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Another myth about exclusions

June 5, 2021

Most information I encounter about exclusions (i.e. permanent or temporary removals of students from schools due to behaviour) is either false or misleading. Whether it’s a claim that exclusions are common, racist, rising, or easy, it’s usually false. My all time favourite false statistic about exclusion is this one, which is staggering in its implausibility.

Yesterday, I found a new myth that I don’t recall encountering before. I was reading a fairly typical anti-exclusion article. I say “fairly typical” because the article:

  • was written by somebody who did not run a school or teach but claimed to know what schools should do;
  • didn’t explain clearly what “exclusions” were;
  • claimed without good evidence that stricter discipline was bad for mental health;
  • falsely claimed black students were more likely to be excluded;
  • didn’t mention the victims of bad behaviour, or their interests, only the perpetrators.

All this is standard in exclusion discourse and charities and journalists produce articles like this pretty much every week.

But what was new was this claim:

Evidence reviewed by the University of York suggests that the UK has a school exclusion rate that is ten times higher than that of any other country in Europe..

This claim surprised me because:

  1. The UK has 4 different education systems with drastically different exclusion rates.
  2. It did not specify whether this means permanent, or fixed term exclusions.
  3. Exclusion statistics are compiled according to particular definitions and procedures. They are not necessarily going to be directly comparable between countries.
  4. The nations of the UK are particularly transparent about exclusions and have been since the 90s. But would all countries in Europe even count them? Particularly fixed term exclusions.
  5. Not every country in Europe publishes their data and definitions in English. This could be pretty hard to research even if the relevant data had been published.
  6. “Ten times higher” is a lot. This is not impossible – you can suppress exclusions by tolerating bad behaviour (see Scotland) – but it seems unlikely that every country in Europe would do this. And if it referred to permanent exclusions, which are rare even in England, then for small countries there would barely be any.

I found a few articles about Ireland which suggested that their expulsion rate, while much lower than England’s permanent exclusion rate, was not ten times lower. So it seemed worth checking where this whole claim came from. And so, I followed the trail from one source to another. The link in the blogpost took me to a news page from 2020 on the University of York website which claimed:

The UK has a school exclusion rate that is ten times greater than that of any other country in Europe.

The news page was about research from 2020 in a peer reviewed journal that claimed as fact:

It is also important to note that the UK has a school exclusion rate that is 10 times greater than that of any other country in Europe…

The source for this, however, was another peer reviewed journal article this time from  2014 which claimed:

England maintains an exclusion rate 10-times greater than any other country in Europe…

If the only error here was to present old research as contemporary data and to confuse England and the UK it would be shoddy enough, particularly in peer reviewed research. However, this still isn’t the source of the claim. This was a reference to yet another peer reviewed journal article. This time from 2001, so even more out of date. I couldn’t even access this one online, but a friend sent me a copy. This, however, appears to have been misread. The text actually says:

There has been a particular policy concern that school exclusion rates in England are the highest in Europe and are very different from the rest of the UK: ‘We expel ten times more children than Northern Ireland and four times more than Scotland’

Later it refers to:

…an exclusion rate for England that remains the highest in Europe and 10 times the figure for Northern Ireland.

These appear to be the only comparisons with Europe, and seem to have been misread. So a misreading of an article from 2001 talking about the 90s, has been published in two separate peer reviewed articles, including one that implied it was still relevant in 2020.

And just in case that wasn’t bad enough, was this original 2001 claim based on peer reviewed research?

No. The only reference given is a newspaper article (WERTHEIMER, F. Expulsion is not the answer, The Times, 17 September 1999, if you want to find it). This article does not actually give a source for the claim about Europe and when making the comparison with Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is referring to England and Wales, not just England, as “we”.

I suppose I could dig further into the background of that Times article, but what’s the point? We’re already very far removed from the claim that sent me down this rabbit hole.

It’s worth remembering this litany of repeated factual errors next time you hear somebody claiming that educationalists and charities are the experts on exclusions.

 

9 comments

  1. Interesting to look at the anti-exclusion paper you mention. They quote the ’10x’ EU as being from a paper from 2015. Which when I dug it out turned out to be a comparison of UK and US punishments, and as far as I can tell contains no mention of comparative exclusion rates in the EU. very odd.


    • Yes, I did mention that paper.


      • after much searching I actually found the reference…its to a paper from 2001. Which itself cites the source of that number as a Times article from 1999 (WERTHEIMER, F. (1999) Expulsion is not the answer, The Times, 17 Sept.)…which i do not seem to be able to access


        • …so it looks like they are basing the 10x rate on a newspaper article from 1999, rather than any actual research. That’s alarmingly close to academic misconduct


        • This is all in the article.


          • yup and I am a numpty…please feel free to delete my stupidity!


            • Well I would, but people hardly ever comment on blogs these days.


            • Though I have to say I am utterly shocked that such a failure of reference checking has turned up in a published paper. It took me a whole 10min to hunt down the source (even after missing the last chunk of your post)


  2. One has to remember that we are past post modern and well into the age of 1984.

    You see it in how people think and behave – in families, in social groups (although these almost do not exist nowadays), in education and the world of work. In this, there pop up random unchallengeable narratives, where none of it comes from any rational basis.



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