‘Perverse incentives’ driving school exclusions, report warns

Press release

Freedom of Information requests by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce suggest schools are "off-rolling" pupils before their exams to game the league table system.

"Perverse incentives" are driving an alarming trend of schools excluding pupils to boost their league table standing, a new study warns 

Pinball Kids: Preventing School Exclusions by the RSA examines the reasons behind the growing number of pupils excluded from schools in England. 

It uncovers qualitative and quantitative evidence that pupils are being permanently excluded to artificially boost a school’s standing in league tables.  

Freedom of Information requests made to all UK local authorities by the RSA found: 

  • more than 1,200 pupils were admitted to Pupil Referral Units 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
  • this compares to 763 in the second term of Year 11, and 676 in the last term of Year 10 - the next highest period
  • this suggests schools could be excluding pupils before they count to their exam results. 

One headteacher told researchers that current incentives make it “tempting to take routes to get Progress 8 scores”. 

The RSA says that the gaming of league tables by off-rolling pupils is just the tip of the iceberg, and calls for Ofsted grading to reflect the guidance to inspectors to assess the extent to which a school creates an inclusive environment.  

This would reward headteachers for pursuing measures to ensure every pupil feels included and supported at school and so help prevent exclusions happening in the first place.  

The report also calls for wider change in the system to focus on inclusive relationships between staff and pupils, especially focused on ensuring good mental health for all, including: 

  • The government should invest in a ‘what works fund’ to research how to create strong teacher-pupil relationships and create ‘professional pathways’ for pastoral staff to help provide social and emotional behavioural support.  
  • Headteachers should ensure every child has a relationship with a trusted adult in school. 
  • Local authorities should support initiatives to create multi-agency teams including representation from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, social workers and youth offending teams that work proactively to support head teachers to meet the needs of pupils, thus reducing the need to exclude. 


Laura Partridge, associate director at the RSA and report lead author, said: 

“The number of disadvantaged pupils being excluded from school every day is alarming and should prompt urgent action. While wider social factors as a result of austerity have played a role, our research shows that the direct and indirect consequences of the accountability system are directly contributing to this rise.  

“Pursuing perverse incentives, instead of prioritising quality teacher-pupil relationships, is having a hugely detrimental effect on the life chances of the most vulnerable pupils. 

“Many schools are already doing great work, but this is becoming harder and harder to maintain under the current system, which is why Ofsted needs to reward schools that value inclusivity.  

“But importantly, this isn’t just about Ofsted. Further investment is needed so that collectives of schools and public services can work preventatively to meet the needs of all pupils, thus reducing the need for that 'final resort' of exclusion.” 




Ash Singleton, Head of Media & Communications, RSA: [email protected], 07799 737 970.   




The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) is an independent charity which believes in a world where everyone is able to participate in creating a better future.     

Through our ideas, research and a 30,000 strong Fellowship, we are a global community of proactive problem solvers, sharing powerful ideas, carrying out cutting-edge research and building networks. We create opportunities for people to collaborate, influence, and demonstrate practical solutions to realise change.    

Our work covers a number of areas including the rise of the 'gig economy', robotics & automation; education & creative learning; and reforming public services to put communities in control. 

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