The chief inspector of schools has rejected suggestions that expulsions of trouble-making pupils are the root cause of a rise in street violence.
Six police and crime commissioners, backed by London mayor Sadiq Khan, have written to prime minister Theresa May warning that a “broken” school exclusion system is linked to a surge in knife crime.
They said that many of those committing offences have been excluded, and called for an end to unofficial "off-rolling" of difficult pupils – the practice of removing difficult pupils from registers to boost
average exam results.
But Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said the violence might be better explained by the problems that led to the pupil’s exclusion, rather than the exclusion itself.
Quick link: Police link off-rolling to knife crime
Figures show that permanent exclusions in England increased by 56 per cent between 2013-14 and 2016-17. There was a 40 per cent rise in London and 62 per cent rise in the West Midlands during
that period, according to Department for Education data.
But Ofsted head Amanda Spielman said that it is the problems that lead to a pupil's expulsion – rather than the decision to exclude them from school – which are more likely to explain later violence.
"I don't believe that exclusions are normally likely to be the root cause," Ms Spielman told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"What seems more likely is that they are symptoms of the same underlying problems. When we look at permanent exclusions we find that most are the culmination of a long series of behaviour problems where schools have put great effort into helping children overcome their problems."
While accepting that numbers of expulsions have "gone up in the last couple of years", Ms Spielman said they were "still below where they were a decade or 15 years ago".
She said: "These are children with the most serious behavioural problems before they are excluded. These are not problems that suddenly develop at the point a child is excluded.
"There absolutely is a correlation but I don't think we have evidence from which we can say it's causation."
Asked whether schools were kicking children out to improve their average grades, Ms Spielman said: "I don't think that's actually the case. I think we're talking about many children who genuinely have developed
some very complex problems.
"What we need to do is make sure we've got the kind of provision that we have in many excellent state-funded pupil referral units.
"The statistics for the last two or three years do show a rise (in exclusions). I cannot see anything that tells me that it's more about heads being tougher or about simply there being more incidents of the
kinds of things people are properly concerned about."
In some cases, it was the fact that the young person was bringing knives into school that led to their removal in the first place, she said.
"Most heads would take a very serious view of a child carrying a knife in school," said Ms Spielman.
"A child who is an immediate threat to other children there is a real safeguarding problem and heads have to act responsibly. They have to consider the child who's carrying the knife, they have to consider the
interests of other children."
Ms Spielman said that schools' most significant contribution to the fight to prevent violence was "providing the best possible preventative experience for children – a really good education".
She said: "Children learn to read well and get a full comprehensive curriculum in which they really achieve and which provides the kind of wider experience that gives children a sense of connection and enjoyment in school.
"We know that that's the kind of thing that helps give children vaccination against developing mental health problems, behavioural problems and getting involved in criminality."