Pinball Kids – preventing school exclusions - RSA

Pinball Kids – preventing school exclusions

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  • Education
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Our new RSA report on preventing school exclusions finds that School exclusions are a social justice issue, systemic factors have created the perfect storm for rising exclusions and relationships are the solution.

School exclusions are a social justice issue 

The growing number of children being suspended and expelled that has recently grabbed national headlinesIn the last five years, there has been a 60% rise in pupils being expelled from England’s schools, reaching 42 pupils for each school day in 2017/18In that same year, pupils were suspended from school over 410,000 times.  

As discussed in a previous blog, the school exclusions issue is not just one of total numbersit’s a question of social justice. The school system disproportionately excludes pupils with special educational needs, who have grown up in poverty, who have a social worker and from certain ethnic minority groups. But currently, children who the system should hold on to are being let go and let down. Being excluded from school has negative consequences for the rest of a child’s life. 

In our research, one of the key questions we wanted to answer was how did we get here? Our research revealed a complex web of factors within the education system and beyond that create a perfect storm for rising exclusions.  

Systemic factors have created the perfect storm for rising exclusions 

In the Pinball Kids report, we examine the system-led causes of rising exclusions:   

Wider societal factors, beyond the education system, that affect children’s wellbeing and capacity to cope in school 

Throughout our research, we heard reports of young people facing increasingly complex challenges in their lives. Representatives from schools, local authority children’s services and third sector organisations highlighted factors in a young person’s home life that can act as triggers for changes in behaviour that lead to exclusion from school. These include loss of parental income due to insecure employment or benefit system reform, housing insecurity, domestic violence, a change in foster care placement and mental ill-health of a family member. Research reveals that levels of need are rising in each of these areas and intersecting in complex ways, which may be contributing to increasing rates of exclusion.  

It is not down to schools and colleges alone to solve fundamental societal issues, so we do not make recommendations for the education system to improve this situation though we note that schools often do work hard to mitigate the effects of these challenges on the pupils they serve. 

Direct consequences of deliberate policymaking such as reducing funding to local authorities, schools and other public services that work with children. 

The wider societal trends impacting on the most vulnerable young people are sometimes exacerbated by policymaking.  

Austerity – reduced funding to schools and public services working with children 

Per pupil funding in England fell by around 8 percent in real terms from £6,539 in 2009/10 to £5,994 in 2018/19. Interviewees for this project explained that immense pressure on school resources has forced them to make “trade-offs” in order to balance the books. As one former head teacher put it: “when funding goes, there’s no way to do it all”.  

This issue is intensified by the lack of support available from other public services due to the cuts they too have experienced. In the most deprived areas, council funding has been cut by 31% of £432 per person, while need for mental health and social services has been increasing. One head teacher described that the inability of services such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS) to meet rising demand with constrained budgets sends pupils into a “vicious cycle”: they miss out on early intervention, so their difficulties in managing in school escalate, and they are excluded.  

In the report, we recommend a further investment via the high needs funding block into the capacity needed for public services (including social work, youth services, mental health and criminal justice) and schools to work together to prevent exclusions. 

We also emphasise that planned per pupil funding increases will need to exceed the pace of rises to teachers’ salaries and pension contributions if they are to have a meaningful effect on the day-to-day running of schools.  

Unintended consequences of policy and practice decisions  

There are several major policy reforms that have good intentions, but also create unintended consequences that may contribute to the exclusion of vulnerable childrenFor example, the desire to improve standards in the education system through accountability mechanisms, to give autonomy to school leaders through the introduction of academies and free schools; or to make the job of teaching easier through stricter behaviour management approaches 

League tables 

The desire to maintain a school’s standing in league tables places huge pressure on head teachers. Data that the RSA collected through a freedom of information request to all local authorities in England found a spike in admissions to PRUs in the first term of Year 11 in 2016-17, the last point before a student’s exam results count towards a school’s performance. 

We recommend that schools should have to ‘code’ all pupils that are being removed from their roll with a reason for that pupil moving from the school. This should help us understand where all pupils are in the school system and limit off-rolling.


Inspection can create similar pressures. One former head teacher described how, amid pressure to bring their school out of Special Measures, “it was so tempting sometimes to make children disappear”. 

It important to note, however, that Ofsted are making strides on this issue. They have started to investigate cases of schools making children “disappear” by removing them from the school’s roll (a practice termed ‘off-rolling’). They have also updated their handbook for inspectors to emphasise the importance of school leaders promoting an inclusive environment. In our report, we are recommending that this is reflected in the framework as an explicit element of inspection gradings, as we believe this is a key lever for changing school practice. 


Interviewees for this project frequently suggested that the rapid increase in the number of academy schools has led decreasing cooperation between schools to ensure pupils are held by the system. For example, we frequently heard reports that even a single academy opting out local processes to find pupils a school place following exclusion (fair access processes) can “destabilise the entire system”As a result of this, head teachers reported that excluded children, who often have complex support needs that require additional support, are not distributed fairly between schools. In the report, we recommend that the DfE issues new guidance on fair access to ensure academies’ full participation in fair access. 

Zero tolerance behaviour approaches 

Interviewees reported increased use of exclusions (official and internal) as sanctions for specific misdemeanours listed in a school’s behaviour policy i.e. the school has “zero tolerance” for those types of misbehaviour. More commonly, we encountered examples of pupils clocking up behaviour points for low-level behaviour such as shouting out in class or being late, and this eventually triggering a detention, fixed-term exclusion or even a permanent exclusionThis approach to managing behaviour could explain rising exclusions for ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’. 

Of course, few would disagree that consistency in behaviour management is crucial to enable a secure learning environment. It is sometimes necessary to remove pupils from class and this could be positive if they receive additional support around their behaviour or a targeted learning intervention during their time out of class. 

However, a survey commissioned by the RSA for this project revealed that 79% of teachers believe that repeatedly removing a pupil from lessons is detrimental to their learning and progress. It was clear from the survey results that teachers wanted more support from other professionals to meet pupils needs in order to keep them in school and in class. We argue that strengthening these relationships between schools and other professionals, in addition to building strong relationships between school staff and pupils and their families, is the solution to reducing school exclusions.  

Relationships are the solution 

Exclusions are one of the clearest manifestations of the breakdown in relationship between a child and the other members of their school community. This may be triggered by the challenges presented by relationships in that child’s homelife.

And the lack of preventative support available before the child reaches the point of exclusion is symptomatic of the lack of capacity for schools and other public services such as child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) to work collaboratively. 

We believe that if a supportive web of relationships could be present in every child’s life, we could prevent the most vulnerable children from being unnecessarily excluded and enhance the educational experience of all children. 

In the report, we recommend government investment in multi-agency teams to support preventative work by head teachers and the development of a ‘what works’ fund to gather evidence on interventions designed to improve relationship-building and the extent to which they can contribute to reducing exclusions. 

We also suggest key considerations for school leaders looking to strengthen relationships with pupils, families and services that work with vulnerable children based on innovative practice from our case study schools. 

The RSA is looking for partners who believe that these relationships between schools, families and public services can be strengthened and that together, united by a common purpose, we can rewrite the story of the pinball kids. Partners may be local authorities, groups of schools or other networks of professionals working with vulnerable children.

Contact us on [email protected] to find out more.

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  • In 2003 after 30 years of teaching I became a Learning Consultant for the National B&A Strategy in the North East partly to address concerns over vulnerable young people like these. I was born in an apparently 'disadvantaged background' & it is clear that our Education is in Crisis because of the obsession with academia & exams from the 19th century Private/Grammar schools. 2003-10 was probably the best years for education & vulnerable young people as it attempted to focus on the issues in this article-sadly since 2010 there has been huge harm done to so many since the strategy was stopped.

    • Dear Keef, thank you for reading the blog and for getting in touch to share your views. It is always good to hear reactions from readers. All the best, Laura