Do schools permanently exclude too often?

March 15, 2020

There’s been a narrative seen in the media in the last few years suggesting that there is a problem with the level of permanent exclusions.

This strikes me as a typical example:

Particularly common is the suggestion that a head with a low level of exclusions has something to teach us (in this case we have every reason to disagree) and the idea that it is reasonable to comment on the level of exclusions without commenting on the level of unacceptable behaviour in schools. There are some things we can say about the level of exclusions without looking at behaviour. We have heard a lot about rising exclusions recently and you can easily find people complaining that something they personally dislike, like an academic curriculum or schools actually enforcing rules, is causing exclusions to increase. The latest figures show a general rise in permanent exclusions since 2012 when Michael Gove abolished the right to appeal, but this is a rise from a level which was already a historic low, and is still lower than 2006/7.

And if we look even further back, we see just how low permanent exclusions were before the rise.

The latest exclusion figures show that the number of permanent exclusions in the 21000 state schools 2017/18 was 7905. This is less than 1 in every 1000 pupils, i.e. 0.10%. The rate of permanent exclusions in primary schools was 0.03 per cent. The rate of permanent exclusions in secondary schools was 0.20 per cent. As well as having a much lower rate of exclusions, primary schools are smaller, so an individual primary school will exclude far less often than a secondary school. On average, a secondary school excludes 2 students a year, whereas, on average, a primary school will exclude a student once in a period of almost 14 years. Strangely this is overlooked by the anti-exclusion lobby, and we see some primary heads praised for avoiding exclusions as if it was an achievement, rather than normal for primaries.

The primary/secondary difference also largely explains statistics like this from the Guardian.

Overall, 85% of all mainstream schools did not expel a single child in 2016-7, while 47 individual secondary schools (0.2% of all schools) expelled more than 10 pupils in the same year.

We would expect the vast majority of schools to be primary schools expelling nobody in a given year, and permanent exclusions to be concentrated in secondary schools.

We also often hear claims that permanent exclusions are given for less serious misbehaviour. Often this is a result of confusing permanent and fixed term exclusions, but where it isn’t, it’s based on implausible and unverified anecdotes or on an interpretation of the way permanent exclusions are categorised.

Those who wish to reduce or prevent exclusions, point to the fact that the largest category “Persistent disruptive behaviour” is very vague, and, perhaps by focusing on the word “disruptive” rather than the word “persistent”, interpret it to cover less serious, or easily preventable, offences.

Examples of this:

The ambiguity here is not really cleared up by the guidance on exclusions, which specifies only that the category of “persistent disruptive behaviour” refers to:

• Challenging behaviour
• Disobedience
• Persistent violation of school rules

Like so much of the debate about exclusions, I find a real disconnect between my experience as a teacher which is that exclusions are infrequent and always for something that schools cannot tolerate without endangering children’s safety and learning, and claims like the above. In my experience, “persistent disruptive behaviour” is not less serious than the other reasons for exclusions, it is just more persistent. Children I’ve encountered who have been excluded for this are usually out of control, and often will have repeatedly committed the offences described in the supposedly more serious categories.

While there is some evidence, to be discussed in a later blogpost, that teachers do not think schools are too quick to exclude, we would struggle to find direct evidence of whether permanent exclusions are used sparingly and only for the most serious behaviour. However, what we can do is look at the scale of the worst behaviour in schools, and ask whether it can sufficiently account for the number of permanent exclusions that take place. Of course, it could be argued that schools are permanently excluding for trivial offences while tolerating extreme offences, but such a claim would, at the very least, be implausible enough to require very strong evidence. If the number of exclusions is low compared with the amount of extreme behaviour taking place, it is unlikely that schools are too quick to exclude, and if the behaviours in the “more serious” categories for exclusions are far more common than the exclusion figures would suggest, it is unlikely that the “less serious” categories such as “other” or “persistent disruptive behaviour” (which between the account for the majority of permanent exclusions) are being used for trivial offences.

These are the numbers of permanent exclusions, by type, from 2017/2018.

Permanent exclusions
Physical assault against a pupil 1,037
Physical assault against an adult 845
Verbal abuse/ threatening behaviour against a pupil 338
Verbal abuse/ threatening behaviour against an adult 652
Bullying 32
Racist abuse 13
Sexual misconduct 100
Drug and alcohol related 643
Damage 77
Theft 40
Persistent disruptive behaviour 2,686
Other 1,442
Total 7,905

Judging the level of bad behaviour in schools is hard to do accurately. Almost any source will be either an estimate or a partial picture. Fortunately, we don’t need to be very precise to see how low the above figures are. Teacher Tapp surveys teachers by using a large sample weighted to be representative. They asked teachers about their experience of physical and verbal abuse in the last year.

There are 453400 (Full Time Equivalent) teachers in state schools. This means the best estimate we have of teachers experiencing physical abuse from pupils in a year is 95000. The best estimate of teachers experiencing verbal abuse from pupils would be 249000. Both terms are defined by the respondents, and obviously any sample will not be perfect, but this is enough to give some idea of the gap between the permanent exclusion figures and the likely number of incidents serious enough for teachers to consider them to be verbal or physical abuse. Permanent exclusions for physical assault against an adult, and verbal abuse/threatening behaviour against an adult are 845 and 652 respectively for the last year on record, out of 7905 permanent exclusions in total. The mismatch between these figures and those derived from a representative sample of teachers, make a mockery of the idea that schools are quick to permanently exclude, and the idea that we can assume without evidence, or on the basis of vague categories, that permanent exclusions include lots of trivial offences.

Another source of evidence is that in recent years journalists have reported on Freedom of Information requests to police forces about crimes reported at schools. These figures are likely to be incomplete as not all police forces respond, and some will include crimes by adults in schools, and figures from Scotland and Wales. We can also assume that many incidents (I’d say from experience the vast majority of incidents) in schools that, technically, can be considered criminal are not reported to the police. However, if all we are looking for is whether permanent exclusions reflect the frequency of serious incidents in schools, it is worth noting how they compare with what incidents in schools are reported to the police.

Comparing these with the exclusion figures, we again get the clear impression that both the total number of exclusions, and the exclusions for the “most serious” offences (if one wishes to claim that the “persistent disruptive behaviour” and “other” categories are made up of less serious offences) are far lower than expected. We have a situation where the threshold for permanently excluding for a single offence appears higher than the threshold for reporting the single offence to the police as a crime.

The view that permanent exclusions are currently high, seems completely dependent on ignoring the realities of behaviour in schools. When you consider what teachers say they experience, and what is reported to the police, we should be asking why the rate of permanent exclusions is so low, and what can be done to make schools safer.




  1. As I write this post is about 3 weeks old. Yet I am the first to comment.

    Notwithstanding the fact that most of these 3 weeks have been in the previously unimaginable situation of “lock down” with most UK schools closed to all but a minimum of pupils, I find the silence both significant and depressing.

    It is depressing in the extreme to see that such a well founded and well argued formulation of classroom reality is relegated to such a minor outpost. And, by the criteria I have just alluded to, is there all but ignored.

    My personal depressive enlightenment of the true scale of societal and “professional” indifference to these realities, which I had obviously seen daily over decades yet had come to insidiously accept as part of the landscape of English state schooling came fully 15 years ago now when the tv broadcast Classroom Chaos was aired in spring 2005.

    The programme title says it all.

    The material on view was filmed in 14 different schools around England over a period of 3 months. No school, still less child or parent, was identified then or since.

    To cut a long story, which is partly discussed in the links below, short the teacher who presumed to bring the details highlighted in the above post to public attention was booted out of the “profession.”

    By her peers !

    The post, despite its eloquence, indeed all the more so due to its eloquence, provides little for my comfort as to the the situation all this time later.

    O tempora, o mores.



  2. For what it’s worth, this post got a decent amount of hits on the day it was posted, although it tailed off drastically on the second day which was when the lockdown situation escalated. The lack of argument is normal. People will make personal attacks against me on social media, or declare to their friends that I am wrong, but there’s usually precious little debate. Progressives know that the main advantage they have on the issue of exclusions is the unwillingness of those affected by a lack of exclusions to speak up, and they don’t want to signal boost supporters of school discipline if they can help it. But it’s not hopeless. I’ve been told (by people who should know) that my blogs about exclusions have been read by serious policy makers. There are some MPs now who “get” these issues, in a way there wasn’t before the last general election. The education select committee is no longer 100% progressive. The campaign against internal exclusion seems to have fizzled out. The big worry is that we are only ever one reshuffle or one general election away from a complete change of direction and that will take time to reverse.

  3. […] Do schools permanently exclude too often? […]

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