Archive for April, 2022

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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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Does being expelled or suspended turn you into a criminal?

April 9, 2022

I discussed here a recent report produced by the DfE and the MoJ about the education and care background of young offenders. It looked at those who were cautioned or sentenced before the age of 18, with special attention paid to those committing violent offences and those whose offending is prolific. One of the most controversial issues, and one where the report presented interesting new evidence is regarding suspension and permanent exclusion (expulsion) from school. I have already discussed some of what it said about suspensions and permanent exclusions.

…it spells out the difference between suspensions and permanent exclusions.

A suspension is where a pupil has been temporarily removed from the school, whilst a permanent exclusion is when a pupil is no longer allowed to attend a school.

Perhaps it is just that a low bar has been set previously, but it is a relief to see anyone making a clear distinction between the two and analysing them separately rather than talking about “exclusions” and leaving the reader to look for contextual clues as to which is being referred to. This enables the report to reach clear conclusions about the correlations between offending and suspensions and permanent exclusions.

There is a clear connection, but there is no inevitability about it. There is no school to prison pipeline here. The suspended may be more likely to be cautioned or sentenced, but they are not likely to be cautioned or sentenced. The permanently excluded are likely to be cautioned or suspended (unsurprising when you consider that only the most extreme 1 in a 1000 pupils are permanently excluded each year), but the vast majority will not be cautioned or sentenced for a serious violent offence or for a prolific number of offences.

As mentioned above, the report makes an effort to avoid leaping to conclusions regarding correlations. Diagrams like the one below are used to clarify what actual predictive power the statistics have. We see that while we can predict that a child who has been cautioned or sentenced for a serious violent offence will probably have been suspended, we really can’t expect suspended children to become violent offenders.

 

Similarly with the permanently excluded:

This is enough to establish that there is a correlation between suspension and serious violent offending, and between permanent exclusion and serious violent offending. This is unsurprising given that the worst behaviour in schools bears a strong resemblance to, and considerable overlap with, criminal behaviour. It would be amazing if suspension and exclusion weren’t risk factors for offending. What continues to be the contentious issue around offending and suspensions or expulsions is whether being suspended or excluded causes offending behaviour.

What we now know is how much difference it makes to distinguish between suspensions and permanents exclusions, and between offending in general, and prolific or violent offending. Suspended pupils are more likely to be sentenced or cautioned for an offence, but the vast majority of suspended pupils are not sentenced or cautioned for offences and it’s particularly unlikely that a randomly selected suspended pupil will be cautioned or sentenced for a violent offence or prolific offending. This doesn’t seem to fit with a lot of reporting and activism around suspensions (often referred to misleadingly as “exclusions”) which seems to imply that suspensions carry a huge risk of leading to offending and often serious criminal involvement. Some have even implied that suspension is part of a “pipeline” to prison (although disproving that will require more than looking at offending as most young offenders don’t end up in custody).

Unlike suspended pupils, permanently excluded pupils are more likely than not to be cautioned or suspended for an offence at some point. However, in most cases this is not a violent offence or for prolific offending. And offenders of all types are most likely not to have been permanently excluded. Again, this does not seem to fit a lot of the discourse around permanent exclusions and offending. Permanent exclusions are repeatedly presented as a huge factor in violent crimes committed by young people. Yet, we have evidence here that the vast majority of young offenders, even the most violent or prolific offenders, have not been permanently excluded.

This has moved us on from the most simplistic pictures of youth crime, where “exclusions” (in quotation marks because so often it is unclear where suspensions or permanent exclusions are being discussed) are almost inevitably leading to violent crime and reducing “exclusions” can be assumed to have a dramatic effect on violent crime. However, there is still a correlation to be examined here. The above figures suggest we cannot make useful predictions about individuals based on the fact that they’ve been suspended or permanently excluded. That correlation would still be important for evaluating the aggregate effects of suspensions and permanent exclusions if it is best explained by suspensions or permanent exclusions directly increasing the risk of criminal behaviour to a substantial degree. Alternatively, if the best explanation of the correlation is that those inclined towards criminality are more likely to be permanently excluded or suspended, then changing policy regarding suspension and/or permanent exclusions is unlikely to have any effect on youth crime, or might even make it worse.

It is always hard to establish causation, and this is certainly the case when people claim suspensions or permanent exclusions cause pupils to commit crimes and that if schools gave out fewer suspensions or permanent exclusions there would be fewer crimes. The mechanism by which suspensions and permanent exclusions are meant to lead to offending is unclear. However, one of the most common claims I hear is that pupils commit crimes when out of school. The most interesting new evidence on this point in the report concerns violent offences, and their timing relative to suspensions and permanent exclusions. If it was the case that being suspended led to pupils being out of school, which led to them being unsupervised and committing those crimes, we would expect their violent offences usually to be within a few days of being suspended. It’s worth mentioning here that most suspensions are a day or two, and few last more than five days. The report presents data on those pupils who have committed a violent offence and who have been suspended. It considers both their first suspensions and the suspension closest to the offence.

 

These graphs show that out of those who are suspended and commit a serious violent offense before the age of 17, only 1% commit the crime in the 29 days after their first suspension, and only 5% in the 29 days after the suspension closest to the offence. 1% commit the offense on the day of the suspension, but presumably many of those will have been excluded because of the offence. A majority committed their offence over 2 years after their first suspension. Around 1 in 10 have only been suspended after the offence. For almost 3 in 10, the suspension closest to the offence happened afterwards. The idea that suspensions enable the violent crimes because children offend while suspended is no longer plausible, and if there is meant to be another mechanism by which suspensions lead to the violent crimes, it is not clear from the data what it could be.

There is similar data on permanent exclusions. Again, the implications this data has for the question of whether permanent exclusions cause violent offending depends on the mechanism through which this is thought to happen. However, if the idea is that permanent exclusions lead to a period out of school in which the crimes take place, the data does not support this hypothesis. Pupils are meant to be out of education for no more than 5 days following a permanent exclusion. This is not when most of the offences happen.

Of those pupils who are cautioned and sentenced for a serious violent offence and permanently excluded, only 2% commit the offence in the 29 days after being permanently excluded. This seems enough to reject the hypothesis that permanent exclusions are leading to violent offences during their time out of school, and that it is these crimes for which the pupils are cautioned or sentenced. I would assume the 1% who commit the crime and get permanently excluded on the same day are predominantly those who are permanently excluded for the crime. As for the rest of the data points, we have them shared almost evenly between the following categories:

  1. Pupils permanently excluded over 2 years before the offence.
  2. Pupils permanently excluded in the 2 years before the offence.
  3. Pupils permanently excluded after the offence.

This distribution does not lend itself to any obvious theory about the mechanism by which the permanent exclusion leads to the violent offending. It seems far more plausible that there is some underlying cause (for instance, extreme behaviour) that leads to both.

The report adds the following to the analysis of the timing of suspensions, permanent exclusions and serious violent offences (at least I think it is talking only about violent offences, but I cannot be sure):

Although the above analysis demonstrates that most suspensions and permanent exclusions occur before the first offence, offending tends to peak at around 15 to 16 years old. At this age, most of the school time available for being suspended or permanently excluded is indeed in the past – this therefore calls the strength of association into some question.

This is an interesting point for those who claim that “exclusions” are the main driver of violent youth crime. Both “exclusions” and violent crimes have a peak age. If the former cause the latter that can only be explained by a time lag between the “exclusion(s)” and the offending, but the data we’ve just looked at doesn’t seem to show this. Violent offences sometimes happen long after the “exclusions”, sometimes shortly after, and sometimes before. It really is unclear how any causal relationship between suspensions and violent offending, or permanent exclusions and violent offending, is meant to work.

I very much doubt the anti-exclusion lobby will change their rhetoric, but this report really does seem to undermine some of the most common claims about the effects of suspensions and permanent exclusions. We’d be able to say this with more certainty if those who make claims about “exclusions” causing crimes made their claims more clearly; specified when they were referring to suspensions and when they were referring to permanent exclusions, and identified the mechanism by which suspensions and/or permanent exclusions are meant to lead to offending. It is time for those who claim schools are to blame for crime to put up or shut up.

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Book Review: What The Academy Taught Us by Eric Kalenze

April 6, 2022

What The Academy Taught Us: Improving schools from the bottom-up in a top-down transformation era by Eric Kalenze. Published by John Catt, 2019.

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

This book tells the story of a school improvement initiative within a school in Minnesota. In 2004 to 2008 it was decided to create a school-within-a school, The Sophomore Academy, for the students most at risk of dropping out.  The idea was that this school-within-a school would have smaller classes with more experienced teachers, and would not compromise on expectations. They were also to have most of their lessons together and encouraged to have a shared identity that would motivate them to achieve their potential.

The book describes the challenges involved in setting up and developing the project. The Sophomore Academy project had to be designed from scratch, as there were no existing models to copy. It had to be planned carefully, creating no insurmountable problems for the rest of the school. It had to be staffed with the right teachers.

The original cohort was to be two sections of no more than 25 students each. The teachers became convinced that shared expectations would be vital, including over things such as not allowing students out of lessons to go to the toilet or visit their lockers. While it’s no blueprint for other schools (particularly not schools over here) there are a lot of interesting stories and explanations of original ideas that were put into place as part of the initiative. The author describes not only his own experiences, but he also interviewed a number of those former colleagues and former students who were part of the Sophomore Academy.

As well as the Sophomore Academy initiative itself, the book describes the background and the dissolution of the project. It also uses this to discuss education policy more generally. The project took place at a time when school reform was in fashion in the US, but largely ineffective. The Sophomore Academy is given as a contrasting example of a teacher led, context-specific and effective reform. That it did not last for more than a few years, is perhaps indicative of how much schools in the US are dealing with constant change and constant pressure, like schools here in England.

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Does it matter that there are a lot of young criminals?

April 2, 2022

In a recent blogpost I looked at research from the DfE and Ministry of Justice about youth offending.

The research is produced jointly by the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice. It looks at the data for 3 categories of children selected from the 3 cohorts who were in year 11 in the years 2012-2015. It explains:

….three offending groups are identified in this publication: approximately 77,300 children who had been cautioned or sentenced for an offence, which is equivalent to 5% of the total pupil cohort; approximately 18,000 children who had been cautioned or sentenced for a serious violence offence (equivalent to 1.1% of the total pupil cohort), and approximately 12,300 children whose offending had been prolific (equivalent to 0.8% of the total pupil cohort).

This is not a sample, but as far as possible, an attempt to collect all the data from the pupils in those cohorts who fit the relevant criteria.

The first thing to notice is that, when you consider the size of an average state secondary school is about 1000, these pupils are not uncommon. The data on offending covers the children when they are in the 10-17 age group, but most first offences are within the age group 14-16. Ignoring changes in crime rates since then, do we secondary teachers think of our pupils as a population where 1 in 20 will have been cautioned or sentenced before the age of 18? Do we realise there is likely to be 1 violent young criminal in every 90 children? We might teach that many children before lunch some days. Are we aware that we can expect there to be one prolific young criminal in every 125 pupils? That’s likely to give you an average higher than 1 in each year group. If you account for the fact that these pupils will not be evenly distributed and you can expect to have a lot more of them in a boys school or a school in a disadvantaged area, its actually quite frightening. It’s also worth considering the fact that these are only the young criminals who were caught and sentenced or cautioned. Secondary school populations can include a lot of young people who have committed, or will soon commit, criminal offences, including both violent offenders and habitual criminals. This should be a fact teachers should be reminded of in every CPD session on behaviour, and I intend to blog further thoughts about this at some point in the future.

Returning to this discussion, I still think that it is incredibly important to notice just how high this level of offending behaviour is. Remember the above details next time you hear a non-teacher explain how children will behave as long as you show that you care; perhaps by greeting them at the classroom door, or smiling and asking how their weekend went. Remember this next time somebody claims that children won’t get up to mischief when left unsupervised, or can be trusted to stick to expectations of civilised behaviour without the need for punishment. Remember this, when somebody claims that some minor classroom sanction, or warning, is cruel because it will cause children to be “shamed”. The multitude of vocal people who spend their time explaining that schools should abolish lots of their rules, or give up on punishments, should actually be marveling that many schools manage to cope with keeping a significant number of violent criminals under control and engaged with work most of the time with nothing more than a stern glance and the threat of thirty minutes in a quiet room. Schools are not oppressive. In many cases, they are tolerant to the point of being dangerous, providing the worst of their pupils with an almost limitless supply of victims without adequately protecting them.

I would raise three points to consider that arise from this. Firstly, schools are expecting teachers (who are mostly women) to challenge the behaviour of pupils without fear, day in day out, despite the risk that a non-negligible number of those pupils (particularly among the boys) will be violent criminals. Schools are responsible for protecting other children from those violent criminals from 9 am to 3 pm, every school day. I cannot think of a clearer reason for schools to seek to maintain the authority of adults. The idea put forward that schools can ever manage this situation by being non-hierarchical; by just getting on with the kids; through caring a lot, or by “meeting unmet needs” is ludicrous. There are lines that must be held. If a school tolerates bad behaviour, then it will soon be tolerating serious crimes. There has to be a limit to what teachers can be expected to put up with.

Secondly, we should consider the extent to which it is possible that teachers in the most challenging schools already know they will be dealing routinely with young offenders. Perhaps in a lot of schools, staff have already factored in the possibility that enforcing rules will often mean telling dangerous criminals that they are in the wrong, and must do as they are told. We should consider the possibility that this is why, in some schools, particularly those where staff don’t feel supported, rules are not properly enforced. Fear of reprisal from some children may well be a factor in poor discipline in some schools. It may only be the most extreme cases where teachers are beaten, raped, injured or killed by pupils, but fear of the most violent pupils is going to be an everyday part of life for teachers in some schools. It is amazing how rarely this issue is discussed compared with, say, whether school rules are too strict.

A final point the data raises is the scale of permanent exclusions compared with the scale of offending. Looking at the data in detail we see that out of 3 cohorts of 1,632,320 pupils, there were:

  • 77279 pupils who had been cautioned or sentenced for an offence.
  • 17995 pupils who had been cautioned or sentenced for a serious violent offence.
  • 12276 prolific offenders.
  • 12708 who had been permanently excluded.

It is often claimed that the number of permanent exclusions is high. Compared with the number of pupils who have been cautioned and sentenced for an offence the number of permanent exclusions seems small. It seems reasonable to believe many crimes (particularly in school) go unreported; many crimes don’t result in anyone being cautioned or sentenced, and many prolific offenders are not identified as such by the authorities. So when you consider how likely it is that the figures for being cautioned and sentenced will only represent a fraction of the amount of offending, it seems clear that the number of permanent exclusions is low relative to the number of pupils who are potentially a danger to others. The average secondary school permanently excludes 2 pupils per year (that’s school year, not year group). This has been treated like it was so high as to be a national scandal. These numbers put it into perspective. Schools are likely to have more pupils who are sentenced or cautioned for a serious violent offence while school age, than they do pupils who are permanently excluded.

I’m not optimistic that debate on permanent exclusions or violence in schools will move on as a result of this new data. There seems to be as many people out there who consider young criminals to be “victims” as there are people who consider the permanently excluded to be the “most vulnerable”. Those who oppose permanent exclusions, even for the worst offenders, often claim it is incredibly rare for young people to be a danger to each other, or to commit actual crimes. Now we have the figures to show that they simply don’t know what the worst young people are like. Schools need the right to exclude; to enforce boundaries, and to maintain adult authority. If we want children to be safe from their peers, those who oppose these rights for school should have no position of authority, responsibility, influence or power in education. We do not want to end up like Scotland where, after years of preventing schools from excluding, we now have at least two teacher unions warning about how violence is tolerated in schools.

Violence and abuse of teachers ‘becoming normalised

Education in Scotland: Teachers ‘covering up’ violent behaviour

Update 3/4/2022: I have now added a tentative correction to the bottom of this post for the figures about how common young offenders are that I quoted above, due to the fact that some may be in AP, and therefore not found in your average secondary. I don’t think it makes much difference to my arguments above, but we should bear in mind that moving some offenders to AP is likely to have already substantially reduced some of the problems described.

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