Since 2013/14, there has been a 40 per cent increase in permanent exclusions across all schools, while fixed-period exclusions are up 36 per cent. Exclusion rates for children eligible for free school meals, have special educational needs or in care are higher than average (see Analysis).
Campaigners say a combination of factors have created a high-stakes system that incentivises schools and head teachers to exclude pupils because they lack resources to provide sufficient support, or are concerned about the effect of such pupils on academic performance and Ofsted rating.
Calls by the Local Government Association and others for more funding are well founded, but unlikely to succeed any time soon. There is also little sign of a change in education policy. What can change, however, is practice on how and when exclusions are used.
A staggering 36 per cent of the 7,720 permanent exclusions in 2016/17 were for disruptive behaviour. Tackling disruptive behaviour is important, but the problem is usually caused by issues in a child's home or personal life going unaddressed. Although schools cannot tackle all of these issues, findings from the Department for Education's own three-year School Exclusion Trial points to practical measures that make a difference.
Published in 2014, the study found that schools involved in the trial adopted "no exclusion" policies, set up learning support units with other schools and revised timetables, while councils appointed inclusion co-ordinators to monitor and guide. In schools across the 11 areas involved in the trial, there were fewer exclusions, a reduction in pupils deemed at risk of exclusion and more effective alternative education provision.
Exclusion is the gateway to a host of poor life outcomes. If the government is serious about reversing its alarming rise, it must heed the lessons of the School Exclusion Trial and instigate a cultural change on how exclusion is used. It should do this by creating strong incentives for schools and councils to adopt inclusive policies such as additional funding to take responsibility for alternative provision, quicker access for specialist support and less testing - and counteract the perverse incentives that currently exist to exclude pupils.