Endeavour and Stoke High, said permanent exclusions were “only ever a last resort,” for the trust, and when the decision is made to exclude a pupil “it is always in the best interest of the student concerned”.
She said: “Across our academies, we are committed to ensuring that all students receive the best possible education. We have high standards, including in behaviour, and we have an inclusive and supportive ethos.
“Permanent exclusion is only ever a last resort following a number of strategies to improve behaviour. We also work closely with the local authority to explore all options to avoid exclusions at all costs. When we make the difficult decision to exclude, it is always in the best interests of both the student concerned and the vast majority of students who are consistently well-behaved.
“Permanent exclusions are also extremely rare in our academies – they represent under 1% of all students in these schools over this period. In the last two years, including this academic year, there have also been fewer permanent exclusions across these academies than in 2016-17.
“It is important that heads and teachers are trusted to manage behaviour in their schools so that they are safe learning environments where children and young people are able to learn and thrive.”
Helen Wilson, headteacher at Thurston Community College, pointed out that the schools’s behaviour has ben judged ‘Good’ by Ofsted, and the statistics referenced “only vindicate the inclusivity and consistency” at the college.
“Thurston Community College is and remains a fully comprehensive and inclusive school under the direction of the local authority,” she said. “We have been consistently graded by Ofsted as ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ since 2002, most recently in an inspection in March 2018. During that Ofsted inspection, our exclusion figures were scrutinised by Ofsted and behaviour was judged to be Good.
“As per the Department for Education report ‘Permanent and Fixed Period Exclusions in England: 2016 to 2017’ (published in July 2018), our rates of permanent exclusion put us in line with the national average and our rates of fixed term exclusion are well below the national average for secondary schools.
“Furthermore, the statistics obtained only vindicate the inclusivity and consistency we display in the college, with fixed term exclusion rates placing us in the bottom half of all Suffolk schools for the three years in question.
“Thurston Community College embraces one of the biggest student populations in Suffolk and the largest catchment area, yet maintains one of the highest attendance figures, with 1,754 on roll in 2016/17 and overall absence at 4.3% (compared to 5.4% nationally).”
In reference to Mr White’s comments, Ms Wilson said: “Graham White makes a valid point in his reference to funding cuts which have, in some schools, led to a reduction in support staff and a narrowing of the curriculum.
“Despite the challenges of reduced funding and reduced support services from the local authority, Thurston Community College has increased its investment in various support staff to maintain our inclusive ethos.”
She added: “We are the first school nationally to appoint a full time clinical psychologist to develop a whole-school approach to mental health and emotional wellbeing, for example. We also employ a family support worker, together with a comprehensive system of pastoral support staff. We maintain a very broad curriculum at both Key Stage 4 and 5, offering more than 30 different GCSE and A-Level courses, including a number of arts subjects.
“While we welcome any efforts to readdress the imbalance in funding for schools in Suffolk and the decline in local authority services, we will continue to work hard to remain a comprehensive and inclusive Local Authority Secondary School that makes ‘above average’ progress with our students.”
Debbie Clinton, chief executive officer of Academy Transformation Trust, the multi-academy trust that is responsible for Westbourne Academy and Mildenhall Academy, said Mr White’s suggestion that any permanent exclusion is performance-motivated is “naïve at best and deliberately misleading at worst”.
Ms Clinton said: “The number of permanent exclusions at Mildenhall over this three-year period represents 0.2% of the entire academy population, while the number at Westbourne represents 0.3% of the same – this underlines the absolute commitment to inclusion in all our academies and of our trust as a whole.
“We never take any decision to permanently exclude lightly but on the rare occasions that there is a serious or persistent behaviour issue, we have to take action – it is essential that our academies are calm, safe places that are conducive to learning for the majority of students.
“These two academies, in common with all our schools, work tirelessly with those students who need to improve their behaviour. This includes involving educational psychologists, specific behaviour support and challenge, 16-week pastoral support programmes and local managed moves.
“To suggest that any permanent exclusion is somehow linked to an academy’s Ofsted ranking of good or outstanding is naïve at best and deliberately misleading at worst. We are proud of the high standards at both Mildenhall and Westbourne, and it is a shame that the NEU does not wish to celebrate and support strong educational performance and the highest expectations for our students more positively.”
David Hutton, headteacher at Northgate High School, said each decision to exclude a student was a “last resort” and “would not be upheld unless it complied fully with the law”.
“Headteachers take decisions to permanently exclude pupils with heavy heart,” he said. “When they do have to act it is always after extensive support has been given to the individual pupil involved, but ultimately if there is a continued threat to the welfare and/or education of other pupils it can be a necessary last resort.
“Each decision is considered by governors and would not be upheld unless it complied fully with the law, so there is full accountability.
“What some people passing comment fail to realise is that behind the scenes popular schools such as Northgate consistently provide fresh opportunities to pupils either permanently excluded or in danger of being permanently excluded from other High Schools by offering more places than they are required to do to pupils referred to the In Year Fair Access Panel (IYFAP).
“Northgate’s success rate with such challenging pupils is higher than the norm, which we are very proud of.”
Andy Sievewright, headteacher at Farlingaye High, said the school “absolutely refutes” Mr Whire’s claims, and its place in the permanent exclusions table may be better reflected by exclusion rates per student – rather than raw data.
“Farlingaye High School absolutely refutes any suggestion that we would permanently exclude students in order to improve our exam results or our attendance records,” he said.
“Any permanent exclusion is implemented solely in order to ensure the safety and good order of the school community, and we always take appropriate steps to try to avoid permanent exclusions.
“We would note that, as we are a very large school with nearly 2,000 students, the number of students (3) who were permanently excluded from Farlingaye High School in the year 2016-2017 represented only 0.15% of our student population.
“This was below the national average for rates of permanent exclusions for all schools in England for that year, which was 0.2%. In 2017-18, our rate was 0.1% (2 students).
“Our rate of exclusion in every year for the past five years has been below or well below the national average. This low rate reflects our commitment to inclusion: we want the best for all of our students and work very hard to achieve it.”
Philip Hurst, headteacher at Thomas Mills High School, said: “At Thomas Mills we aim to use permanent exclusions as a last resort, and we always act in line with the statutory guidance.
“The expectation is very much focused on self discipline so that children can make good progress in their learning and take advantage of the wide opportunities available here.”
Copleston High School did not wish to comment on the figures, and Newmarket Academy did not respond to a request for comment.
How was the data calculated?
The figures featured in this piece are drawn from official data published by the Department for Education, which collates the number of permanent and fixed term exclusions issued at each school as documented in the government census.
However when made publicly available, if the quantity of students excluded from any given school is either one or two, it is displayed as ‘x’ to protect pupil confidentiality.
This means that in many cases ranking schools according to the rate of exclusions (ie exclusions as a percentage of pupils) is impossible.
Therefore schools have been ranked according to the number of exclusions in any given year, and not the rate.
For example, Ipswich Academy had the most permanent exclusions in 2016/17 (9) but not necessarily the highest rate (1.27%).