Our study shows that the government’s official exclusion figures are misleading and local authorities with the lowest “official” exclusion rates actually have high levels of “informal” exclusions.
Responding to our research, the children’s commissioner has criticised schools for getting rid of children because they might bring down exam results and warns that the school system is funnelling some children towards gangs.
Anne Longfield expressed concern over a “messy” practice that appears to “incentivise” moving difficult children out of mainstream schools and warned it is making it easier for gangs to target vulnerable children, by placing them in what are called pupil referral units (PRUs), which are centres for excluded children.
The children’s commissioner said that in some PRUs up to 80% of the pupils are in gangs. She told Sky News: “It’s easier for gangs to be able to access vulnerable children if they are all in one place, so in my view they need to remain as far as possible in the mainstream school.”
Our study shows huge variations across the country over how children are excluded, with some local authorities favouring an informal system for removing children from schools.
We found while many regions have a greater number of excluded children compared to their PRU population, some local authorities have 20 times more children taking GCSEs in PRUs than have been officially excluded from mainstream schools.
In 10 councils with the lowest official exclusion rates there were 750 informally excluded children taking their GCSE exams in PRUs.
The number of children in PRUs has risen by 10% in two years to a total of 16,732 pupils in 2018. A disproportionate number, 11,000 children, joined PRU’s aged 14-15 (year 9-10). This happens to be the years before they take GCSEs and it has led to accusations that schools are motivated to remove children who might bring down a schools overall results.
Ms Longfield said: “It gets quite messy for children and for parents both in understanding what is happening to their children but also understanding what rights they have because children have more rights if they are permanently excluded.
“Ofsted tracks them if they are permanently excluded. They have to be offered a place within a certain number of days if they are permanently excluded. If they are informally excluded that isn’t the case.”
In St Helen’s there were 23 times more children taking GSCEs in PRUs in 2016-17 than the number officially expelled over the three year period leading up to those exams.
That is nearly 100 additional children. In York there were 201 children in the PRU population and 90 taking GCSEs in 2016-17 compared to just four permanent exclusions over the three previous years. Wigan expelled five people in three years, yet 90 students took their GCSEs in their pupil referral units in 2016-17.
In 30 councils there were at least 1,200 children doing exams in PRUs without being officially recorded as permanently excluded. These tended to be councils that had the lowest official exclusion rates, according to the Department for Education website.
Kiran Gill founded The Difference – a specialist teacher training programme to create a new generation of teacher leaders to reduce exclusions from school.
She told Sky News: “What I find most worrying is it really gives us a skewed picture of how big the population is in pupil referral units to just look at exclusion figures. So actually these schools are getting more and more pupils every year quite close to their GCSEs but that sector is facing a huge recruitment crisis.”
Jerry Glazier, a National Education Union executive, said: “I think there is some anecdotal evidence emerging that in some parts of the country where schools, secondary schools in particular, feel they are not being adequately supported, they are sometimes finding mechanisms, where they can take the children ‘off-roll’.
“Parents are being asked if they will agree to home education as oppose to permanent exclusion. That is sweeping the problem under the carpet.”
Some authorities admit to identifying students who would most benefit from the programme offered by a PRU, without going through the formal exclusion process.
Sometimes this is part of a “managed move” from one mainstream school to another. However, our figures suggest a high proportion who are placed in a PRU remain there to do their GCSE exams.
St Helen’s told Sky News: “Pupil referral units in St Helen’s are not just for students that have been excluded from school for behavioural issues. There are facilities in the borough that act as safe havens for students that cannot access mainstream secondary school due to medical, complex, and emotional needs.
“All secondary schools in the borough work very closely together via the fair access panel to minimise permanent exclusions giving pupils a chance to succeed in a different learning environment.”
A City of York Council spokesperson said: “We do have low permanent exclusions in York as we have a strong school behaviour and attendance partnership which works to minimise permanent exclusion.”
Alan Lindsay, assistant director for education at Wigan Council, said: “Our alternative provision provider has 193 places to support the needs of not only pupils who are permanently excluded, but also children with medical needs, those having support to maintain their mainstream school place, as well as some children who are withdrawn temporarily, to avoid a permanent exclusion.”
School standards minister Nick Gibb said: “The number of children being excluded from school is lower than it was 10 years ago but we are clear exclusions should only ever be used as a last resort, and must be reasonable and justified. Where pupils are excluded the quality of education they receive should be no different than in mainstream settings.
“We are taking a range of measures to drive up the quality of alternative provision, and have launched an external-led review by Edward Timpson, who is looking at how exclusions are used and why certain groups are disproportionally affected.”