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Why do some ethnic groups have higher exclusion rates? Part 1

August 10, 2022

One of the most confused parts of the debate about exclusions from school relates to race and ethnicity. For many journalists, politicians and activists it simply must be the case that ethnic minority pupils, particularly black pupils, are more likely to be excluded. The 2 most recent sets of figures are from the 2019/20 and 2020/21 academic years  They do not show that ethnic minority pupils or black pupils are more likely to be excluded than white British pupils.

2019/20 2020/21
Ethnicity Minor White British 0.07 0.05
Ethnicity Major Black Total 0.07 0.05
Ethnicity Minority ethnic pupil 0.05 0.04

“Minor” here means a category that cannot be subdivided further; “major” is one that can be subdivided. The rates here are the number of exclusions for the pupils in a category, divided by the number of pupils in the category, written as a percentage, so 0.05 means 1 in 2000 pupils were excluded during the year. The DfE rounds exclusion rates to two decimal places. If we calculated further decimal places, the exclusion rate for black pupils would actually be lower than for white British pupils. However, in both years there were over 100 excluded pupils who were categorised as “ethnicity unclassified” which gives us a potentially large margin of error for these statistics, so comparisons based on only those more precise figures probably can’t be relied upon.

Why are so many people convinced that exclusion rates for ethnic minority pupils, and black pupils in particular, are higher? One reason is that this was the case historically. As recently as the 00s, ethnic minority pupils were slightly likelier to be excluded than white British pupils and black pupils were around twice as likely to be excluded. It is only recent years that ethnic minority pupils have become much less likely to be excluded than white British pupils, and it is only in the last two years that black pupils were no more likely to be excluded than white British pupils.

(Data from here. Despite what I said above about the margin for error, I have calculated the figures as precisely as possible just to make the lines clearer on the graph.)

I have in the past suspected that another reason for the widespread belief that black pupils are more likely to be excluded is because so much coverage of exclusions is driven by London based media and politicians. Racial disparities exist in London that don’t exist elsewhere. Inner London has a really low rate of permanent exclusions for white British pupils. In 2019-2020 London was the only region of England where the ethnic minority exclusion rate was higher than the white British exclusion rate. And in that year, while there were other regions where the exclusion rate for black pupils were a little higher than for white British pupils, Inner London was the only region where it is a lot higher.

(Data from here).

In 2020-21, however, this did change slightly, with the disparity between black and white British pupils narrowing dramatically in Inner London and widening in the South West.

However, Inner London remains the only region where ethnic minority pupils are more likely to be excluded than white British pupils.

For whatever reason, there are countless commentators who simply cannot admit what recent figures show about racial disparities. I am continually seeing false claims about this topic. Often this is justified by using out of date data. Sometime people use white pupils (including ethnic minority pupils) as the baseline for comparison instead of white British pupils, which creates a small disparity in 2019/20. Sometimes people just lie or repeat something they’ve heard without checking if it’s true.

However, the single most common way to suggest that exclusions discriminate is to subdivide into much smaller categories than ethnic minority pupils or black pupils, then pretend that what is true for some of these smaller subgroups is true for much larger groups. Exclusion data is collected for 18 separate “minor” groups (i.e. groups that cannot be further subdivided):

  • Ethnicity Minor Any Other Ethnic Group
  • Ethnicity Minor Any other Asian background
  • Ethnicity Minor Any other Mixed background
  • Ethnicity Minor Any other black background
  • Ethnicity Minor Any other white background
  • Ethnicity Minor Bangladeshi
  • Ethnicity Minor Black African
  • Ethnicity Minor Black Caribbean
  • Ethnicity Minor Chinese
  • Ethnicity Minor Gypsy Roma
  • Ethnicity Minor Indian
  • Ethnicity Minor Irish
  • Ethnicity Minor Pakistani
  • Ethnicity Minor Traveller of Irish heritage
  • Ethnicity Minor White British
  • Ethnicity Minor White and Asian
  • Ethnicity Minor White and Black African
  • Ethnicity Minor White and Black Caribbean

Not surprisingly, these categories do not all have the exact same exclusion rates. There are even a few persistent inequalities. We can divide the categories into 3 separate groups.

Those that consistently have a lower exclusion rate than white British pupils. These have all had an exclusion rate that (to two decimal places) was lower than white British pupils in every year of the last 5 years.

  • Ethnicity Minor Any Other Ethnic Group
  • Ethnicity Minor Any other Asian background
  • Ethnicity Minor Any other white background
  • Ethnicity Minor Bangladeshi
  • Ethnicity Minor Black African
  • Ethnicity Minor Chinese
  • Ethnicity Minor Indian
  • Ethnicity Minor Pakistani
  • Ethnicity Minor White and Asian

Those that consistently have a higher exclusion rate than white British pupils. These have all had an exclusion rate that was higher than white British pupils in every year of the last 5 years.

  • Ethnicity Minor Any other black background
  • Ethnicity Minor Black Caribbean
  • Ethnicity Minor Gypsy Roma
  • Ethnicity Minor Traveller of Irish heritage
  • Ethnicity Minor White and Black Caribbean

Those where the exclusion rate is not consistently above or below the rate for white British.

  • Ethnicity Minor Any other Mixed background
  • Ethnicity Minor Irish
  • Ethnicity Minor White and Black African

A list of exclusion rates for each ethnic group for any of the last five years will therefore, put white British pupils somewhere between the 6th and the 9th place for exclusions out of 18 ethnic groups. This means that, at a glance, it white British pupils are around halfway down the list and, therefore, it can be claimed that up to half of ethnic minority groups are disproportionately excluded. However, this can be misleading because the 18 ethnic groups are very different in size. When you take account of how many pupils there are in each of these groups, the ethnic groups that have a consistently higher exclusion rate than white British pupils account for just 11% of England’s ethnic minority pupils.

Consistently lower than white British pupils 2 176 731
Consistently higher than white British pupils 307 959
Not consistently above or below white British pupils 293 451

Much of the commentary we encounter consistently cherrypicks the ethnic groups in the orange slice and implies that they represent the whole pie chart.

It is unlikely that the groups with a higher exclusion rate would be so small just by chance. Ethnic minority pupils have been subdivided so that there is a moderate negative correlation (r=-0.44) between an ethnic group’s exclusion rate and its size, i.e. the smaller an ethnic group is, the more likely it is to have a high exclusion rate.

The categories for ethnic groups seem to be based on those used in the census. From what I’ve read the development of categories over time involves quite a lot of consultation and many considerations and I wouldn’t claim to understand the details. However, it would appear that there is a greater willingness to split up disadvantaged groups (like Travellers) into smaller groups, while keeping other, less disadvantaged groups (like the category made up of half a million white ethnic minority pupils) undivided. And while this may make sense for monitoring disadvantage, it means that lists based on this division give undue prominence to some small, but disadvantaged, groups. And that has enabled statistics describing just 11% of ethnic minority pupils to completely dominate the debate about exclusions and ethnicity. So, my first answer to the question of why some ethnic groups have higher exclusion rates is that it’s partly because of how the data has been sliced up, and that’s just a feature of how we analyse exclusions, not a feature of the exclusions themselves.

Of course, even when we recognise that the 11% of ethnic minority pupils are unrepresentative of ethnic minority pupils in general, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be an important consideration. But it does mean that in finding out why they have higher exclusion rates, we may need to work out what makes them different from the vast majority of ethnic minority pupils. This is a potentially controversial question that I hope to return to.

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New Exclusion Figures

July 28, 2022

The latest exclusion and suspension figures are now out. They can be found here. They are based on the 2020-2021 academic year, which was the second year to be affected by a lockdown due to Covid. Lockdown covered a much shorter period in this academic year than in 2019-2020.

Permanent exclusions have fallen for the third year in a row. Obviously, the lockdown periods are the key reason for the two most recent years being lower than previously, but it was not widely foreseen that there would be a dramatic fall in the year with a shorter period of lockdown. It’s possible lower attendance was a factor, or it could be that a lockdown after the Christmas holidays is at a far more critical time for exclusions.

Suspensions have risen, although they are still far below pre-pandemic levels. One possible explanation for this is that suspensions are used as a substitute for exclusions, and this rise has resulted from the fall in exclusions.

When the previous set of figures came out a year ago, there was a new element to the data I did not agree with. Figures were produced for each term of 2019/20 and, retrospectively, for 2018/19. This was then used to compare the uninterrupted autumn term of 2019 with the autumn term of 2018, and declare that there was some kind of increasing trend. This never made much sense. You cannot identify a trend from two data points. Besides, without autumn data for previous years, it was impossible to tell if year on year comparison of termly figures were a good predictor of the overall change in exclusions. We can now see that the two data points did not represent an ongoing trend; the autumn term of 2020 showed a decrease on the previous autumn term that was much larger than the increase the year before. (Autumn terms are shown in orange below.)

I suspect though, that this new “trend” won’t be anywhere near as widely reported. It irritates me that the DfE played a part in using cherrypicked data to give journalists a bad news story.

London and the South East remain the regions with the lowest rates for permanent exclusions. (These are the number of exclusions as a percentage of the relevant population.)

Will the people claiming knife crime in London, and county lines drugs dealing between London and the South, are driven by school exclusions notice this? I doubt it.

Suspensions are again lower in London than elsewhere.

Will people stop claiming that knife crime in London is driven by suspensions? I suspect not.

As with last year, black pupils and white British pupils have the same exclusion rate (black pupils have a slightly lower rate if you calculate it to another decimal place). Ethnic minority pupils continue to have a lower exclusion rate. The disparity in exclusions between white British and black Caribbean pupils is lower than it’s ever been. There are a non-negligible number of excluded children whose ethnicity is not recorded, so there is potentially a margin of error for close comparisons. However, if you ignore that and work out the figures to a couple more decimal places, this is the second year in a row where black pupils are less likely to be excluded than white British pupils. It used to be the case that black pupils were much more likely to be excluded. This is a change that activists, politicians and journalists have not noticed.

A lot of concerns about permanent exclusion centre on black Caribbean pupils, and particularly black Caribbean pupils in London. In 2020-21 there were 70 black Caribbean pupils excluded in England, 35 of whom were in London. This is slightly disproportionate (although I suspect it won’t be if you adjust for Free School Meals). However, the numbers are now so low that anyone who claims this shows systemic racism in England’s 24413 schools, or that it is the cause of knife crime in London will, I hope, now be ignored.

It’s interesting now to look back and see what the “experts” and commentators said would happen to exclusions in 2020/21.

In April 2020, Kiran Gill of The Difference, wrote a Times article entitled “Trauma of pandemic will lead to a rise in school exclusions”. It warned of upcoming problems.

With thousands of coronavirus deaths, I keep wondering: how many children will suffer trauma over the next six months? Trauma is often the root cause of unmanageable and challenging behaviour which spirals eventually to school exclusion…

… The first priority is to ensure that high-needs funding is increased to prepare alternative provision schools for a likely increase in numbers of children being excluded.

In October 2020, Oxford University’s Department of Education published a report (written in June).

It promised to look at “potential new and heightened risks for school exclusions caused by the recent Covid-19 pandemic” and warned:

With schools being encouraged to update their behaviour policies to include new rules to ensure the health and safety of staff and students and abide by public health advice, there are concerns that schools will become far less tolerant of students who refuse to follow instructions and comply with expectations, which may result in an increase of both formal and informal exclusions. Stricter policies may also discriminate or unfairly increase the risk of exclusion for certain young people, for example, children who have conditions which make it hard for them to obey social distancing or working in ‘bubbles’…

A report from the Youth Violence Commission warned that:

The full extent of the lockdown’s effects on young people’s mental health, educational attainment, attitudes and behaviour will not be known for many years, but it is highly likely that schools will face severe challenges in the short to medium term.

If schools are unable to adapt and cope with these challenges, then there are serious risks of an additional spike in school exclusions

No More Exclusions, in a report released in 2021, based on FOI requests that were used to gather largely inaccurate data, wrote:

Considering pupils’ anxiety, loss, bereavement, poverty and digital inequality are only being exacerbated as the pandemic continues, our findings are
particularly worrying and indicate that exclusions are being used to address or at least manage these additional pressures.

The RSA put together a panel to discuss “growing concern that Covid-19 disruption is creating the conditions for a rise in school exclusions”.

I’ll stop there. There was a general consensus amongst the usual suspects that after the 2020 lockdown we could expect to see a high rate of exclusions. While they could not have foreseen the lockdown in the spring term, exclusions were not high even in the other two terms. When it comes to exclusions, a lot of people are treated as important voices who are actually just interested in creating alarm and have little insight or knowledge of the issue.

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Are exclusion rates for black Caribbean students up to six times higher?

May 31, 2022

The Guardian recently chose to print an utterly uncritical piece on No More Exclusions, the campaigning group that wants even the most dangerous young criminals to stay in school with their victims. More accurate information about that group and their appalling views can be found here (from me) or here (from the TES). While I’m very disappointed at the Guardian for this, in this post I wish only to address one point made in that article:

The racial disparities are stark, with exclusion rates for black Caribbean students up to six times higher than those of their white peers in some local authorities, according to a recent Guardian analysis.

I wrote about that “analysis” when it was published, in this post: How misleading was today’s Guardian article on exclusions?  

The entire article was cherrypicked data, almost certainly intended to mislead. In particular:

  • Ethnic minority groups were broken down into the smallest possible categories and those ethnic groups that had lower exclusion rates than white British pupils were ignored (despite being the overwhelming majority of ethnic minority pupils);
  • Fixed term exclusion rates were used instead of permanent exclusion rates;
  • England was broken down into 150 LAs, and figures were given for the LAs with the most extreme discrepancies.

The article then repeated claims about how this was an incredible injustice for pupils from an ethnic minority background, and calls for changes in national policy, as if the statistics applied to all ethnic minorities in the whole of England. Later Guardian stories (like this one and, before it was corrected two weeks later, this one) referred back to the article as if it was about black pupils in general rather than black Caribbean pupils in a handful of LAs.

However, even if the article had been honest in the first place, there are several reasons why the specific statistic about black Caribbean pupils being up to six times as likely to be excluded should not still be being repeated.

Firstly, it is not, as described, “a recent Guardian analysis”. It was published over a year ago. When I wrote about that in my previous blogpost, I assumed it was based on data that had been released in February 2021 and it had taken the Guardian a month to subdivide the data in ways that supported a narrative of discrimination. Looking back now, I can’t actually see any reason to think it wasn’t based on data that was first published in July 2020. Regardless, it was data about the 2018-19 school year, and data on the 2019-20 school year was published in July 2021 and so, far from being “recent”, that analysis has been out of date for 10 months.

Secondly, in the more recent statistics, the term “suspensions” has replaced “Fixed Term Exclusions”. Suspensions are when a student is temporarily removed from school, usually for a day or two and rarely for more than a week. When a child is expelled it is called a “permanent exclusion”. Referring to suspensions as exclusions has allowed anti-exclusion campaigners to misrepresent the data for many years by confusing expulsion and suspension. As mentioned earlier, the original Guardian “analysis” used the figures for Fixed Term Exclusions. While it is in a paragraph that mentions suspensions, to continue to quote it in an article about exclusions, where many of the claims are clearly about permanent exclusions, is misleading.

Thirdly, although the “up to six times higher” statistic was apparently the headline when that article was the cover story of the print edition of the Guardian, the online version had a different headline. In the text it was admitted that the six times figure came from Cambridgeshire, and that  “Cambridgeshire has a relatively small number of Caribbean students, which partially explains the disparity”. The new headline was “Exclusion rates five times higher for black Caribbean pupils in parts of England”. So in it’s article about No More Exclusions, The Guardian is quoting something that is not just out of date, but that they have previously corrected.

That last point might seem relatively minor, after all, does the difference between six times and five times matter? In fact, the Guardian reported that Brent was excluding black Caribbean pupils at 5.9 times the exclusion rate for white pupils. So what difference does it make that the six times figure is marginally higher? I think what’s most misleading about including it is that in mentioning Cambridgeshire, it suggests the disparities being described are a national issue. Without the Cambridgeshire figure, every single LA featured in the Guardian’s graphic (below) is in London.

London does contain the majority of England’s black Caribbean pupils, so it is perhaps unsurprising that many would be from London. However, if you look at the racial disparities in exclusions between black Caribbean and white British pupils, while racial disparities exist outside of London, they seem to be less common and on a smaller scale. I have looked at LAs with more that 750 black Caribbean pupils, a somewhat higher threshold than the Guardian’s. This is what the disparities look like (London LAs are in blue, non-London LAs are in orange).

 

I don’t mean to suggest that disproportionate suspension of black Caribbean pupils is not an issue. or even that it is never an issue outside of London. But, it is a far more pressing issue in London, where most of England’s black Caribbean pupils go to school and where many LAs have very high exclusion rates for black Caribbean pupils. At some point I hope to blog in detail about how London’s exclusion data is very different to the rest of England’s, but here I hope it is obvious how the Guardian’s methodology distorts the exclusions debate to make one of London’s issue seem like a more general issue for England.

If we accept that it is mainly London that has a problem with disproportionate suspension of black Caribbean pupils, then we might end up looking at what else is exceptional about suspensions in London. We would then, perhaps be interested in whether suspension rates varied between regions.

From the above graph, the most noticeable thing about suspensions in London is how rarely they are used. Correlation is not causation, so I’m not going to claim that having a low use of suspensions widens racial disparities. But this should be reason to stop assuming that racial disparities are a reason to use suspensions less. The lesson from London could well be that where people let kids off of suspensions that are deserved, it is white British kids who are most likely to be let off. At the very least, we should consider the possibility that it is not just sanctions that might have a disproportionate impact on some ethnic groups. It might be that reluctance to use a sanction, or political pressure not to use it, has a disproportionate impact on different ethnic groups. The Guardian was so busy looking for reasons to argue against exclusions, that it missed the real story of the suspension data. The story that London has a unique problem with racial disparities in suspensions, and that this has happened in a city that stands out for having kept suspensions low.

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“Just Give Them A Pen”

May 21, 2022

There are people on Twitter, like this educationalist, who seem to hate the fact that schools have rules.

Ignoring the question of why the taxpayer is funding people with such low expectations of children to train teachers, I wanted to single out the daftest of the complaints here: the objection to enforcing the rule that pupils in school should have something to write with.

This has been immortalised in… I think it’s a poem… in which child neglect is used as a reason not to enforce rules.

This is performative compassion. It’s all about how the adult feels, rather than what’s best for the child. It’s not actual compassion, because reporting child neglect is the compassionate thing to do. Lowering expectations in order to normalise, or even conceal, neglect is not compassionate. Any school that just assumes its pupils are suffering neglect is a safeguarding risk. Children’s suffering is something to be reported, not something you build into your expectations. That’s not to say that while neglect was being dealt with a school wouldn’t help a child, including help ensuring they are equipped for the day, but there is no obvious benefit to changing what’s expected in lessons.

Assuming we are designing rules for the best interests of the students, not to display our own virtue, the case for rules about equipment is pretty straightforward, if you are familiar with even half-way challenging secondary schools. In fact, one has to assume that people who oppose such rules are imagining a completely unrealistic scenario for challenging schools. They are assuming that occasionally one child forgets a pen, entirely by accident, and politely asks for one at the first opportunity. The teacher immediately lends it. At the end of the lesson they return it without being asked. This might well happen in the most privileged schools.

What actually happens in challenging schools where rules about equipment are not enforced is quite different. Every lesson, several children (usually the ones who are slow to engage at the best of times) will sit doing no work. When confronted individually they say they don’t have a pen. When told they should have one they argue. The teacher lends out pens, which will amount to dozens in a day. It will add minutes to the time it takes to start the lesson. This extra wasted time will take place when the teacher is already very busy, either supervising children getting into the classroom, settling them or setting up the lesson. Few pens are subsequently returned. Several are destroyed. The same routine is then repeated if work requires a pencil, a ruler or a calculator. The teacher ends up buying pens from their own money. The school may well become littered with broken pens.

Of course, if required, teachers can come up with routines to stop this waste of time and resources. Although usually the methods of saving time, waste more resources and the methods of saving resources, waste more time. Regardless, you end up with all sorts of pen lending routines. Requiring pupils to identify their need for a pen immediately. Making a pot of pens available for pupils to collect. Counting pens in and out. Making them swap something they can’t afford to lose (a phone or a shoe, maybe) for the pen. Writing names on the board for students who have borrowed a pen. Even if these routines are effective, they are often more effort for all concerned than simply requiring everyone to bring in a pen.

Often the routines are not effective. After all, what you are doing is lowering expectations. Children should be able to bring a pen to lesson. They often have a pen, they are just wasting time for the sake of it. By lowering expectations you are doing them no favours. You are making them into worse people. In the worst school I worked in for low expectations regarding equipment, it became so normal for pupils to just help themselves to pens, that if you didn’t put a freshly stocked pot of pens out for them, they would rifle through your cupboards and desk looking for pens. Because replacing pens was expensive, and the departmental stocks would run out early in the year, some of us would stock up our pens by just picking them up off of the floor in corridors and on break duty. Kids would discard them all over the place, because they were being taught pens were worthless, and that the only person who should care whether they were ready to learn in lessons was their teacher. Nobody was benefitting from these low expectations.

Other experiences showed me the benefits of having a sanction for not bringing in a pen. Something I have experienced many times, as have many other teachers, is the pupil who turns up without a pen until they are reminded there is a sanction for this. Suddenly, they find a pen that they had all along. When I’ve asked some of these pupils why they asked for a pen, many have said “I just couldn’t be bothered to get it out”. What you permit is what you promote so by treating having a pen as optional, you promote this.

The experience that most informs my thinking on this was a school I worked in that changed its expectations. A policy was introduced of giving 45 minute detentions to anyone who turns up to lessons without equipment. Even I think this is too harsh: I’m sure a lighter sanction would have worked. Nevertheless, what I saw was a transformation in expectations. Suddenly, every child had a pen, pencil and ruler. In particular, I remember a pupil who was dyslexic, dyspraxic and deaf who had never brought in a pen to any of my lessons. It would have been easy to just assume “a child like that” couldn’t be expected to manage to bring in a pen. When the detention policy was introduced, he transformed overnight. He brought a pen to every single lesson without fail. As did almost everyone else. I left the school and returned a few years later. The policy had been abandoned, and once again there were kids in the lower years who had never had a pen, but those who had been at the school during the time when the detention policy was in place, remained good at bringing in pens. There are those who believe that you can never get good behaviour through punishment alone. On this issue, I have seen that you can, and you can help form good habits that way too.

There are those who just don’t like rules. There are those who think you can have meaningful rules that you don’t actually enforce. There are those who think kids are basically helpless and hopeless. There are those who think any SEN means a child should be written off as incapable. There are those who cannot imagine that a child would choose to do wrong. There are those who think that enforcing rules is done only due to sadism and that children live in fear of their teachers. However, in the real world, everyone is better off if children bring their own pens in, and if that will only happen through enforcing a rule that says “bring in a pen”, then there’s no good reason not to.

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Do permanent exclusions cost £370k per excluded pupil?

May 13, 2022

Of course not. But this kind of nonsense is recycled endlessly by the anti-exclusion lobby. 

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking into the campaigning work of those groups trying to take away schools’ power to exclude. With very little challenge, the same bogus claims are made again and again by campaigners, academics and journalists. Recent posts dealt with a video by the Economist and a report by The Commission On Young Lives. These both included bizarre claims about the cost of exclusions from the same source.

The Commission On Young Lives:

Meanwhile, all of this is extremely expensive. An exclusion has been estimated to cost £370,000 per young person across their lifetime in education, benefits, healthcare, and criminal justice costs. Just think how some of this money could be so much better spent on introducing better systems, starting in the early years, that do much more to support children to learn, keep children in school and provide them with more specialist help and learning if they need it.

The Economist’s video:

Reducing exclusions can help tackle structural racism within education systems and it can save governments and taxpayers lots of money. In England, each cohort of permanently excluded pupils costs an extra £2.1bn over their lifetime in education, health, welfare and criminal justice costs.

Both of these give this 2017 report from the think tank IPPR as a source for this claim. This report includes the following:

Page 7 (page 9 in the pdf)

KEY FINDINGS
This report reveals the cost to the state of failing our most vulnerable children at school.

Every cohort of permanently excluded pupils will go on to cost the state an extra £2.1 billion in education, health, benefits and criminal justice costs.

Page 22-23 (page 24-25 in the pdf)

… there is also a strong economic imperative to address this sharp end of the social mobility challenge. IPPR research estimates that the cost of exclusion is around £370,000 per young person in lifetime education, benefits, healthcare and criminal justice costs.

This calculation reflects the costs of: education in the alternative provision sector; lost taxation from lower future earnings; associated benefits payments (excluding housing); higher likelihood of entry into the criminal justice system; higher likelihood of social security involvement; and increased average healthcare costs. Using the official figure of 6,685 children permanently excluded from school last year, this amounts to £2.1 billion for the cohort….

….CONCLUSIONS

  • Excluded pupils are likely to suffer long-term mental health problems, fail to achieve basic levels of literacy and numeracy, struggle to gain qualifications needed to access work, to be long-term unemployed, and to be repeatedly involved in crime.
  • As well as an incalculable personal cost, this has a huge societal cost. The cost to the state of failing each pupil is an estimated £370,000 in additional education, benefits, healthcare and criminal justice costs across a lifetime.
  • We calculate on official estimations of numbers of exclusion, that this is a £2.1 billion cost for every year’s cohort of permanently excluded young people. Yet, given that the full extent of exclusion greatly exceeds official figures, the true cost of exclusion is likely to be many multiples of this estimate.

And that’s it. No details of how the calculation was made. No accompanying technical report. They simply assumed that exclusions cause bad outcomes for excluded pupils, and made estimates for the extent and costs of those outcomes, which (apart from the total) they did not share. This should not be a surprise. The same report claimed that it is likely close to 100% of excluded children have mental health problems, a claim I discussed in detail in this post. That statistic included working out, and as I discussed in that post, it was pretty much all wrong. The statistics for the cost of exclusion have no working out (other than multiplying £370,000 by the number of excluded pupils to get £2.1 billion) but is based on an unproven assumption that not excluding will somehow magically cure the criminality, poor health and expected low incomes of the excluded. This has no credibility at all.

And, of course, the additional assumption has been made that not permanently excluding has no costs. This seems unreasonable when you look at stories, like this and this, where teachers who faced horrific ordeals, due to their schools failing to keep them safe from dangerous pupils, have been paid hundreds of thousands pounds in compensation. And that’s not considering the direct costs – in terms of learning, human suffering and staff retention – of not keeping kids safe and their lessons undisrupted.

A quick Google search reveals the £2.1 billion statistic has been used again and again without any suggestion it might not be reliable. The discourse about exclusions remains utterly blighted by misinformation that, almost always, goes unchallenged.

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The Commission on Young Lives report and young people in custody

May 8, 2022

A few days ago I shared this post about the Commission on Young Lives report on exclusions.

I observed that:

Much of the report seems to have been cut and pasted from other reports from charities and think tanks without any attempt to check the reliability of the information. It is then padded out with anecdotes the Commission has collected directly or found in newspapers. Because of the cutting and pasting it is confusing and incoherent. Suspensions are referred to as “suspensions” for much of the report, which is the current terminology. But at other times they are referred to as “fixed term exclusions” or “temporary exclusions” which is what they used to be called. Worst of all, there are a number of occasions where claims are made about “exclusions” that either common sense, or a little research, tells us must actually be about suspensions.

A further issue with the cutting and pasting is that many of the statistics used are contradictory and repetitive, because they come from different sources and apparently no fact checking was ever done.

I gave some examples of how some of the statistics seemed to contradict each other, and how some claims were repeated again and again. I left one of the biggest examples for this post: the statistics about those in custody (or who have been in custody) and their exclusion history. Before I examine those claims, I will address the question of whether there are any reliable figures available that they could have used.

I would suggest that it is unlikely that there are any reliable figures relating to adult prisoners. Firstly, because records of permanent exclusions and suspensions haven’t always been kept at a national level. As I understand it this began in the 90s and even after then there were some anomalies that ensured some institutions weren’t covered. The main set of exclusion data on the DfE website goes back to 2006. Secondly, even if records were better going back decades, it is not going to be easy to match up prisoners to their school records although this apparently can be done quite well with young offenders (see below). Thirdly, surveying prisoners is difficult. Doing so in a way that clearly explains the difference between a formal permanent exclusion, a suspension (unhelpfully, this was also called a “fixed term exclusion” or sometimes a “temporary exclusion” until recently) and being removed from school because you are in custody, might be close to impossible.

As I mentioned above, with young offenders there is some very good data, recently made available. As I reported in a recent blogpost:

….there has been very recent research, from the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice, on the link between exclusions and offending . That showed that for roughly 5000 young people who received a custodial sentence before the age of 18, the majority had never been permanently excluded, although most had been suspended at some point.

This is broadly consistent with other sources. For instance, FFT Education Datalab, found fewer than 20% of 11000 young people who had been in custody between 16 and 18 had been permanently excluded. I’m not aware of any credible source that gives a higher figure, although because suspensions were for many years called “Fixed Term Exclusions” there are sources (eg. this) that give a figure for “exclusions” that almost certainly includes suspensions and is, therefore, much higher.

What I didn’t mention in that previous post was the the FFT Education Datalab figures also gave a figure just over 80% (hard to be exact as I’m reading from a graph) for the proportion of those who had experienced custody who had at least one suspension (then called fixed term exclusions). These two sources together are the best and most recent data we have and admittedly even then the young people in the data would still have finished Key Stage 4 around the early or mid 2010s. It shows that somewhere between 15% and 25% of young people who have had a custodial sentence have been permanently excluded from school and somewhere between 80% and about 90% have been suspended from school. We have no such data for adult prisoners. With no obvious reason to assume the figures will be a lot higher or a lot lower, the youth figures probably give us a best guess for the adult prisoner population but we have no reason to expect it to be a particularly accurate one. It should also be noted that in discussion of exclusions and suspensions, people often reference “those in custody” (or prison, or YOIs) in the present tense rather than those who have been sentenced to a custodial sentence at some point. If a sample of those currently in custody is sued, this is likely to skew the data towards those with longer sentences, but as the bar chart above showed this will probably not increase (or may even decrease) the exclusion and suspension figures.

If we analyse the MoJ/DfE data we have no real surprises. The relevant data can be extracted from this spreadsheet.

Excluded Suspended Total
Sentenced To Custody 1,327 5585 6,259
All pupils 12,708 238,402 1,632,320

Those given a custodial sentence are much more likely than the average pupil to have been permanently excluded or suspended, which is unsurprising given the obvious overlaps between the worst bad behaviour in school and criminal behaviour. However, while most pupils with a custodial sentence have been suspended, the majority haven’t been permanently excluded. Conversely, while those who are permanently excluded or suspended are more likely to be sentenced to custody, only slightly more than 1 in 10 permanently excluded pupils are sentenced to custody before the age of 18, and fewer than 1 in 40 suspended pupils are sentenced to custody before the age of 18. The route from exclusions and suspensions to custody is in no way a “pipeline” as anti-exclusion campaigners have claimed.

Returning to the COYL report, it contains a contradictory mess of statistics, some of which are credible and some of which are implausible. Several of them are likely to have confused suspensions and permanent exclusions. Here are the statistics used:

Page 5:

We know too the link between exclusion and those young people who end up involved in the criminal justice system. 86% of young men in YOIs have been excluded from school at some point. A study of UK prisoners found that 63% had been temporarily excluded while at school and 42% had been permanently excluded.

Page 14

86% of young men in YOIs have been excluded from school at some point
63% had been temporarily excluded while at school
42% had been permanently excluded….

….The number of boys in Young Offender Institutions who have been excluded from school at some point is shockingly high – 86%, according to the Ministry of Justice…

… 32%. Percentage of women in prison of all ages who were expelled or
permanently excluded (13% for men in prison), compared to 1% of the national population.

Page 16

A study of UK prisoners found that 63% had been temporarily excluded while at school and 42% had been permanently excluded.

Page 22

The IRR report notes that 89% of children in detention in 2017/18 reported having been excluded from school, according to the HM chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales.

Page 48

Almost nine out of ten boys (88%) in custody said that they have been excluded from school…

I have looked for the sources given for these claims, and they are included at the end of this blogpost. Overall, it would appear that the Commission on Young Lives has:

  • used multiple different sources uncritically;
  • made no effort to look for reliable and up to date data;
  • made no effort to investigate contradictory data;
  • repeatedly failed to distinguish between suspensions and exclusions even though this makes a dramatic difference.

It’s probably worth mentioning that the MoJ/DfE report that was the source of the accurate information on this topic got far less media coverage than the agenda driven and incoherent report from the Commission on Young Lives. Too often the media seems more interested in press releases from organisations that can provide representatives to be interviewed, than it is in reporting accurate information.


Additional information about the Commission’s sources:

Page 5:

The 86% figures comes from this document from the MoJ which looks like the work of civil servants. No source is given for it in that document. However, it is dated 2014 which makes it highly likely to include suspensions and, therefore, may well be accurate if understood that way, but misleading to use the word “excluded”. The other two figures are apparently recycled from this report on a similar topic by the once credible IPPR think tank which does include those figures on page 22 (24 in the pdf). The source the IPPR gives is this MoJ report which surveyed a sample of new prisoners in 2005-2006. There would be limits to the accuracy of such data even at the time, but to quote it alongside data from a decade later seems very misleading.

Page 14:

The 86% figure (now making its second and third appearance), is credited to the same source as before, and then just to the Ministry Of Justice and it is still not acknowledged that it is likely to include suspensions. If anything, the “shockingly high” comment implies it might be permanent exclusions. No source is given for the 63% and 42% figure. The most likely explanation is that they are the figures mentioned above for adult prisoners, incorrectly applied to young offenders. No source at all appears to have been given for the 32%, 13% and 1% figures and no explanation is given as to how they can be so inconsistent with the figures for adult prisoners given previously.

Page 16:

As before, these statistics are attributed to the 2017 IPPR report, and no mention is made that they are from much earlier research using a 2005-2006 sample.

Page 22:

This is more recycling of previous reports on a similar topic. In this case, the source is entitled “How Black Working-Class Youth are Criminalised and Excluded in the English School System“. This in turn links to this report from the prison inspectorate. Once again this is survey evidence, and while there is a lot of detail about the sample for adult prisoners, I’ve not been able to identify the sample size for the children in the sample. It does not distinguish between suspensions and permanent exclusions, but it seems likely that it includes suspensions as they were called “fixed term exclusions” at the time.

Page 48:

This is attributed to The Prisoners’ Education Trust’s submission to the commission. No more detail seems to be available, however that particular organisation seems to use this statistic a lot, and in one report they gave a 2013/14 report from the prisons inspectorate as the source which surveyed less than 1000 boys in YOIs. Once again, the figure is extremely likely to include suspensions and it is misleading not to say this.

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How misleading was The Economist’s video that discussed school exclusions?

May 4, 2022

The Economist, a publication I had previously associated with a relatively high standard of journalistic integrity and thoroughness, produced a video a few months ago about the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement. From about 9:20 to 13:50, it discusses the issue of school exclusions in the UK. It is available at this youtube address although you will have to login and confirm your age. It can be seen here on Vimeo.

As this is a blog about education, I will be responding to the claims about schools, not the wider issues, so it’s probably worth including a disclaimer right at the start. This is a video that links racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system to school exclusions. I am disputing that link, not the existence of the discrepancies. If anything, I think the statistics the Economist gives underplays those discrepancies in order to make it more plausible that they might be related to far smaller discrepancies in school exclusions. I am not going to attempt to identify another explanation for racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system, not because I have some explanation that I’m ashamed to give, but because the issue is complex and outside my expertise. If you want easy answers to that question, and are suspicious of people who won’t give one, then tough. We’re here to look at what is true, not what is easy.

The Economist’s report was not untypical for the media in the UK, in that it was staggeringly misleading as a discussion of the issue of school exclusions. Many vague claims and misleading statistics were used in what was only a few minutes. This will be a very long post, in which I will be as thorough as possible.

The Economist: In England and Wales just over three percent of the population are black, yet nearly thirteen per cent of people in prison are black.

I would guess the figures used are taken from recently published figures from the Ministry of Justice, regarding ethnicity and the criminal justice system, given the fact that the most recent figures for the black population of England and Wales seem to be around 3.5%, so not necessarily closer to 3% than 4%, whereas the Ministry of Justice appear to use numbers from the 2011 census. If so, the following disclaimer from the  Ministry Of Justice source has been ignored:

No causative links can be drawn from these summary statistics. For the majority of the report, no controls have been applied for other characteristics of ethnic groups (such as average income, geography, offence mix or offender history), so it is not possible to determine what proportion of differences identified in this report are directly attributable to ethnicity. Differences observed may indicate areas worth further investigation but should not be taken as evidence of bias or as direct effects of ethnicity.

I mention this point and the use of out of date population data because, given that the argument goes on to blame schools for crime, The Economist is making no effort to consider the age and gender of the relevant populations. For males between 10-19, over 5% of the population of England and Wales is black. 6% of the school population is black. You’d think this might mean that looking at children would lower the disproportionality in incarceration, but according to the same Ministry Of Justice source:

In 2020, 32% of children in prison were Black despite Black prisoners accounting for only 13% of the entire prison population.

This is hugely disproportionate: 6 times higher than expected. So why does The Economist’s video actually seem to be downplaying the problem? One possible explanation is that the disproportionality here is so great that, whatever its causes, even the most exaggerated reporting about racial disparities in school exclusions could not hope to come close to matching the racial disparities regarding young criminals within the criminal justice system.

The Economist: One way to address this over-representation is to reduce the number of black students who are excluded from schools.

This is the key claim of the video and one that’s hard to justify. According to the latest figures the permanent exclusion rate for black pupils is 0.07%, the same as for white British pupils (if you work out another decimal place, it’s actually lower for black pupils). As we shall see, it’s possible The Economist was referring to suspensions, not permanent exclusions as suspensions were previously called “fixed term exclusions”, however, the suspension rate for black pupils is 3.85%, which is lower than for white British pupils at 4.26%. While this does not make it impossible that fewer exclusions or suspensions for black pupils might affect racial disparities in the criminal justice system, this would be increasing (or creating) a racial disparity in exclusions, not reducing one. It would also involve using racial disparities in the criminal justice system as a reason to treat black pupils specifically as potential criminals, something that, in itself, seems to involve an element of racism.

The Economist:
Tamara Gilkes Burr (US Policy Correspondent of the Economist): People who drop out of school or are pushed out of school are more likely to become incarcerated…

This is sheer sleight of hand. Permanently excluded pupils are not expected to just “drop out of school”. Local authorities are required to find them a new school place after 5 days. Of course, dropping out of education is a risk factor for criminality. But this is not the US. We don’t expect kids to simply vanish from the school system and we certainly don’t expect excluded children to leave education entirely. It is possible they mean suspensions, not permanent exclusions, but these are usually just a day or two. Neither suspended nor permanently excluded children are allowed to just “drop out of school” in the UK.

The Economist:
Tamara Gilkes Burr: …so when we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline what we’re saying is that when black students make the same mistakes as white students they’re more likely to end up getting involved in the criminal justice system.

“So” appears to be doing a lot of work here. If being out of school is the problem, then it is very misleading to allow those unfamiliar with the law to assume that exclusions or suspensions are a major reason for children to be out of school.

The Economist: That is an example of structural racism that has an impact today. In 2018, 89% of children in young offender institutions in England and Wales had been excluded from school…

It should not be a surprise that children who are committing serious enough crimes to be imprisoned in an institution for young offenders are far more likely to have been permanently excluded or suspended from school than more law-biding young people. Research by Education Datalab found that over 80% of 16-18 year olds in custody had been given a fixed term exclusion (suspension) previously. The figure for permanent exclusions was under 20%, but still many times more likely than among those not in custody. A recent report by the Ministry of Justice and the DfE found only slightly higher figures.

The 89% statistic could well be correct for suspensions, but is extremely unlikely to be correct for permanent exclusions and it seems highly misleading not to specify which it is. An internet search for this statistic and the 2018 date traces it to a publication by activist group Just For Kids Law who also feature in The Economist’s video. They simply don’t say what type of exclusion they mean. Their source is a report by HM Chief Inspector Of Prisons which says it was from a survey. While a lot of detail is given regarding survey responses from adult prisoners, little is given regarding responses from children, quite possibly because the numbers are so small. The average number of children in custody per month in 2018/2019 is 859, which would make any sample likely to be fairly small. Because it is a survey, this is self-reported exclusions. In the report, it is said those answering “don’t know” weren’t counted, so 89% is unlikely to be the proportion of the sample saying they were excluded. More importantly, this source too, does not specify whether these were permanent exclusions. I would wonder if a child who is in custody even know the difference between being formally excluded by the school and leaving the school due to being in custody.

The Economist: …and in England if you’re a student from an Afro-Caribbean background, you’re four times more likely to be excluded than a white British peer.

So far, all the statistics given are for black pupils. The term “Afro-Caribbean” suddenly appears with no explanation and it would not be surprising if the casual viewer thought it meant black. It is actually a term that refers only to black people of Caribbean origin – now called “black Caribbean” in most official contexts – and it is not a group representative of black pupils in England. While 6% of England’s pupils are black, only 1% are black Caribbean. Most black Caribbean pupils live in London and over three quarters of black Caribbean pupils live in London or the West Midlands. Black Caribbean pupils are one of relatively few ethnic minority groups who have a consistently high rate of permanent exclusions and suspensions. Yet again, The Economist did not specify whether they are talking about permanent exclusions or suspensions. In 2019-20, according to DfE data here, the permanent exclusion rate for black Caribbean pupils is 0.14% (whereas it is 0.07% for white British pupils and also black pupils in general) and the suspension rate is 7.03% (whereas it is 4.26% for white British pupils and 3.85% for black pupils in general). The four times figure is not explained, although back in 2013/14 and 2014/15 the permanent exclusion rate for black Caribbean pupils was four times the national average. So my best explanation is that The Economist (or whoever provided the data to The Economist’s reporters) has:

  1. cherrypicked a black subgroup with a high exclusion rate and switched to talking about this group rather than black pupils in general;
  2. compared that group’s exclusion rate with a national average exclusion rate, even though that is often lower the exclusion rate for white British pupils;
  3. used data from a year where that racial disparity was much greater than it is now.

These three steps together now give the false impression that black pupils are four times more likely to be excluded. As you’ll recall, when looking at the criminal justice system The Economist managed to find a similar disparity in the criminal justice system, by looking at adult prisoners (and using slightly out of date population figures). So now it would seem plausible to the reader that the two issues might be connected. This connection would seem far less plausible if they had correctly reported that the racial disparity for black youth in the criminal justice system is much higher than they have implied and that there is no racial disparity for black pupils in the exclusion statistics.

The Economist: Kiran Gil advised on a government report about exclusion.

Kiran Gil is the CEO of The Difference and I wrote about them here.

The Economist:
Kiran Gil: Even when statisticians control for other factors that are at play for those young people like poverty or geography they still find a statistically significant disproportion for certain ethnic groups.

This is a reference to The Timpson Report on school exclusions. This report did include an analysis of the exclusion statistics that controlled for the other variables that are included in the data schools collect. However, this should not be assumed to be controlling for all relevant factors, or even for accurate measures in all cases. Poverty, in particular, is only identified from eligibility for Free School Meals and disadvantage indicated by a pupil’s postcode, not parental income or wealth. It would be simply incorrect to assume that school data is sufficient to eliminate every possible causal relationship between ethnicity and exclusion rates other than racism. Moreover, the techniques used in the Timpson report’s analysis did, nevertheless, massively reduce the extent to which ethnicity was related to having a higher risk of school exclusions, leaving very few ethnic groups with a higher risk of exclusion. For instance, Irish Traveller/Roma pupils were, on the unadjusted figures, 5 times more likely to be permanently excluded than white British children, but after controlling for other factors, were no more likely to be excluded than white British pupils. After adjustment, no ethnicity was even twice as likely to be permanently excluded as white British pupils. Black Caribbean pupils were, based on the now somewhat out of date figures used in the Timpson Report, 3 times more likely to be excluded before controlling for factors other than ethnicity and only 1.7 times more likely after controlling for those factors. Who knows what effect such an adjustment would have now? It would be utterly unsurprising if controlling for other factors would now completely remove all disparities. And yet, somehow, the fact that in the past controlling for other factors didn’t completely remove the racial disparity is the only mention given to the issue of whether racial disparities in exclusion rates might be explained by factors other than discrimination.

The Economist:
Stefan: People like me or my peers have this feeling like an outsider.

Stefan campaigns with the charity Just For Kids Law to end school exclusions.

There have now been 2 interviewees in this section of the video. Both from groups who campaign against exclusions.

The Economist:

Stefan: Like an outsider? Yeah. We’re feeling like an outcast….feeling like we don’t belong in society.

At the age of 12, he became one of the nearly 450 000 children who get temporarily or permanently excluded from English schools each year.

The latest figures (no doubt reduced by lockdown) are 310 733 suspensions and 5 057 permanent exclusions in 2019/2020. It would be very odd to add suspensions and exclusions together, but even if that is what has been done here I can find no year on record where the number of suspensions and exclusions in England adds up to 450 000 or more. There is only one year since 2006 where it is over 440 000. I am assuming they cherrypicked that year and still felt the need to round up.

However, even that involves ignoring the fact that a child can have more than one suspension, or can have a suspension and a permanent exclusion in the same year. The year with the highest number of children with one or more suspension in the currently published exclusion data is from 2006/2007 and is 227 127. The most recent figure is 154 524 in 2019/20. Even with the 5 057 permanent exclusions added on (despite a high probability that many permanently excluded pupils are also included in the suspension figures) this is nowhere near The Economist’s figure.

The Economist:

Stefan: I was a kid that learned in a different way.

The myth that children have different learning styles has been widely discredited.

The Economist:

Stefan: And to schools, they see it as misbehaved or badly behaved. You got this black boy misbehaving and a lot of teachers that don’t come from the place that you come from will say it’s a sign of aggression and they won’t tolerate it.

It is possible that schools don’t know how to recognise bad behaviour. Alternatively, it is possible that nobody is better at identifying bad behaviour than teachers because we are the experts. I made the case here that permanent exclusions are massively underused given the number of serious incidents that happen in schools. The figures presented there do not suggest exclusions are given for minor incidents that could be misinterpreted. It is certainly not clear that a policy of tolerating apparently aggressive behaviour would benefit anybody.

The Economist: For many excluded students, their disruptive behaviour often stems from difficult home lives.

This is one of those things that may well be true, although it remarkably difficult to prove. A lack of parental discipline can hardly help schools. Yet, this is not a reason to think that the behaviour of such students can be tolerated.

The Economist:

Stefan: I never had a childhood, my childhood was based on gang members, drugs, robbing, et cetera, et cetera. I was really being outcast by so many different places and being an outcast in school, that is a very terrible thing.

Many of the black students who get excluded live in high-crime, inner-city neighbourhoods.

You have to take a reality check here. The Economist does appear to be arguing that a life long involvement in crime is a good reason to allow somebody to stay in a building full of children. I would suggest that this is a reason why it might not be safe for somebody to be in a school.

The Economist:
Stefan: If they’re not in school, who do  you think they’re going to be with? They’re going to be with the drug dealers, the killers the whatever-you-want-to-name, whatever name you want to put to them, they’re going  to be with them type of people.

This is the “fell in with a bad crowd” argument. It has a couple of shortcomings. Firstly, it misses the fact that there are bad crowds in schools (particularly if schools avoid excluding). A 2012 study of London’s street gangs found:

Members were simply friends who enjoyed similar interests, life trajectories, and experiences, not least the same spaces (schools and neighbourhoods). [my emphasis].

Keeping active gang members in schools is keeping the gang in school where they can recruit more members. It’s not stopping kids from being recruited, it’s helping it.

Secondly, there is no logical reason to think that gangs will only recruit between 9 am and 3 pm on weekdays in term time from those pupils who would never fail to attend school unless excluded. The report mentioned earlier from the MoJ and DfE found that persistent absence, including unauthorised absence were quite common among young offenders. It is really unclear why anyone would think suspension or permanent exclusion would be the main reason for potential criminals not to be in school.

The Economist:
Kiran Gil: In the majority of cases, falling  out of education potentially means…

Again, permanent exclusion does not mean “falling out of education”.

The Economist:
Kiran Gil: …a long life of challenge; of interaction with crime; of mental ill-health, and of struggles in interpersonal relationships.

While I suspect many of these outcomes are more likely among those whose behaviour leads to exclusions, there is no evidence to suggest that any of these things are prevented by tolerating the behaviour and allowing the perpetrator to continue to interact with their victims.

The Economist: It’s just too important an issue to say, we can’t do anything about this. One city in Britain has done something about reducing exclusions. This is Saint Roch’s school in Glasgow.

Almost everything so far has been about schools in England or criminal justice in England and Wales. Now we have switched to Scotland which has an entirely different school system and entirely different national policy regarding exclusions.

The Glasgow section is so spectacularly misleading that I have already devoted three blogposts to it:

Feel free to read those posts if you are in any danger of believing the much repeated claim that Glasgow cut youth crime by reducing exclusions. But here I will return to the Economist’s video, continuing from after it finishes with Glasgow.

The Economist: Reducing exclusions can help tackle structural racism within education systems…

Once again we are confronted with a claim where “exclusions” might mean permanent exclusion or it might mean suspensions. Either way, this claim has not been justified. There is no reason to assume that having fewer permanent exclusions will mean smaller disparities between ethnic groups. Most exclusions of black Caribbean pupils are in London (not surprising given most black Caribbean pupils attend London schools), yet London already has low exclusion rates. You can reduce exclusions without reducing disparities.

The Economist: …and it can save governments and taxpayers lots of money. In England, each cohort of permanently excluded pupils costs an extra £2.1bn over their lifetime…

At this point, it should be noticed that permanent exclusions only happen to 5-8 thousand pupils a year. If a “cohort” here is those permanently excluded in a year, this is a claim that each permanent exclusion costs a quarter of a million pounds.

The Economist: ..in education, health, welfare and criminal justice costs. It costs £18,000 to send an excluded child to an alternative-provision school, compared with around £6,000 in mainstream education.

There are no known savings in health, welfare and criminal justice costs that would be made by reducing exclusions. As for education costs, at £12000 extra a year for each excluded pupil, this means The Economist’s figures only add up if a permanently excluded child will, on average, continue to attend school for almost 22 years. A source is given on screen for these statistics, so at some point in the future I will look into claims like this.

After a brief advert for The Difference, the sections ends with the following segue into a section on corporate leadership.

The Economist: Improving the experiences of black children within education systems will have far-reaching benefits. It could help give black people a better chance of getting ahead in the corporate world.

I would suggest that improving the experiences of black children within the English education system should begin with presenting accurate information about what those experiences are.

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A new report on exclusions

April 29, 2022

A charity whose founder has a history of opposing exclusions on the basis of dodgy evidence recently hosted The Commission on Young Lives in England which was chaired by a former Children’s Commissioner with a history of opposing exclusions on the basis of dodgy evidence. After interviewing a number of people opposed to exclusions, and collecting many unrepresentative anecdotes, the Commission has now published their report, and in a shocking development, the report opposes exclusions on the basis of dodgy evidence. It tells a story about how school exclusions are a result of children’s SEN, poor mental health and the racism of teachers. This, it is claimed, is a major cause of crime. It then suggests more “nurturing”; a less academic curriculum and restrictions on exclusions as an alternative without mentioning that all this was tried in the 00s.

Much of the report seems to have been cut and pasted from other reports from charities and think tanks without any attempt to check the reliability of the information. It is then padded out with anecdotes the Commission has collected directly or found in newspapers. Because of the cutting and pasting it is confusing and incoherent. Suspensions are referred to as “suspensions” for much of the report, which is the current terminology. But at other times they are referred to as “fixed term exclusions” or “temporary exclusions” which is what they used to be called. Worst of all, there are a number of occasions where claims are made about “exclusions” that either common sense, or a little research, tells us must actually be about suspensions.

A further issue with the cutting and pasting is that many of the statistics used are contradictory and repetitive, because they come from different sources and apparently no fact checking was ever done. So for instance, on page 7 we are told “exclusions peak in year 10 and 11” On page 13 we are told “children aged 12, 13 and 14 consistently have the highest numbers of exclusions”. On page 20 ” exclusions peak in Year 10″. On page 36: “our data shows that children aged 12, 13 and 14 consistently have the highest numbers of exclusions”.

Often statistics are just repeated again and again. We are told three times that 10% of schools are responsible for 88% (or nearly 90%) of exclusions with no attempt to explain why that should be surprising. We are told that Black Caribbean pupils are “being excluded at a rate of nearly three times their White British peers” (page 6). On page 14 you are “x 4 more likely to be excluded if you are Black Caribbean boy than a white boy” and “Black Caribbean boys are still 4 times more likely to be permanently excluded than White peers.” On page 15 “Black Caribbean pupils [are] being excluded at a rate of nearly three times their White British peers.” We are not told that this gap has narrowed in the latest figures. Black African pupils are not even mentioned, despite being the majority of black pupils in our schools. Claims about SEND are particularly misleading. No mention is made of the fact that children can be labelled SEND for their bad behaviour. Instead, autism is repeatedly mentioned, including an anecdote about a permanently excluded autistic pupil being convicted of murder. This is despite the Timpson report not finding autism to be a risk factor for permanent exclusions.

I doubt many people are going to read the Report itself, and if they do they will find a confusing mess. However, it’s worth going through the the press release as that’s what will feature in most news reports.

Anne Longfield’s Commission on Young Lives calls for an end to ‘exclusions culture’ as part of a new era of inclusive education to tackle the scourge of teenage violence and exploitation and help all children to succeed at school

  • Commission’s report into the school system calls for new measures to reduce the number of children falling out of school

I am not sure how a child “falls out” of school. Education is compulsory in the UK.

  • and tackle the culture of exclusion –

I wasn’t aware of the “culture of exclusion” because every school leader I speak to says they are under huge pressure not to exclude.

  • including a ban on primary school exclusions from 2026, greater incentives for secondary schools to reduce exclusions,

As it is, the average primary school only excludes once every 15 or 16 years, and invariably for the most urgent and serious cases, so that’s an odd policy. Secondary schools don’t seem to lack incentives to reduce exclusions as it is.

  • and for all schools to report annually on the number of children who have been excluded or moved from the school roll

The number of children excluded each year by each school is already published. It is done fairly subtly, with few details, and with a significant time delay. All of which makes sense given the need for confidentiality about the individual cases. I’m not aware of numbers leaving the school roll being published, although it can be found through a Freedom Of Information request. I can’t think of any possible purpose for this information about schools other than to make baseless accusations of off-rolling against any school that has the misfortune to have a high turnover of pupils.

  • Report shows how being out of school puts teenagers at increased risk of exploitation, serious violence and becoming involved in the criminal justice system

“Being out of school” is not usually a result of exclusions. An excluded child is meant to be back in education after 5 days. It’s fair enough to claim that being out of school is a risk, it is not reasonable to suggest that exclusions are a major reason children are out of school.

  • Commission on Young Lives recommends no school should receive a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating without reaching a new inclusion measurement, and for school league tables to include a ‘pupil wellbeing’ measurement alongside exam scores

Ofsted inspections already look at these issues. A new measure will be something else to game.

  • Report calls for ‘Alternative Provision’ to be renamed ‘Specialist Provision’ and for ‘Pupil Referral Units’ to be scrapped
  • Commission proposes a five-year pilot to grow new inclusive schools, trialling new ‘cradle to career’ community schools in 55 education investment areas as part of the Government’s levelling-up strategy
  • Report shows how Black children are more likely to be excluded

As you can see from the quotations already discussed, the report talks about black Caribbean pupils being more likely to be excluded, not black pupils. In the latest figures (2019/20), the exclusion rate for black pupils is 0.07%. The exclusion rate for white British pupils is 0.07%. If you calculate the next decimal place, it’s lower for black children. There used to be a discrepancy, but after years of narrowing it has finally gone, although getting anti-exclusion campaigners to admit this is virtually impossible.

  • and can face ‘adultification’ at school,

This seems to be a big thing at the moment having popped up in the Serious Case Review for Child Q. Researchers in the US claimed black girls are likely to be treated as if they are older than they are. While this is an interesting idea, it seems to have been rapidly accepted as a universal truth, likely to apply to black pupils of both sexes in the UK. I know of no empirical evidence to support this.

  • and proposes making race-equality training a core part of teacher training

Anyone who thinks this will do any good should read this blogpost about some of the nonsense brought into schools in the name of training teachers to be anti-racist. It’s not that there is no racism in schools; it’s that the issues are complex and can be entirely different in one school than another. Generic training about racism is unlikely to do any good for anyone other than those who sell training about racism to schools. And, looking at teachers’ worst experiences of this training, it might even be harmful and divisive.

  • and reforming the school curriculum to make it more inclusive

Another idea already being aggressively promoted to schools. Pretty much everything suggested about the curriculum in the report involves ideas that are already being discussed (often over many decades) with no evidence that they will actually work.

Anne Longfield, Chair of the Commission on Young Lives, is today publishing the Commission’s third thematic report, All Together Now: Inclusion not exclusion – supporting all young people to succeed in school’.The report looks at how thousands of vulnerable children are falling through gaps in the education system, putting them at risk not only of low attainment but also serious violence, county lines, criminal exploitation, grooming and harm.

Even after reading the report, I don’t really know what counts as a gap. Schooling is compulsory in the UK, a lot of effort is made to keep children in school.

 It calls for a new era of incentivising all schools to become more inclusive and makes a series of recommendations for how schools can be supported to divert vulnerable teenagers away from crime and exploitation and enable them to thrive.

The report highlights the disadvantages and dangers that falling out of school can have on some young people and highlights the scale of the challenge facing the education system, including:

  • The high number of children in England excluded from school. (The Commission met with one mother whose five-year-old was excluded 17 times in a year).

As mentioned earlier, the report is very inconsistent in how it describes suspensions. I’m guessing that this means suspensions. By using the word “excluded” though, it obscures the strong possibility that if a child (of any age) is being suspended 17 times, the school is probably trying to avoid excluding.

  • Thousands of children who are persistently absent from school.
  • Alternative Provision that is failing to provide many children with a good education or to keep them safe.
  • A SEND system that is not meeting the needs of many vulnerable children.
  • A school inspections system that does not value inclusion and can offer perverse incentives for some schools to remove children from their school roll.
  • The disproportionate number of Black children who are not attending school or are excluded from school.

There’s that claim again. I bet not one media outlet covering this report as a news story mentions that in reality black pupils are no more likely to be excluded than white British pupils.

The Commission’s report looks at how thousands of children are leaving school without good qualifications, but also at the culture of exclusions that has grown in recent years.

  • The number of children excluded from school rose by 5% in the autumn of 2019 compared to the same period the previous year

This one is on the DfE. For reasons that have never been explained, when exclusions fell due to COVID they released termly figures for the 2018/19 and 2019/20 academic year and compared the autumn figures between the two years. I wouldn’t complain if they had released termly figures from the previous years, but without that all we have are comparisons made between two isolated data points being used to maintain the narrative of rising exclusions in a situation where there was a massive fall in exclusions.

  • Permanent exclusion figures have seen a gradual rise from 5,082 in 2010/11 to 7,894 in 2018/19, before Covid.

It actually went below 5000 in 2012/13 and 2013/14. and was pretty stable in the two academic years before the pandemic.

  • Even for the Covid-affected year of 2019/20, 5,057 children in England were permanently excluded.

This is out of 8 million children. It’s not high.

  • Across a 10-year span, from 2010-2020, children aged 12, 13 and 14 consistently have the highest numbers of exclusions. These are often the children most at risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system.

Recent research by the DfE and MoJ has highlighted how one in five (22%) of children that had ever been permanently excluded were also cautioned or sentenced for a serious violence offence.

While this is true, this misses what that report said about the timing of the exclusion and the offence. A third of those permanent exclusions were after that serious violent offense. And an even larger proportion were permanently excluded over a year before the offence (and in more than two thirds of those cases the exclusion was 2 years before the offense.) This was made clear in the MoJ/DfE report being cited, and illustrated with this diagram:

The Commission on Young Lives is extremely selective in how it quotes from that report. The various reasons the report gave for not inferring a causal relationship between suspensions/exclusions and offending do not seem to have been heeded.

59% of children that had ever been permanently excluded were also cautioned or sentenced for an offence. The Commission has also taken evidence from school leaders and youth workers about some of the ruthless methods criminal gangs are using to drive a wedge between vulnerable children and schools, such as encouraging them to become permanently excluded for taking drugs or weapons to school, or for violent behaviour.

This is a recurring anecdotal claim, but it does actually require criminal gangs to positively want to draw the attention of the police and child services to the child they are exploiting, which is an implausible strategy for criminals. I’d be fascinated to know if there is any strong evidence it has ever happened.

The report also highlights the poor outcomes for children who are moved into Alternative Provision. Just 4% of pupils in AP passed English and Maths at GCSE, compared to 64% in mainstream.

It’s almost as if children in AP aren’t academic high achievers. As ever, correlation is not causation.

‘All Together Now’ makes recommendations to challenge the culture of exclusion and encourage a more inclusive education system, holding schools accountable for excluding or moving children off the school role, but also providing them with the support and resource they need to keep children in school. While many schools have inclusion and nurture at the heart of their school ethos, many school leaders feel the system discourages them from inclusivity and nurture. The report calls for a trauma-responsive, inclusive, community-led continuous education system that provides support to all children, from cradle to career and ensures every child receives the good education.

Its proposals include:…

I’m not going to quote these in full. The general gist is, as ever, fewer exclusions and more bureaucracy. If you want more advisors and consultants telling teachers what to do, this is how you should do it. As you can imagine, non-anecdotal evidence that any of the suggestions are effective is not provided. No discussion is made of the victims of the behaviour that leads to exclusion. It the world of anti-exclusion campaigners children’s behaviour is something that just happens to them because their schools were not caring enough. If anyone has ever published a report endorsing a school’s right to exclude, I haven’t seen it.

Correction 29/4/2022: An earlier version of this post mistakenly confused The Commission for Young Lives in England with The Times Education Commission. Apologies for any inaccuracies in that version.

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Book Review: The Quick Fix by Jesse Singal

April 20, 2022

The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills by Jesse Singal. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2021

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2021 was to read more books and I intend to continue that in 2022 and beyond. I will be reviewing books that I think are relevant to education. Two warnings though. 1) Any links to Amazon will be “associate” links potentially earning me a few pennies. 2) Many of these books have been sent to me by people I know, or bought because I like the author, so I’m completely biased.

This is probably the first book I’ve reviewed here that isn’t specifically about education. It does, however, include some chapters very relevant to schools, so I will pay most attention to those chapters.

The Quick Fix addresses various fashionable ideas in psychology (particularly social psychology) that have been heavily promoted in TED talks, and through public institutions, that have turned out to be either overhyped or even baseless. This book takes us through the ideas in detail; discusses their shortcomings and how they became fashionable, and looks at whether there is any truth in the ideas and what other ideas and priorities may have been squeezed out by the hype. The overall thesis of the book is that real problems can end up being neglected as the result of attention paid to gimmicks.

In one chapter it is explained that, at one point, there was a widespread fashion for using a lack of self-esteem to explain a variety of life outcomes. As a teacher, I remember being encouraged to assume that badly behaved children lacked self-esteem and trying to build their confidence would improve their behaviour. It didn’t. I remember this movement mainly because it was one of a long line of scientific-sounding excuses for not punishing children and because it was something I blogged about years ago (here and here). In the United States the self-esteem seems to have had a huge impact, over many years. Singal tells the story in full, including the political and cultural context. He also explains what the research actually shows.

Another education-related chapter, discusses “grit”. Overhyped claims were made about how a person’s grit, “their propensity to tenaciously attack difficult problems they encounter rather than give up”, is important to educational success and that boosting grit may improve school performance or even close achievement gaps. While not as baseless as the self-esteem movement, Singal shows that the grit movement has repeatedly exaggerated research and ignored what was already known about conscientiousness. Again, an idea has become strongly entrenched in education without anyone ever having to prove the claims of its advocates.

Another chapter that relates to education is one on an ineffective attempt to prevent PTSD in soldiers that grew out of a project to make schoolchildren more resilient. One chapter discusses tests of implicit bias, which despite little reliability or validity, have shaped debate over the effects of unconscious prejudice in educational institutions. Less relevant to education, but still very interesting, are chapters on power posing, super predators and nudge theory.

I recommend this book to teachers because, as well as the topics directly related to education, the discussion of how psychology fads spread and become an established wisdom is also very relevant to us as a profession. We should be vigilant when policymakers and self-promoters tell us what the next big thing in schools should be. Professional scepticism, something recognised as a virtue in some other professions, should be encouraged in teachers and this book might help do that.

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Why the SEND system does not work

April 17, 2022

The government has recently published a review of SEND (Special Education Needs and Disability). I haven’t read it yet, but before I do I thought I’d lay out why I think the problems with the system are very fundamental.

The basic concept behind the current system dates back to The Warnock Report of 1978. This proposed replacing the existing system which was based on categories of “handicapped people”. As well as obvious physical disabilities, the pre-Warnock system included some potentially stigmatising categories such as “educationally sub-normal pupils” and “maladjusted pupils”. In its place, was to be a system based on identifying pupils by their needs. The language certainly needed modernising, and the concept of children having needs rather than “handicaps” certainly seems empowering. Much of the language of the report has been adopted, and officially the system is based on identifying needs. However, in practice, diagnosing disabilities and conditions has remained central to how the system works. This may well be because the demand for support is potentially unlimited, so can only be rationed by identifying the differences between children, and continuing to categorise them with labels that are still very similar to the old categories of “handicaps”.

This has led to a fundamental confusion between two groups:

  1. Children who need support in order to meet normal expectations.
  2. Children who have a disability, or other diagnosable condition, the identification of which will be of benefit to the child.

The system, and all its bureaucracy, does not function well because of the difference between these two groups of children. A child can have a great struggle to access education, but not be easily diagnosed with any disability or condition. Conversely, a child can meet the criteria for a disability, or other condition, but actually be thriving at school. At the same time, these two groups of children can never be so distinct that decisions to give support can be completely independent of diagnosed conditions. Diagnoses will often be important for deciding when to provide pupils with support.

I think the following are aspects of the system that show how it is often focused on the first group: children who need support in order to meet normal expectations).

  1. Most pupils with SEND are identified primarily by the school with no outside agencies involved, which does not suggest a rigorous process of diagnosis.
  2. Many (I suspect most) SEND interventions consist of little more than telling the class teacher to differentiate their teaching.
  3. Large numbers of pupils are identified as SEND. It’s 15.9% at the moment; it used to be over 20%. Anecdotally, it is quite normal to identify a pupil as SEND just because they have struggled academically, emotionally, or behaviourally.
  4. Students often move in or out of being SEND. At one point, the proportion of students to have ever been identified as SEN at some point was high enough to be calculated as 44% here; 45% here, and for boys, 51% here. Yet the proportion identified as SEN at any one time was less than half that.
  5. Many of the factors affecting identification as SEND reflect immediate need rather than rigorous diagnosis. For instance, being born later in the year or being on free school meals may well affect how much support a child needs, but these factors seem unlikely to reflect a disability or diagnosable condition.

While I think all of the above indicates the extent to which the system consider pupils on the basis of whether they need support, rather than whether they have a diagnosable condition or disability, there are a number of ways in which, simultaneously, the SEND label is used to refer to disabilities, or diagnosable conditions.

  1. People talk about “undiagnosed SEND”.
  2. It is claimed that the need for support (perhaps support with behaviour, reading or keeping up academically) is caused by SEND.
  3. Diagnostic tests are used, and outside experts are called in, to identify SEND in order to access greater help.
  4. The Equality Act 2010 including the protected characteristic of disability, and the language of “reasonable adjustments” for disability, is seen as relevant to SEN provision.
  5. It is seen as important that people are identified as SEND, despite being able to meet normal expectations without support. So, for instance, a pupil might be given extra time in exams, because of their SEND, even though they are already capable of achieving extremely well in exams. Or a pupil whose behaviour and social skills are as expected, might be identified as SEND if they or their parents say that it takes extra effort for them to behave or socialise normally. In some cases, (and I think the impetus here is more from parents than schools) a diagnosis of a condition might be sought in order to explain how a child feels, or why a child has particular personality traits, even if those feelings or traits are not affecting their education.

Almost every discussion of SEND is affected by which of the two groups people are talking about, yet the difference is often not acknowledged.

A child’s academic difficulties, emotional upsets, or behaviour problems become viewed as a symptom of an underlying problem that must be diagnosed to be addressed, rather than as something that is normal for a school’s curriculum, pastoral system or disciplinary procedures to address directly. And because support is so often linked to identifying a disability or condition, it is seen as only kind to identify one at every opportunity. Some people switch between talking about children who need support to talking about children with a diagnosable condition without even noticing. A discussion about bad behaviour will become a discussion about disability without any steps to connect the two, other than perhaps an implicit belief that bad behaviour can only be caused by disability.

Identifying a disability or condition, rather than an opportunity to support, also becomes highly ideological. For some adults there are no children who are low ability, badly behaved, unhappy or lazy, only those with undiagnosed conditions. There is a constant push to invent a pathology, or medical cause for almost everything. Conversely, if a child has difficulties for a reason that really obviously (even to the ideologues) isn’t a disability or a condition, for instance if they have just arrived from overseas and don’t speak English, then they are kept out of the SEND system and will have to rely on other forms of support.

I will, no doubt, move on to discussing the system in more detail and looking at the new reforms. But I am convinced we need to abandon the label SEND entirely. We should split the system up into three. There should be:

  1. a rigorous, evidence based system for diagnosis and identification of disabilities and conditions, which can be addressed in demonstrably effective ways;
  2. a system for pastoral interventions (providing behaviour and emotional support), and
  3. a system for addressing academic deficits through additional, high impact teaching.

As long as very distinct reasons to give a child support are considered under one umbrella, there will be continue to be an endless system of bureaucracy based around labels and paperwork.

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