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.


One comment

  1. […] 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 […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: