The Commission on Young Lives report and young people in custody

May 8, 2022

A few days ago I shared this post about the Commission on Young Lives report on exclusions.

I observed that:

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.

I gave some examples of how some of the statistics seemed to contradict each other, and how some claims were repeated again and again. I left one of the biggest examples for this post: the statistics about those in custody (or who have been in custody) and their exclusion history. Before I examine those claims, I will address the question of whether there are any reliable figures available that they could have used.

I would suggest that it is unlikely that there are any reliable figures relating to adult prisoners. Firstly, because records of permanent exclusions and suspensions haven’t always been kept at a national level. As I understand it this began in the 90s and even after then there were some anomalies that ensured some institutions weren’t covered. The main set of exclusion data on the DfE website goes back to 2006. Secondly, even if records were better going back decades, it is not going to be easy to match up prisoners to their school records although this apparently can be done quite well with young offenders (see below). Thirdly, surveying prisoners is difficult. Doing so in a way that clearly explains the difference between a formal permanent exclusion, a suspension (unhelpfully, this was also called a “fixed term exclusion” or sometimes a “temporary exclusion” until recently) and being removed from school because you are in custody, might be close to impossible.

As I mentioned above, with young offenders there is some very good data, recently made available. As I reported in a recent blogpost:

….there has been very recent research, from the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice, on the link between exclusions and offending . That showed that for roughly 5000 young people who received a custodial sentence before the age of 18, the majority had never been permanently excluded, although most had been suspended at some point.

This is broadly consistent with other sources. For instance, FFT Education Datalab, found fewer than 20% of 11000 young people who had been in custody between 16 and 18 had been permanently excluded. I’m not aware of any credible source that gives a higher figure, although because suspensions were for many years called “Fixed Term Exclusions” there are sources (eg. this) that give a figure for “exclusions” that almost certainly includes suspensions and is, therefore, much higher.

What I didn’t mention in that previous post was the the FFT Education Datalab figures also gave a figure just over 80% (hard to be exact as I’m reading from a graph) for the proportion of those who had experienced custody who had at least one suspension (then called fixed term exclusions). These two sources together are the best and most recent data we have and admittedly even then the young people in the data would still have finished Key Stage 4 around the early or mid 2010s. It shows that somewhere between 15% and 25% of young people who have had a custodial sentence have been permanently excluded from school and somewhere between 80% and about 90% have been suspended from school. We have no such data for adult prisoners. With no obvious reason to assume the figures will be a lot higher or a lot lower, the youth figures probably give us a best guess for the adult prisoner population but we have no reason to expect it to be a particularly accurate one. It should also be noted that in discussion of exclusions and suspensions, people often reference “those in custody” (or prison, or YOIs) in the present tense rather than those who have been sentenced to a custodial sentence at some point. If a sample of those currently in custody is sued, this is likely to skew the data towards those with longer sentences, but as the bar chart above showed this will probably not increase (or may even decrease) the exclusion and suspension figures.

If we analyse the MoJ/DfE data we have no real surprises. The relevant data can be extracted from this spreadsheet.

Excluded Suspended Total
Sentenced To Custody 1,327 5585 6,259
All pupils 12,708 238,402 1,632,320

Those given a custodial sentence are much more likely than the average pupil to have been permanently excluded or suspended, which is unsurprising given the obvious overlaps between the worst bad behaviour in school and criminal behaviour. However, while most pupils with a custodial sentence have been suspended, the majority haven’t been permanently excluded. Conversely, while those who are permanently excluded or suspended are more likely to be sentenced to custody, only slightly more than 1 in 10 permanently excluded pupils are sentenced to custody before the age of 18, and fewer than 1 in 40 suspended pupils are sentenced to custody before the age of 18. The route from exclusions and suspensions to custody is in no way a “pipeline” as anti-exclusion campaigners have claimed.

Returning to the COYL report, it contains a contradictory mess of statistics, some of which are credible and some of which are implausible. Several of them are likely to have confused suspensions and permanent exclusions. Here are the statistics used:

Page 5:

We know too the link between exclusion and those young people who end up involved in the criminal justice system. 86% of young men in YOIs have been excluded from school at some point. A study of UK prisoners found that 63% had been temporarily excluded while at school and 42% had been permanently excluded.

Page 14

86% of young men in YOIs have been excluded from school at some point
63% had been temporarily excluded while at school
42% had been permanently excluded….

….The number of boys in Young Offender Institutions who have been excluded from school at some point is shockingly high – 86%, according to the Ministry of Justice…

… 32%. Percentage of women in prison of all ages who were expelled or
permanently excluded (13% for men in prison), compared to 1% of the national population.

Page 16

A study of UK prisoners found that 63% had been temporarily excluded while at school and 42% had been permanently excluded.

Page 22

The IRR report notes that 89% of children in detention in 2017/18 reported having been excluded from school, according to the HM chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales.

Page 48

Almost nine out of ten boys (88%) in custody said that they have been excluded from school…

I have looked for the sources given for these claims, and they are included at the end of this blogpost. Overall, it would appear that the Commission on Young Lives has:

  • used multiple different sources uncritically;
  • made no effort to look for reliable and up to date data;
  • made no effort to investigate contradictory data;
  • repeatedly failed to distinguish between suspensions and exclusions even though this makes a dramatic difference.

It’s probably worth mentioning that the MoJ/DfE report that was the source of the accurate information on this topic got far less media coverage than the agenda driven and incoherent report from the Commission on Young Lives. Too often the media seems more interested in press releases from organisations that can provide representatives to be interviewed, than it is in reporting accurate information.

Additional information about the Commission’s sources:

Page 5:

The 86% figures comes from this document from the MoJ which looks like the work of civil servants. No source is given for it in that document. However, it is dated 2014 which makes it highly likely to include suspensions and, therefore, may well be accurate if understood that way, but misleading to use the word “excluded”. The other two figures are apparently recycled from this report on a similar topic by the once credible IPPR think tank which does include those figures on page 22 (24 in the pdf). The source the IPPR gives is this MoJ report which surveyed a sample of new prisoners in 2005-2006. There would be limits to the accuracy of such data even at the time, but to quote it alongside data from a decade later seems very misleading.

Page 14:

The 86% figure (now making its second and third appearance), is credited to the same source as before, and then just to the Ministry Of Justice and it is still not acknowledged that it is likely to include suspensions. If anything, the “shockingly high” comment implies it might be permanent exclusions. No source is given for the 63% and 42% figure. The most likely explanation is that they are the figures mentioned above for adult prisoners, incorrectly applied to young offenders. No source at all appears to have been given for the 32%, 13% and 1% figures and no explanation is given as to how they can be so inconsistent with the figures for adult prisoners given previously.

Page 16:

As before, these statistics are attributed to the 2017 IPPR report, and no mention is made that they are from much earlier research using a 2005-2006 sample.

Page 22:

This is more recycling of previous reports on a similar topic. In this case, the source is entitled “How Black Working-Class Youth are Criminalised and Excluded in the English School System“. This in turn links to this report from the prison inspectorate. Once again this is survey evidence, and while there is a lot of detail about the sample for adult prisoners, I’ve not been able to identify the sample size for the children in the sample. It does not distinguish between suspensions and permanent exclusions, but it seems likely that it includes suspensions as they were called “fixed term exclusions” at the time.

Page 48:

This is attributed to The Prisoners’ Education Trust’s submission to the commission. No more detail seems to be available, however that particular organisation seems to use this statistic a lot, and in one report they gave a 2013/14 report from the prisons inspectorate as the source which surveyed less than 1000 boys in YOIs. Once again, the figure is extremely likely to include suspensions and it is misleading not to say this.


  1. You may have already seen this, but FFT have released another blog on exclusions that looks at two specific cohorts being tracked through school from Yr 1 to Yr 11


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