Government figures for the number of children permanently excluded from school are “the tip of the iceberg”, with five times more children being educated in schools for excluded pupils than official data suggests, according to research.
National figures from the Department for Education show that 6,685 pupils were permanently excluded from schools in England in 2015-16 – the majority of them in the run-up to their GCSEs – marking a 40% increase over the past three years.
A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) thinktank claims these figures mask the true scale of the problem, with pupils forced out of mainstream schools by informal methods that are not captured in national exclusions data.
The report, published on Tuesday, says 48,000 pupils are being educated in the alternative provision (AP) sector, which caters for excluded students, with tens of thousands more leaving school rolls in what appear to be illegal exclusions.
Some are removed through “managed moves” between schools; in other cases children are transferred to off-site AP – some of which will be independent and unregistered – while others disappear into “elective” home education.
The IPPR study says the number of children being electively home educated has more than doubled over the past four years. “A parent can choose to electively home educate their child. If a school wants to avoid recording a permanent exclusion, they can encourage a parent to electively register their child as home educated. This is illegal.”
Critics say exclusions are increasing partly because schools are under pressure to compete in league tables and exam results, and vulnerable pupils who are disruptive in lessons and likely to lower overall GCSE performance are weeded out before their national tests.
The schools watchdog, Ofsted, recently criticised this kind of behaviour in schools, which is known as “off-rolling”.
“Requiring schools to compete as if they are supermarket chains treats children as commodities and leads to pressure on schools to select their intake and increase pupil exclusions,” said Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union.
The IPPR report argues that exclusions are rising because schools are struggling to cater for the growing numbers of children with complex needs. Child poverty is increasing, as is mental ill-health, and the number of children in need of a social services assessment more than doubled from 2010to 2016 to more than 170,000 children.
The most vulnerable children are most likely to be excluded. One in two has a recognised mental health need. Excluded children are four times more likely to be from the poorest families and eight out of 10 of them have a special education need or disability.
Boys are much more likely to be asked to leave their school, with three boys permanently excluded for every girl.
Black pupils from Caribbean backgrounds are still significantly overrepresented in pupil referral units, though most pupils (70%) are white British.
The report is also concerned about the growing number of unqualified teachers working with excluded children. Pupils in AP are twice as likely to be taught by unqualified staff.
The Tottenham MP, David Lammy, who recently published a review of the treatment of and outcomes for Bame individuals in the criminal justice system, welcomed the report.
“Action to address the quiet social apartheid of school exclusions is well overdue,” he said.
“The relationship between pupil referral units [a type of alternative provision maintained by the local authority] and the criminal justice system has become symbiotic, and the rise of exclusions is creating a pipeline of young people into our prison system. There is no fiscal or moral case to go on like this.”
Outcomes are generally poor, with just 1% of excluded children gaining the benchmark five good GCSEs required to be accepted in post-16 training and apprenticeships.
The subsequent cost to the state is huge: each cohort of permanently excluded pupils will go on to cost an additional £2.1bn in education, health, benefits and criminal justice over their lifetime. More than half of UK prisoners have been excluded from school during their education.
Kiran Gill, a former teacher and lead author of the report, has set up a charity called The Difference to address the social mobility failure associated with exclusion.
The aim is to recruit high-quality teachers to work in AP for two years, giving them specialist training that they take back into leadership positions in the mainstream to try to reduce exclusions.
Gill said: “Too often the country’s most vulnerable and troubled children become invisible as they are pushed out of the mainstream school system. But by not addressing their challenges when they first appear, we are brewing trouble for later. The majority of today’s prison population were excluded when at school.
“By drawing together best practice from education, psychology, social work and criminal justice, we will start to develop an evidence-based approach to breaking the link between school exclusion and social exclusion.”
In her speech to the Conservative party conference last week, the education secretary, Justine Greening, promised to address poor standards in alternative provision.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Any decision to exclude a pupil should be lawful, reasonable and fair.
“We want to ensure we are focusing on the experiences of students who are more likely to be excluded, which is why we have announced a review to improve exclusions and ensure that best practice is shared across the country.
“The government has also committed to bring forward proposals to ensure that alternative provision is the very best that it can be and gives every child the opportunity to fulfil their potential. We will look carefully at the findings of the IPPR report.”