More children are being thrown out of school as schools increasingly adopt a zero tolerance approach to behavior.
But experts warn that expelling children from school risks driving them into the arms of gangs and becoming embroiled in violence and drug dealing.
The number of children being excluded from school has risen over the last few years, but a new large-scale study suggests that student behavior has not worsened over the same period.
But if a deterioration in behavior is not behind the rise in exclusions, then what is?
What has risen alongside exclusions is the popularity of a so-called zero tolerance or no excuses approach, where students are punished for seemingly minor offences, such as not having the correct uniform or forgetting to bring a pencil into class, and transgressions are met with automatic sanction.
For some children, this starts a spiral of decline which sees them facing ever more punitive sanctions as their behavior fails to improve, culminating in them being expelled from school and sent to pupil referral units, increasingly seen as recruiting grounds for gangs.
After a prolonged period of decline, the last few years have seen a steady rise in the number of children permanently excluded – or expelled – from school, according to a review into exclusions in England published last month.
From a high of 0.16% of students in the late 1990s, the rate of permanent exclusions fell to 0.06% in 2012/13 and 2013/14. But since then the rate has risen, reaching 0.10% in 2016/17, the latest year for which figures are available.
Although the rate is not particularly high by historical standards, the increase represents a reversal of a 10-year trend.
A similar pattern can be seen with fixed-term exclusions, where students are allowed to return to school after a set period. Following a gradual decline to 2013/14, the rate has subsequently and consistently increased.
The review, led by former minister Edward Timpson, also found that students were more likely to be excluded if they were black, had special needs or were eligible for free school meals, a widely-used proxy for disadvantage.
The biggest reason for expelling a student, accounting for more than one in three permanent exclusions, is “persistent disruptive behavior.”
One possible explanation for the rise is that student behavior is getting worse. But this is confounded by a comprehensive study into teachers’ views and practices, which found no change in the reported behavior of lower secondary students – aged 11-14 – in England since 2013.
Analysis of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), run by the OECD, found that teachers in England reported similar levels of classroom disruption to average across other countries surveyed.
What has changed in recent years, however, is the popularity of a zero tolerance or no excuses approach to student behavior, where schools implement strict behavior codes involving automatic punishment for every transgression, however minor.
While their supporters claim such an approach is vital to help the majority of well-behaved students in a class, opponents have criticizedthis approach as “inhumane” and damaging to student mental well-being.
But whatever the reasons behind the rise, there are fears that expelling students from school risks pushing them into criminality and even gangs.
Although the Timpson review found that almost a quarter of young offenders sentenced to a short period of imprisonment, less than 12 months, had been permanently excluded from school, it stopped short of suggesting that exclusion causes crime. Instead, it said exclusion should be recognized as an indicator of a higher risk of exposure to and involvement in crime.
But a number of organizations working with vulnerable young people, from charities to police officers, have highlighted the risks, warning that children excluded from school are at risk of becoming involved in knife crime in particular.
Many of these fears revolve around the use of pupil referral units, which teach students excluded from mainstream schools, and are portrayed as recruiting grounds for gangs.
A particularly powerful message came last week from the director of education in Glasgow, Maureen McKenna. Scotland has halved its homicide rate over the past decade, and Glasgow has shed its reputation as Britain’s knife-crime capital, thanks largely to the work of its Violence Reducation Unit.
And a key element of that work has been a virtual ban on permanent exclusions from the city’s schools, accompanied by a 48% fall in violent youth crime over the last 10 years.
Pupil referral units put all the young offenders together, McKenna said, while gangs wait outside the gate to recruit new members. “By taking children out of school and into something different, you are immediately stigmatising,” she added.
London, which is in the grip of its own knife-crime epidemic, saw a 40% rise in the number of students permanently excluded from school in the three years to 2016/17.
There will always be circumstances where schools need to expel students, for the safety of staff and other students, but this power is perhaps not always the last resort it should be. And if exclusion means students are more likely to become involved with crime, the consequences do not just affect the student, they are ones we all have to live with.