An explosion in teachers excluding “difficult” children may be driving the wave of violent youth crime across London, a leading education charity has said.
Kiran Gill, chief executive of The Difference, said her research had uncovered a 40% rise in school exclusions in the UK over three years. Four London boroughs are among the 20 local councils excluding the most children.
Pupil referral units (PRUs) - often the next destination for excluded children - were also in the grip of a staffing crisis and fast becoming “dangerous” places for young people, Gill said.
Those known to social services, or suffering with mental health issues, are ten times more likely to be pushed out of mainstream education, according to The Difference, which focuses on social exclusion.
Black Caribbean children are also four times over-represented in PRUs when compared to the national population’s ethnic breakdown, said Gill.
For the first time, the murder rate in London has overtaken New York’s, with Scotland Yard launching 56 murder probes this year alone.
At least 35 of those killed were stabbed to death in an epidemic of violent street crime among young people. Four people, including two teenagers, have been killed in the last week and Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick has said social media is partly to blame for fuelling the rise.
But school exclusions are contributing to the spike in violence, said Gill.
“Often these children are very vulnerable and actually they need more support from the best teachers,” she said.
“They also need oversight and we need to make sure that they are safe.
“Often, it is a safeguarding concern that might mean that the child is excluded - so for instance substance misuse, bringing a weapon to school, even things like violent behaviour are all indications that something is not safe or normal in a child’s life.
“These children need an intervention that helps keep them safe but often they get less support and find themselves in a less regulated part of the sector.”
Among the London boroughs that saw rises in school exclusions were Tower Hamlets, Barking and Dagenham, Islington and Haringey - areas which have have pockets of high levels of deprivation.
Gill said there were myriad new threats to child safety, including sexual exploitation, gang violence and radicalisation, and teachers are often unable to cope with their complexity.
“I don’t think exclusion is the single root cause of offending but I do believe it is exacerbating safeguarding issues that can lead to offending and youth violence,” she said.
Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman, however, takes a more critical view of teachers’ decisions to exclude.
She warned in her annual report that teachers were trying to “game” the system by “off-rolling” troublesome children on to home-schooling or to sub-contracted education.
Often, under-pressure schools are making the move just before GCSEs in a bid to boost their league table standing, said Spielman.
Spielman also sounded the alarm about schools “encouraging” parents to home-school a difficult child - which one in five teachers does not know is illegal, according to government research
Alison Ryan, senior policy adviser for the National Education Union, said a spike in exclusions could be partly explained by austerity and additional pressure on schools.
She said: “We can’t deny there is a certain amount of really unhealthy practice around exclusions... there is some illegal practice, some negative use of exclusions and certainly questionable practice.
“It is hard to get official figures around that.”
She said NEU members had offered to work with the Department for Education on cutting down inappropriate exclusions, but added: “To tackle it you have to understand the drivers.
“We have a hyper-accountability education system where schools are held accountable for so much often around a very narrow group of factors. So, when headteachers are trying to attract parents and new staff and to pass Ofsted, they are looking at their academic outcomes.”
Some schools are prioritising academic children and quickly moving to exclude children with more complex needs before exams, said Ryan.
“This is not all schools and it is a practice that we completely reject but there is a huge pressure on schools to maintain their results,” she said. “It’s not what education is about.”
She added: “When you’re excluding a child because you are worried about the impact on academic results at the school then something is going badly wrong. We have to take a whole system approach that looks at what on earth is going on with the pressure on schools.
“For heads, if they are seen to fail, their career is gone and they are removed.”
Ryan agreed there was a correlation between knife crime and exclusions but said the extra pressure cuts were putting on schools made it harder for them to deal with the surrounding issues.
“For the people who are going to be most vulnerable to knife crime... it will not be the first time they have acted out those feelings of frustration, anger or hopelessness. That would have happened earlier in education.
“Education, at least a few years ago, would have been in a better place to deal with some of that.
“There would have been greater services [pre-austerity] with whom schools would have been working.
“It might not have been perfect but at least we would have been able to close some of the holes in the safety net.
Ryan added austerity had left the system “creaking”. “It is the children and their families that bear the brunt of that, in terms of a whole number of issues, including knife crime. It is all related,” she said.
Almost a quarter of the teachers who have qualified since 2011 have already moved on.
Ryan said: “We have a huge recruitment and retention crisis in schools and it is difficult to meet the needs of kids who have a whole range of complex needs.
“The capacity of schools to deal with kids at risk of exclusions as well as they could in the past is reducing.”
The Care Quality Commission also found last year that children with mental health problems were being failed by the system. Youngsters needing treatment from the local NHS’ child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) are being left to wait for as long as 18 months.
Meanwhile, schools are struggling to afford and recruit special educational needs (SEN) teams.
Ryan added that with the rise of academies, which are free from local authority control, there was less “joined-up thinking” overall.
She said: “We are seeing fewer people within SEN teams, we are seeing fewer support staff, we are seeing fewer teachers so the capacity to carry out these extracurricular jobs, to have these pastoral conversations, is definitely reducing...
“If you have a kid with mental health problems and is acting out and he is at risk of exclusion, it is very difficult for them to get help at a local level.”
Gill said government must fund more research into how to help children at risk of exclusion.
“We haven’t invested as a country in exploring what works and how to effectively intervene,” she said.
Meanwhile, senior vacancies at PRUs have doubled in the last six years. While the best pupil referral units are “safe, warm and loving”, said Gill, the increase in demand is having a negative impact.
“We know that recruitment is a real challenge,” she said. “We hear about it a lot in mainstream schools but it is much worse for PRUs.
“We have also seen an increasing number of supply teachers and unqualified teachers in PRUs, so that means these children do not have access to the teaching that they need.
“If a PRU spirals, in that it becomes oversubcribed and it is relying on temporary staff, it can become a very dangerous situation and not a safe place.”
Children who find themselves in alternative provision, such as a PRU, also see their life chances reduced dramatically.
Just 1% get five GCSEs, and their likelihood of getting involved in crime or going to prison is much higher.
Much more research is needed into alternative provision of education, said Gill, who is crowdfunding to investigate the sector. It is an issue the Commons Education Select Committee is also looking at, following shocking headlines about scores of unregistered or illegal faith schools.
Evidence from the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers also drew a link between exclusions and offending.
“There is a well-proven link between offending and not being in suitable, full time education or training,” their evidence reads.
“Being in education is one of the strongest protective factors for young people at risk of offending.”
The evidence added that youth offending team managers reported a five-fold increase in the number of young people on their books whose parents had signed up to home-schooling.
“No headteacher wakes up in the morning, thinking ‘I’ve spent my whole life working in education so I’m going to punitively exclude children’,” said Gill.
“This crisis is about children with complex needs and we need to better understand how to deal with them.”