The Outwood Grange academy chain has been accused of contributing to a “meteoric rise” in exclusions in some of the areas where it operates.
But the multi-academy trust, which runs schools in six of the eight northern local authorities recently highlighted by Ofsted for their high rate of exclusions, refused to reveal its exclusions data when asked by Tes.
The news comes in the week that the education secretary, Damian Hinds, is expected to launch a review of exclusions, having called for schools to reduce their use of the policy, stressing that it should only be a "last resort".
Mike Parker, the director of Schools North East – a network of schools in the North East – told Tes that Outwood Grange’s “zero-tolerance” behaviour policies had resulted in more pupils being excluded in some areas, but that challenging children just ended up being “bumped on to other schools”.
Last month Ofsted’s regional director for the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, Cathryn Kirby, wrote to secondary headteachers in her region to express concerns about high rates of fixed-period exclusions.
She pointed out that exclusion rates were among the highest in the country in eight of the local authorities covered by the region: Middlesbrough, Barnsley, Redcar and Cleveland, Doncaster, North Lincolnshire, Rotherham, Sheffield and North East Lincolnshire.
Ms Kirby also said her inspectors would be paying particular attention to schools’ use of exclusions when making judgements about leadership, management and pupil behaviour.
Impact on school exclusion rates
However, Mr Parker told Tes that there were “anomalies in the system” that had contributed to rising exclusion rates in local authorities such as Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland, which had the first and third highest fixed-period exclusions in the country respectively.
“There are certain MATs that have moved into areas, particularly Redcar and Cleveland and Middlesbrough. That has had a knock-on impact on exclusion rates in those areas,” he said.
“Specifically, in both of those two local authority areas, we’ve seen Outwood Grange take over a number of schools.
“To give them their due, at data levels they’ve seen progress made within those schools. But there’s also been a change in the make-up of the pupil populations in those schools. We’ve had a number of concerns raised with us by school leaders in other schools in those areas about the meteoric rise in exclusion rates.”
Outwood Grange runs two schools in Middlesbrough and two in Redcar and Cleveland, and also has schools in Barnsley, Doncaster, North Lincolnshire, Sheffield and North East Lincolnshire. Last September Tes reported an increase in permanent exclusions in the trust's Redcar and Cleveland schools.
In 2016-17, when the chain had run one school in the authority and began supporting another, there were nine permanent exclusions at the two schools, compared with only one the previous year, a rise of 800 per cent.
Tes has repeatedly asked Outwood Grange for its fixed-period exclusion figures for all its schools, but the trust has declined to share them. The trust was also contacted for comment.
Mr Parker pointed out that Redcar and Cleveland had operated a “no exclusions policy” until several years ago, with schools working “collaboratively on managed moves” where pupil behaviour had “broken down to such an extent that they couldn’t participate in that school environment”.
He said there had been “initial engagement” from Outwood Grange in this effort. However, after a while there was a “step away” from the trust and “significant exclusions” were made.
While Mr Parker did not have data to back up his claims, he said headteacher members had told him that the arrival of Outwood Grange and the rise in exclusions were linked. “They’re actually seeing where the pupils are coming from and where the referrals are taking place,” he said.
With Outwood Grange one of the highest performing MATs in the country, Mr Parker said local schools were “caught between a rock and a hard place”.
“On the one hand, they see the Department for Education lauding the performance of these MATs, saying that they are the model upon which other schools should follow," he said.
“And on the other hand, they have Ofsted saying they’re unhappy with the number of fixed-term exclusions and permanent exclusions and, 'We’re going to be watching you closely.'”
He said a zero-tolerance approach just resulted in behavioural problems being “bumped on to other schools”.
“Schools who are dealing with the children with the big behavioural problems, there’s a knock-on impact on education within their schools. So while they feel a responsibility to the child, actually the system doesn’t reward them for taking those children in and supporting them.”
Mr Parker said that zero tolerance was not the only factor behind high exclusion rates, with “deepening deprivation” and underfunded alternative provision also causing children to be shunted around the system.
He also insisted that he was not criticising Outwood Grange specifically, but the contradictory messages from the DfE and Ofsted. “It’s about the system and how the system is operating,” he said.