Archive for August, 2022

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Why Do Some Ethnic Groups Have Higher Exclusion Rates? Part 2

August 21, 2022

I have been looking at the the differences in the exclusion rates for different ethnic groups. In Part 1, I observed that ethnic minority pupils generally don’t have a higher exclusion rate than white British pupils, and that those ethnic groups that consistently have higher exclusion rates tend to make up only a small proportion (11%) of ethnic minority pupils. The way we divide people into ethnic groups seems to create more groups with disparities than would be expected. In that previous post, I identified 5 ethnic groups that consistently have a higher exclusion rate than white British pupils.

Ethnic Group Number of Pupils % of pupils Number of exclusions (2020/21)
Ethnicity Minor Any other black background 64,064 0.77% 43
Ethnicity Minor Black Caribbean 82,726 1.00% 70
Ethnicity Minor Gypsy Roma 25,836 0.31% 46
Ethnicity Minor Traveller of Irish heritage 6,140 0.07% 6
Ethnicity Minor White and Black Caribbean 129,193 1.56% 153

These groups are small, and unrepresentative of ethnic minority pupils as a whole. One way to picture this is to imagine teaching a class of 27 pupils who are representative of the entire state school pupil population. In that class you would have 18 white British pupils and 9 ethnic minority pupils. Of those 9 ethnic minority pupils, 7 would be consistently less likely to be excluded than the white British pupils. 1 would be more likely to be excluded than the white British pupils in some years, but less likely in other years. And 1 would be consistently more likely to be excluded than the white British pupils. The debate about exclusions and ethnicity seems to be entirely focused on that 1 pupil.

Because the exclusion rate is very low (particularly in 2020/21), and these groups of pupils are very small, the higher rate of exclusions for these groups actually represents very small numbers, as can be seen from the table above. Given that there are well over  twenty thousand schools in England, it should be noted that relatively few headteachers have permanently excluded pupils from any of these groups. Even if some of those headteachers have made the wrong decision in some of these cases, it would be odd to extrapolate from them to the whole education system. Yet a lot of the discussion assumes these figures represent a systemic problem with exclusions, or with prejudice in exclusions. If you are convinced these exclusions must include some that are unfair, it would make more sense to ask the DfE to scrutinise the individual exclusions than to change policy regarding exclusions. There is certainly no reason to think most exclusions are unfair because of these 5 groups.

Opponents of exclusions use the exclusion figures for those 5 groups to generalise about all ethnic minorities and about the entire education system. There is also a tendency to generalise about the experiences of pupils in these 5 groups. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is how little exclusion rates actually tell us about an ethnic group. The conventional way to consider the effects of ethnicity on exclusions is to look at the exclusion rates of ethnic groups with high rates of exclusion and compare them to white British pupils (or all white pupils or all pupils). So, for instance, this chart emphasises the disparities.

However, most pupils in every ethnic group are unlikely to be excluded. The every day reality of school for most pupils in every ethnic group is perhaps better given by a graph showing the proportion of pupils not excluded.

The differences in exclusion rates are barely visible. All pupils in all ethnic groups are extremely unlikely to be permanently excluded. The disparities in exclusions do not tell us about entire ethnic groups. The exclusion rate for an ethnic group tells us about a fraction of 1% of pupils in that ethnic group. A difference in inclusion rates is not a judgement on an entire ethnic group. Trying to explain disparities in exclusion rates, using our knowledge of the entire group, is likely to be a waste of time. The tiny scale of the issue may be why so much of the debate consists of people misrepresenting the extent to which exclusions happen, and exaggerating the likely consequences of being excluded.

Having said all this, it might still be possible to say more about the causes of disparities in exclusion rates between different ethnic groups if we are willing to look at all the data, rather than just those groups that have a higher exclusion rate than white British pupils. It has never seemed plausible to me that ethnic groups who differ in location, social class, family structure, level of parental education, peer groups and so many other things, should be expected to all have identical levels of exclusion. It would be interesting to see if we can find any drivers for exclusion that explain those differences.

There are no shortage of campaigning groups out there who claim, often on very limited evidence, to know what causes exclusions. When it comes to race, explanations usually involve the claim that ethnic minorities are suffering some form of injustice that results in a higher rate of exclusions. As already discussed, in reality, we have very limited data and most disparities between ethnic groups are in the opposite direction. However, there is one factor that does seem to drive differences in exclusions between ethnic groups. If I combine the exclusion data from here and the Free School Meal data from here I get the following.

There is a strong positive correlation (r=0.76) between the exclusion rate for an ethnic group and the percentage of pupils having Free School Meals. The one point on that scatter graph that is an obvious outlier is travellers of Irish descent, the smallest ethnic group (6012 pupils) we have figures for. The small numbers involved (6 pupils excluded) make it unsurprising that the rate doesn’t fit the pattern.

Now, it is already known that Free School Meals pupils have a much higher exclusion rate (0.12 to 2 decimal places) than those who don’t (0.03), but the numbers here are greater than can be explained by the proportion of FSM pupils in each group. However, the FSM percentage is usually considered a good proxy for disadvantage. The simplest explanation here is that the exclusion rates for ethnic groups depend to a large extent on how disadvantaged that ethnic group is. Disadvantage that is concentrated in an ethnic group has more of an effect on exclusions than disadvantage that is spread throughout the population.

We now have two reasons for why some ethnic groups have a higher exclusion rate than white British pupils. In this post, we have observed that differing levels of disadvantage seem to have a big influence. From the previous post, the way the data has been subdivided into small groups, seemed significant. I suspect the two are connected, with disadvantage being a major reason why a small ethnic group would be considered in isolation in the statistics.

Returning to the five ethnic groups with highest exclusion rates, they were also the groups with highest FSM rates. (For comparison, 20% of White British pupils have Free School Meals.)

Ethnicity FSM% 
Any other Black background 32.8
Black Caribbean 37.6
Mixed – White and Black Carribean 38.8
Gypsy/Roma 47.2
Traveller of Irish heritage 63.5

We might need additional factors to explain why some groups have a lower exclusion rate than their FSM numbers would suggest. We might find out more about the causes of exclusions if we could explain why Bangladeshi pupils, black African pupils or mixed race pupils with white and black African parents are less likely to be excluded than white British pupils despite having proportionately more FSM pupils (although still below the 5 groups mentioned above). There may be factors around the history, geography or sociology of these groups that explain why disadvantage seems to affect some ethnic groups less than others. However, I’m not sure we actually have data that would enable us to do that*. I suspect our efforts might even drift into relying on stereotypes (“oh, this ethnic group is a bit more studious and compliant than this ethnic group”).

Overall though, when it comes to explaining why some ethnic groups have an exclusion rate much higher than white British pupils, there seems little need to look for any explanation beyond economic disadvantage and the habit of government statisticians to subdivide disadvantaged groups more than other groups. This should not be the end of the story. This does not answer the question of why entrenched disadvantage in a small ethnic group will result in more exclusions. More should be done to address disadvantage. However, it seems unlikely that schools can do this alone, and there is no obvious case that it is schools that are to blame for the pattern of exclusions.


*More data relevant to these questions may be available in the future when more information from the 2021 Census is published. There is also a discussion to be had about what data schools collect. One reason why we end up discussing ethnicity and disadvantage so much in education is because every effort is made to collect and process detailed information on ethnicity and indicators of disadvantage. One wonders whether we might have completely different perspectives and priorities if, say, information on family structure and level of parental education was the priority.

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Why do some ethnic groups have higher exclusion rates? Part 1

August 10, 2022

One of the most confused parts of the debate about exclusions from school relates to race and ethnicity. For many journalists, politicians and activists it simply must be the case that ethnic minority pupils, particularly black pupils, are more likely to be excluded. The 2 most recent sets of figures are from the 2019/20 and 2020/21 academic years  They do not show that ethnic minority pupils or black pupils are more likely to be excluded than white British pupils.

2019/20 2020/21
Ethnicity Minor White British 0.07 0.05
Ethnicity Major Black Total 0.07 0.05
Ethnicity Minority ethnic pupil 0.05 0.04

“Minor” here means a category that cannot be subdivided further; “major” is one that can be subdivided. The rates here are the number of exclusions for the pupils in a category, divided by the number of pupils in the category, written as a percentage, so 0.05 means 1 in 2000 pupils were excluded during the year. The DfE rounds exclusion rates to two decimal places. If we calculated further decimal places, the exclusion rate for black pupils would actually be lower than for white British pupils. However, in both years there were over 100 excluded pupils who were categorised as “ethnicity unclassified” which gives us a potentially large margin of error for these statistics, so comparisons based on only those more precise figures probably can’t be relied upon.

Why are so many people convinced that exclusion rates for ethnic minority pupils, and black pupils in particular, are higher? One reason is that this was the case historically. As recently as the 00s, ethnic minority pupils were slightly likelier to be excluded than white British pupils and black pupils were around twice as likely to be excluded. It is only recent years that ethnic minority pupils have become much less likely to be excluded than white British pupils, and it is only in the last two years that black pupils were no more likely to be excluded than white British pupils.

(Data from here. Despite what I said above about the margin for error, I have calculated the figures as precisely as possible just to make the lines clearer on the graph.)

I have in the past suspected that another reason for the widespread belief that black pupils are more likely to be excluded is because so much coverage of exclusions is driven by London based media and politicians. Racial disparities exist in London that don’t exist elsewhere. Inner London has a really low rate of permanent exclusions for white British pupils. In 2019-2020 London was the only region of England where the ethnic minority exclusion rate was higher than the white British exclusion rate. And in that year, while there were other regions where the exclusion rate for black pupils were a little higher than for white British pupils, Inner London was the only region where it is a lot higher.

(Data from here).

In 2020-21, however, this did change slightly, with the disparity between black and white British pupils narrowing dramatically in Inner London and widening in the South West.

However, Inner London remains the only region where ethnic minority pupils are more likely to be excluded than white British pupils.

For whatever reason, there are countless commentators who simply cannot admit what recent figures show about racial disparities. I am continually seeing false claims about this topic. Often this is justified by using out of date data. Sometime people use white pupils (including ethnic minority pupils) as the baseline for comparison instead of white British pupils, which creates a small disparity in 2019/20. Sometimes people just lie or repeat something they’ve heard without checking if it’s true.

However, the single most common way to suggest that exclusions discriminate is to subdivide into much smaller categories than ethnic minority pupils or black pupils, then pretend that what is true for some of these smaller subgroups is true for much larger groups. Exclusion data is collected for 18 separate “minor” groups (i.e. groups that cannot be further subdivided):

  • Ethnicity Minor Any Other Ethnic Group
  • Ethnicity Minor Any other Asian background
  • Ethnicity Minor Any other Mixed background
  • Ethnicity Minor Any other black background
  • Ethnicity Minor Any other white background
  • Ethnicity Minor Bangladeshi
  • Ethnicity Minor Black African
  • Ethnicity Minor Black Caribbean
  • Ethnicity Minor Chinese
  • Ethnicity Minor Gypsy Roma
  • Ethnicity Minor Indian
  • Ethnicity Minor Irish
  • Ethnicity Minor Pakistani
  • Ethnicity Minor Traveller of Irish heritage
  • Ethnicity Minor White British
  • Ethnicity Minor White and Asian
  • Ethnicity Minor White and Black African
  • Ethnicity Minor White and Black Caribbean

Not surprisingly, these categories do not all have the exact same exclusion rates. There are even a few persistent inequalities. We can divide the categories into 3 separate groups.

Those that consistently have a lower exclusion rate than white British pupils. These have all had an exclusion rate that (to two decimal places) was lower than white British pupils in every year of the last 5 years.

  • Ethnicity Minor Any Other Ethnic Group
  • Ethnicity Minor Any other Asian background
  • Ethnicity Minor Any other white background
  • Ethnicity Minor Bangladeshi
  • Ethnicity Minor Black African
  • Ethnicity Minor Chinese
  • Ethnicity Minor Indian
  • Ethnicity Minor Pakistani
  • Ethnicity Minor White and Asian

Those that consistently have a higher exclusion rate than white British pupils. These have all had an exclusion rate that was higher than white British pupils in every year of the last 5 years.

  • Ethnicity Minor Any other black background
  • Ethnicity Minor Black Caribbean
  • Ethnicity Minor Gypsy Roma
  • Ethnicity Minor Traveller of Irish heritage
  • Ethnicity Minor White and Black Caribbean

Those where the exclusion rate is not consistently above or below the rate for white British.

  • Ethnicity Minor Any other Mixed background
  • Ethnicity Minor Irish
  • Ethnicity Minor White and Black African

A list of exclusion rates for each ethnic group for any of the last five years will therefore, put white British pupils somewhere between the 6th and the 9th place for exclusions out of 18 ethnic groups. This means that, at a glance, it white British pupils are around halfway down the list and, therefore, it can be claimed that up to half of ethnic minority groups are disproportionately excluded. However, this can be misleading because the 18 ethnic groups are very different in size. When you take account of how many pupils there are in each of these groups, the ethnic groups that have a consistently higher exclusion rate than white British pupils account for just 11% of England’s ethnic minority pupils.

Consistently lower than white British pupils 2 176 731
Consistently higher than white British pupils 307 959
Not consistently above or below white British pupils 293 451

Much of the commentary we encounter consistently cherrypicks the ethnic groups in the orange slice and implies that they represent the whole pie chart.

It is unlikely that the groups with a higher exclusion rate would be so small just by chance. Ethnic minority pupils have been subdivided so that there is a moderate negative correlation (r=-0.44) between an ethnic group’s exclusion rate and its size, i.e. the smaller an ethnic group is, the more likely it is to have a high exclusion rate.

The categories for ethnic groups seem to be based on those used in the census. From what I’ve read the development of categories over time involves quite a lot of consultation and many considerations and I wouldn’t claim to understand the details. However, it would appear that there is a greater willingness to split up disadvantaged groups (like Travellers) into smaller groups, while keeping other, less disadvantaged groups (like the category made up of half a million white ethnic minority pupils) undivided. And while this may make sense for monitoring disadvantage, it means that lists based on this division give undue prominence to some small, but disadvantaged, groups. And that has enabled statistics describing just 11% of ethnic minority pupils to completely dominate the debate about exclusions and ethnicity. So, my first answer to the question of why some ethnic groups have higher exclusion rates is that it’s partly because of how the data has been sliced up, and that’s just a feature of how we analyse exclusions, not a feature of the exclusions themselves.

Of course, even when we recognise that the 11% of ethnic minority pupils are unrepresentative of ethnic minority pupils in general, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be an important consideration. But it does mean that in finding out why they have higher exclusion rates, we may need to work out what makes them different from the vast majority of ethnic minority pupils. This is a potentially controversial question that I hope to return to.

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