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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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