Why are school exclusions on the rise again?

Written by Keith Clements, Research and Policy Analyst, National Children's BureauDate 16 Aug 2017

When a child is excluded from school this can have significant consequences for their learning, wellbeing and future outcomes.[i] For this reason the Government, quite rightly, describes permanent exclusion as a last resort to protect the safety and learning of other pupils. Fixed term exclusions are also seen as a serious step, given the disruption just a few days away from school can cause to learning.

It is alarming, therefore, that following nearly a decade of progress, the latest figures show a third year in a row of increasing numbers of permanent exclusions. There were 6,685 permanent exclusions in 2015/16, up from 4,630 in 2012/13. Increasing pupil numbers account for a very small part of this. In fact, there 1,873 more permanent exclusions in 2015/16 than there would have been at 2012/13 rates. Rates of fixed term exclusions have also risen during this time.

A graph showing there were 61,326 more fixed term and 1,873 more permanent exclusions in 2015/16 than if the rates had stayed the same since 2012/13.

The experience of the last decade has shown that with the right support, children at risk of exclusion can stay at school. So, when exclusion rates increase, we should question whether children are getting the support they need.

Government data on exclusions allows us to start to answer this question. Children with identified special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) are five times more likely to be excluded than those without. However, almost all of the extra exclusions we have seen in recent years relate to children without identified SEND. At the same time, there has been a reduction in the proportion of children being identified as having SEND. It may well be the case, therefore, that children who, in the past, would have been identified as having additional needs and provided with the right support, are not now receiving the help they need.

For those who are identified as having SEND, the most common category of need associated with exclusion is social, emotional and mental health. It may be that with better mental health support these children could remain in school. Schools have told us, however, that there is a lack of funding and staff capacity for them to address mental health needs and it is difficult for children to access specialist support elsewhere.

The funding local authorities and schools have available to spend on early help and has been successively squeezed in recent years. With funding and external support in short supply, there is a sad inevitability that schools will only feel able to intervene when children’s challenges have reached crisis point. 

NCB has consistently called for the protection of vital early help services and a clearer role for schools in promoting wellbeing. More research would is undoubtedly needed to understand fully the complex reasons for increasing rates of exclusions. Every day, however, evidence is growing that better support is needed to ensure all children have access to education.


[i] Children who have been excluded are, for example, more likely to end up not in employment, education or training as young people, and more likely to end up in prison. -  Department for Education (2005).Youth Cohort Study: Activities and Experiences of 17 Year Olds: England and Wales 2005; HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2011). Thematic report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. Resettlement provision for children and young people: Accommodation and education, training and employment.