School’s out


  • Adolescence
  • Schools
  • Skills
  • Teaching
  • Youth engagement

Does linking exclusions to critical services fail young people at risk?

Research shows that being excluded from school can leave a young person feeling demoralised, undervalued and isolated. Permanent exclusion can severely impact a young person’s life outcomes and cause intergenerational trauma and disengagement from the education system.

Between autumn term 2018 and autumn term 2019 (the last term unaffected by Covid-19), permanent exclusions and suspensions increased by 5% and 14%, respectively. Permanent exclusions within primary schools increased by a staggering 21% during the same period.
The RSA’s Pinball Kids report, published in 2020, shows that pupils who are more likely to experience exclusions have complex needs and vulnerabilities, often at the intersections of special educational needs and disabilities, trauma and adverse childhood experiences related to poverty and home-life disturbances.

But what happens when an exclusion is seen to be the only option to access appropriate provision for a young person at risk?

Emergent findings from the RSA’s ongoing action research in Oldham, East Sussex, and Worcestershire show that, under certain circumstances, exclusions are a cry for help from school leaders who feel they have exhausted the parameters of the support they can otherwise offer to pupils. Numerous factors contribute to the decision to exclude a pupil, including: rising pupil mental health needs combined with a 9% cut to per-pupil spending in 2019-20 (the largest since 2009-10, per the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ 2021 spending report); limitations on space, staff resourcing and capabilities; and fragmented, limited, and often bureaucratic referral pathways to access specialised and timely support for the pupil and staff members (largely due to the £1.7bn yearly reduction in local authorities’ early intervention services as noted in the Public Services Committee’s Children in Crisis report). When deciding to initiate an exclusion, school leaders often face a tension between balancing the acute needs of pupils at risk with the wider needs of other pupils
and staff.

Pencils Adopting a no-exclusion policy, while it may be morally justifiable, is challenging to achieve in practice. Nevertheless, given the dire impact of a school exclusion on a pupil’s educational and life outcomes, as well as on their social, emotional and mental health, not to mention the economic cost to society, exclusions should cease to exist as an option as much as possible. This aspiration, however, requires the correct structures in place to provide schools with the necessary resources to support pupils at risk of exclusion early and appropriately, resources that are currently only mobilised when an exclusion has already taken place.

The RSA’s three-year action research is testing one such structure: preventative multi-agency collaboration across education, health, social care, alternative provision, youth justice and the voluntary sector.

Through local working groups in Oldham, Worcestershire, and East Sussex we will be co-designing the ambition and action plan for effective multi-agency collaboration to reduce preventable exclusions. Over the next two academic years, supported by the RSA, local partners will pilot, monitor and evaluate, and adapt their action plans to ensure the greatest and longest-lasting impact towards meeting the needs of their communities’ most vulnerable populations through timely and effective multi-agency collaboration.

Mehak Tejani is a Senior Researcher in the RSA’s Education team and leads the team’s work on school exclusions; Hannah Breeze is a researcher at the RSA

Follow Mehak Tejani and Hannah Breeze on Twitter here: @MehakTejani and @hannahbreeze9 

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 2 2022.

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