'A black Caribbean FSM boy with SEND is 168 times more likely to be permanently excluded than a white British girl without SEND. Why?'

All evidence points to the existence of systemic bias – we need to ask serious questions how this can still be occurring today, writes one leading researcher

Whitney Crenna-Jennings

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Earlier this year, the Education Policy Institute published an article on the large number of vulnerable children being excluded from schools. The statistics are striking: pupils eligible for and claiming free school meals (FSM) are four times more likely to experience permanent or fixed-period exclusions and black Caribbean pupils are three times more likely to be permanently excluded compared with white British pupils. In her launch speech for Ofsted’s annual report, Amanda Spielman highlighted the ongoing disproportionate exclusion – either formally or through pressure on parents – of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), who account for almost half of all permanent and fixed exclusions.

Reports of a rise in unofficial exclusions are concerning: last year, 6,685 children were officially permanently excluded, yet 48,000 were registered in some form of alternative provision, and an additional unknown number (estimated to be in the tens of thousands) disappeared from school rolls. Given the long-standing inequities in official exclusions, we should be asking serious questions about how certain groups of children may be being informally marginalised from mainstream provision.

Individual statistics on school exclusions by socioeconomic disadvantage, special educational needs, gender and ethnicity can, however, mask the magnitude of inequity. A black Caribbean boy eligible for free school meals who also has special educational needs (SEN) is 168 times more likely to be permanently excluded than a white British girl without SEN and not eligible for FSM. It is not only vulnerable children who are at greater risk of exclusion, but the most vulnerable children who are at the greatest risk of exclusion.

How have exclusions become so unequal?  It is argued that the education system tends to marginalise children who do not conform to majority norms. The growth and consolidation of special educational provision in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the arrival of immigrants from the Caribbean and South-East Asia. Statutory categories were developed for children with "limited ability" and those who "showed evidence of emotional instability or psychological disturbance and required special treatment to effect personal, social or educational readjustment". From the outset, these labels of "educationally subnormal" (ESN) and "maladjusted" were disproportionately applied to disadvantaged minority ethnic pupils. The Inner London Education Authority reported in 1967 that "misplacement" to educationally subnormal (ESN) schools was four times more likely for "immigrant" children and was largely due to behavioural problems. In 1968, a third of children in ESN schools were classified as "immigrants", compared with 17 per cent of children in mainstream schools, and three-quarters of them were of Caribbean descent.

For the past half-century, whenever relevant data has been broken down by ethnicity, black Caribbean students have been over-identified as having SEN, and pupils with SEN have been disproportionately excluded.

How do vulnerabilities compound to increase the risk of exclusion for certain pupils today? Black and minority ethnic (BME) children are twice as likely to live in low-income households compared with their white British counterparts; the poorest black households are expected to experience the biggest average fall in living standards by 2020, equating to a real-terms average annual loss of £8,407. Household and community disadvantage are associated with outcomes that are, in turn, linked to exclusion, including emotional, behavioural and mental health difficulties, and worse language and literacy development. Evidence shows that children who experience interpersonal racist treatment are more likely to develop mental health difficulties, and children whose mothers experience racist treatment are more likely to develop socio-emotional problems. Children with multiple disadvantages require increased support in school, but are instead more likely to be excluded. The IPPR’s recent report Making the Difference estimates that close to 100 per cent of children who are excluded have mental health difficulties.

The costs of exclusion

However, despite these intersecting inequities, factors such as socioeconomic disadvantage, special educational needs and poor attendance fail to explain the high numbers of black Caribbean and mixed black and white Caribbean pupils being excluded, and all evidence points to the existence of systemic bias. We need to ask serious questions about how this bias is still occurring.

The individual and societal costs of ignoring inequities in school exclusions are substantial. Being excluded from school is associated with mental distress and long-term psychiatric difficulties, and can negatively impact the wellbeing of already vulnerable individuals. The government published its Race Disparity Audit in October, a collation of data showing black-white disparities in a range of lifelong outcomes, including educational attainment, labour market participation, health, wealth and treatment by the criminal justice system. These outcomes are related, and school exclusions can act as a key link in a chain of risk leading to adverse consequences throughout an individual’s life; for example, pupils officially excluded from school at age 12 are four times more likely to be in prison by age 24. The IPPR estimates that every cohort of permanently excluded pupils will go on to cost the state an additional £2.1 billion in education, health, benefits and criminal justice costs.

EPI’s future work programme will seek to address the ongoing marginalisation of vulnerable pupils from mainstream education. This year, we will be developing a methodology to estimate unofficial school exclusions, including managed moves, illegal exclusions resulting in moves and illegal exclusions resulting in disappearance from the school system. We will analyse these findings alongside official exclusions data to determine which groups of pupils are at the greatest risk of both types of exclusion, and in what school contexts the risk is highest.

By generating a better evidence base of who is being unofficially excluded, why and by whom, we aim to work with policymakers to address potential perverse incentives in the system which could be jeopardising the life chances of our most vulnerable pupils.

 Whitney Crenna-Jennings is senior researcher at the Education Policy Institute

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Whitney Crenna-Jennings

 Whitney Crenna-Jennings is senior researcher at the Education Policy Institute

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