School exclusions: finding alternative cures for behavioural ills

By Helen Aston

Thursday 1 August 2013

Last week the Department for Education (DfE) released the 2011/12 school exclusion figures – you may have seen some of the headlines, particularly in relation to the increase in exclusions from primary schools. But what lies behind these figures is, perhaps, more significant; why some children get excluded, and what schools are doing to tackle their behaviour.

According to the DfE’s figures, the number of pupils who received a fixed-term exclusion fell from 324,110 in 2010/11 to 304,370 in 2011/12, while the number of pupils who were permanently excluded has gone up slightly (from 5,080 in 2010/11 to 5,170 in 2011/12). The increase was largely due to the 13.9 per cent rise of primary school permanent exclusions – hence the aforementioned headlines! The overall permanent exclusion rate remains the same, at seven pupils per 10,000 excluded over the year.

Permanent exclusion numbers and rates had been steadily falling, and it remains to be seen whether the 2011/12 figures are a blip or the beginning of a reversal in trend. However, one inescapable – and deeply uncomfortable truth underlying these latest figures is that certain groups of pupils continue to more likely to be excluded than others: boys; pupils with SEN; pupils who are eligible for Free School Meals; and pupils from certain minority ethnic backgrounds.

Children behaving badly?

Persistent disruptive behaviour tops the list of reasons for exclusion cited by the DfE, accounting for almost a third of permanent exclusions and almost a quarter of fixed-term exclusions. This is interesting, given that only six per cent of the 1,703 teachers who took part in NFER’s May 2013 Teacher Voice omnibus survey, for the DfE said that behaviour at their school is ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

The DfE has stated that heads “… have more power than ever before to ensure strong discipline in the classroom”, since it revised and reissued its guidance on school’s disciplinary powers in 2011. This clarified the law and set out what heads can and cannot do. However, as only 42 per cent of teachers were aware of the Department’s updated advice in our May 2013 Teacher Voice survey, its effect will have been limited.

Causes not symptoms

But is the focus on behaviour and discipline something of a red herring? Obviously schools need to provide a safe environment that is conducive to learning, and behaviour management strategies are a key part of this – however, evidence from teachers points to broader systemic reasons for exclusions.

Our November 2012 Teacher Voice survey asked a nationally representative sample of teachers why they thought certain groups of pupils were more likely to be excluded. In particular, teachers cited parents’ attitudes to learning and the impact of wider social, cultural and economic contexts on these vulnerable children and schools’ abilities to meet their needs. Our qualitative study into school exclusions for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) , which involved discussions with 28 educators, also identified systemic reasons: lack of training and time; lack of support from other services; few role models for some pupil groups; failure to investigate causes of poor behaviour; inflexible systems and procedures; and perceptions that some pupils would receive more appropriate support elsewhere. Tackling issues of disadvantage, complex societal and familial issues is a massive challenge for schools.


Our qualitative study for the OCC found that excluding a pupil is generally a last resort for schools. Some schools are instead using alternatives to exclusion, including the proactive and planned use of managed moves to another school, often brokered and managed via a fair access protocol or arrangement in the local authority. These were generally seen to provide pupils with positive opportunities for a fresh start or to provide a setting which would better meet their needs. With schools becoming increasingly involved in, and responsible for, outcomes for excluded pupils, they are also instrumental in securing appropriate alternative provision for them.

Schools are also using preventative strategies with pupils who might otherwise be excluded. These include seclusion, de-escalation, break-out spaces and restorative approaches; having key workers/personnel and learning or academic mentors; effective monitoring and review; and parental support.

This may be the real lesson to be learned in this area – given the negative impact that exclusion has on children’s education and life chances, we need to keep the spotlight on this kind of early intervention and prevention, rather than cracking down on pupils when they are already at the point of no return.