A perfect storm: how forces conspire to let down the nation’s most vulnerable children - RSA

A perfect storm: how forces conspire to let down the nation’s most vulnerable children

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  • Education
  • Curriculum
  • Schools
  • Behaviour change
  • Public Services & Communities

This month, the RSA embarks on a 12-month project investigating how children most at risk of being suspended or expelled from school – the so-called Pinball Kids – can be better supported to thrive in education. We kicked off with a roundtable event that invited head teachers from mainstream and alternative provision, representatives of local authorities, specialists in special educational needs and child psychology, and charity leaders to explore the systemic causes underlying the rapid rise in exclusions.

Over the summer, newspapers have been full of stories about the growing numbers of children and young people being excluded from school and the suspicion that many schools are using formal and informal exclusions (off-rolling) to boost their school’s league table standings. In such a complex system, however, identifying causes is not as simple as it may first appear. Certainly, the number of school leaders who enter the profession to game the system at the expense of the children they teach is vanishingly small. Any serious attempt to understand what lies behind the increase in exclusions (formal and informal) must begin by analysing the systemic factors at work. This is where the focus of our Pinball Kids project will be.  

In all likelihood, the rise in school exclusions results from a mix of top-down or hierarchical factors (rules, regulations and accountability measures), cultural factors (values and norms within institutions and across the wider system) and personal factors (individuals’ ambitions, incentives and interests).

So at the roundtable, we asked our experts what they thought the drivers of the rise in fixed-term exclusions (suspensions) and permanent exclusions (expulsions) were. While they came with differing perspectives based on their practice and experiences, they broadly agreed that the following five forces are creating the perfect storm for the country’s Pinball Kids.

1. A shift in behaviour management towards ‘no excuses’ policies

The specialists gathered for our roundtable reported a growing tendency for schools to discipline students for the most minor of infractions (like forgetting to bring a pencil to class), in what has come to be known as the ‘no excuses’ approach. They noted that this is highly effective with children who are accustomed to clear boundaries and that many teachers report that it allows them to get on with the job of teaching. However, as Tom Sherrington has noted, these approaches are not effective with every child. This level of structure will be unfamiliar for some and there may be legitimate reasons for non-compliance. A child who is consistently sent out of class for pushing such boundaries, and receiving variable educational input for those periods, is unlikely to remain engaged with education.

In a piece reflecting on the roundtable, Tom suggested that, broadly, pupils fall into four groups in terms of how they respond to the boundaries set by behaviour policies: self-regulators, boundary responders, boundary hitters and pinball kids. An understanding of how a school’s population divides between these groups can inform where boundaries are set.

2. Funding and resource constraints faced by schools and agencies that support vulnerable children

The National Association for Head Teachers (NAHT) reported on the eve of the roundtable that only 2% of members responding to a survey said that the top-up funding they received was sufficient to meet the needs of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) as defined in their individual Education, Health and Care Plans (which replaced ‘statements of special educational needs’ in 2014).

At the same time, research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others demonstrates that other services to support children are under budgetary pressure with an anticipated 4% decrease in spending per head on children’s services by 2019/20, as the numbers of children needing help are set to rise. Our roundtable participants noted these resource constraints on schools and supporting agencies (e.g. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) alike, noting a trend whereby schools are making teaching assistants and other support staff redundant in order to meet their budgets, which has a material impact on students with special educational needs. Furthermore, nearly a third of classroom teachers report that there is not appropriate training on supporting children with SEN.

3. Curriculum reform is making learning harder to access for some pupils

Participants noted that the move towards a more linear curriculum leading into exams and the decline in opportunities to study arts subjects was leading some young people to disengage from learning.

This echoes the findings of The Key’s 2017 survey of schools that two thirds of school leaders thought their arts and creative provision has suffered as a result of changes to curriculum and that 48% felt these changes were having a negative impact on students with Special Educational Needs. Similarly, the Education Select Committee reported that ‘creative and technical subjects, which a lower-ability child would find more accessible, have lost their validity and are disappearing from many schools’.

4.       Perverse incentives caused by the accountability regime

There was much talk of the impact of league tables, Progress 8 scores and Ofsted inspections on the rising exclusion rates. This reflects Julian Astle’s argument in the Ideal School Exhibition that “there is no more egregious example of schools gaming the system than excluding students whose continued presence in a school threatens its league table standings”. As I wrote in a recent RSA blog, there is reason to link the growth in exclusions for persistent disruptive behaviour to the introduction of progress scores. Directors of Children’s Services have reported that Progress 8 has contributed to a rise in illegal exclusions of pupils from schools as teachers/heads worry that poor behaviour of a minority of children could distract pupils, thus affecting overall progress scores. Head teachers report suspicions that some schools do not admit, in the first place, pupils that may affect progress and attainment scores down the line. 

5.       Atomisation of the school system

We know that levels of exclusion vary widely from local authority to local authority, and from school to school. When we talked about places where the needs of students were managed well, the over-riding theme was of a whole community of schools coming together – usually under the aegis of the local authority – to collectively decide how to enable every child to thrive in education. Often, this sense of working as a community of educators was formalised (through Fair Access Protocols) to require all school leaders to be at the table to agree the best placement for every child. For example, a child whose misbehaviour in one school was impeding the learning of other students could be given a fresh start in another.

However, there was a sense that because local authorities can’t direct an academy to take a child, in some places, there is a disincentive for academies to join that conversation with other local schools. Furthermore, the structural changes in the system have created a powerful incentive for schools to compete rather than collaborate. The latter isn’t a question of school type: we heard examples of good practice involving maintained schools, academies and free schools. The question, in a fragmented system, is how to make sure that all leaders share a sense of responsibility to the wider educational community in which they are based.


While the alliterative quality of ‘five forces’ was hard to resist, we did identify a sixth underlying cause of exclusions….

Is childhood becoming more difficult for many?

As the DfE reports, there has been a steady rise in the numbers of children in care in the last nine years. Some have linked this to difficulties facing families such as rising in-work poverty, a lack of good quality housing, and rising levels of substance abuse; others cite the impact of cuts to public services on families that need support. Data shows that around a third of children are living in poverty. There are increasing numbers of children presenting with Special Educational Needs, especially Speech, Language and Communication Needs and Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, it is difficult to discern whether we have got better at understanding and therefore diagnosing these needs or if they are more prevalent than in the past.


The RSA’s research over the next 12 months will explore the link between the rise in exclusions and these underlying causes and seek to identify solutions that could be rapidly put into practice whether by government, individual schools or other practitioners that support Pinball Kids. It’s crucial that these recommendations are practical and that they ensure that the needs of the majority of children are met while supporting those with additional needs.

If you have professional or personal experience of a particularly good approach to supporting Pinball Kids, we would love to hear from you. Please email [email protected]


The Pinball Kids project is supported by the Betty Messenger Charitable Foundation. You’ll find more information on the project page.

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  • In my experience many of these vulnerable young people have been almost neglected since conception and the combination of poor parenting and low expectations from significant adults in their lives means that they have no or very few aspirations for their own futures. Education does not stop at the school gates and the impact of austerity measures have led to cuts to the very services they need to thrive. Children's Centres, Sure Start Centres homework clubs and youth clubs and centres have enabled many of these children and young people to climb up the ladder out of failure and long term mental health issues and there is a need for us to campaign for the return of collaborative working and interagency partnerships.Educational deprivation goes hand in hand with health, food, heating and housing deprivation and these young people are the victims of privatisation, contracting out of services and school league tables.