Written evidence submitted by Dr Aimee Neaverson (Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Anglia Ruskin University) and Abbie Lake (PhD Candidate), Department of Criminology, Anglia Ruskin University

There are various factors that account for severe absence from school, with a prominent one being the overuse of school exclusions. Pupils predominantly affected by school exclusions are often those whose educational attainment may impact the amount of funding received by the school (Machin and Sandi, 2020) or the school’s position on league tables. Findings from multiple studies have identified that certain groups of young people are at a much higher risk of school exclusion (Munn and Lloyd, 2005; McCluskey, 2008; Farouk, 2017). Those who have a higher likelihood of receiving exclusions as punishment are often characterized by common factors such as ethnicity, gender, family and background characteristics, having special educational needs or behavioural issues, physical or mental health disorders and different cultures (Graham, 2019).

Pupils from Minority Ethnic Backgrounds

The poor educational experience that BAME students are subjected to is an issue that has plagued the education system for some time (Kaiser, Südkamp, and Möller, 2017; Gore, 2018). Previous research demonstrates that pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds are subjected to higher levels of exclusion, amongst other negative academic outcomes (Deakin and Kupchik, 2018; Page, 2020). Briggs (2011) illustrates how pupils’ experiences of exclusion from school is often partially the result of teacher induced stigmatization, demonization and racial discrimination. Critical Race Theory (Capers, 2014; Delgado and Stefancic, 2017) is often applied in the context of the English education system to explain racial discrimination and to challenge the institutional racial hierarchy within the education system. Comparatively, permanent exclusion rates for Black Caribbean and Mixed-Race students significantly surpasses that of white peers, with Black Caribbean and Mixed-Race pupils almost three times as likely to be excluded (Education, Skills and Training, 2020).

Gender Considerations

Exclusion rates also differ by gender (Lewis and Lockheed, 2008). In the academic school year of 2016/17, 7.23% of male pupils face fixed term exclusions compared to 2.83% of female pupils (DfE, 2018).  These statistics demonstrate that boys are over three times more likely to be excluded than girls. This could be explained by the fact that some males tend to externalize mental distress through how they behave whereas females may often internalize their feelings (Gill et al., 2017). When explaining gender differences in behaviour it is worth considering potential challenges that male pupils may face regarding their own male identity and masculinity during adolescence. Furthermore, young men are often negatively impacted by certain societal pressures that arise during adolescence, for example young men are traditionally expected to maintain a masculine identity and to display masculine behaviours (Pettersson, 2016) which can lead to overt behavioural reactions and increased experiences of school exclusion. Briggs’ (2011) examined the complex combination of challenges faced by 13 excluded Black male pupils. These pupils described early school life as a positive experience and explained that problems at school only began to arise around year 8 when school life became less attractive than the concept of life outside of school and the attraction of peers (Briggs, 2011). A combination of being from a minority ethnic background and a male pupil has been shown to increase likelihood of school exclusion (Parsons, 2009; Sanders, Liebenberg & Munford, 2018; Demie, 2019; Kulz, 2019). There has also been evidence to suggest that there is an ever-growing educational gap for young males from ethnic minority backgrounds (Morris, 2012).

Disadvantaged Pupils

There are many other vulnerabilities that can also contribute to an increased likelihood of school exclusion. These include low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds, eligibility for free school meals (FSM), special educational needs, ill physical and mental health and those living in social care can also face higher risk of school exclusion (Paget et al., 2018). Many pupils who experience one of these factors often experience a combination of multiple factors. These factors can often be induced by one another, for example low SES is linked to poor mental health of young people (Kaiser, Pollmann-Schult and Song, 2017). Evidence has linked SES to how young people internalize or externalize their behaviours, (Brede et al., 2017; Ford, et al., 2018). Those facing poverty (determined by eligibility for FSM) often encounter troublesome home lives which impact educational attainment. Factors such as poor housing, parental unemployment or ill health have been linked to poor educational attainment (Korous, Causadias, Bradley and Luther, 2018). Vulnerable young people face frustration within educational settings due to the marginalization and stigmatization they experience from teachers and peers (Hope, Skoog and Jagers, 2015; Doyle and Keane, 2019). Due to these factors, here has been an over-representation of vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils in school exclusion statistics and amongst those facing severe school absence.

School exclusions do not just differ based on individual pupil characteristics; past research has also highlighted geographical discrepancies in pupil exclusion rates throughout various locations within the UK (see McCluskey et al., 2016; 2019). According to data from the Department for Education, during the academic school year 2017-2018 the areas with the highest rate of fixed term exclusions were in the North East of England with 934 exclusions per 10,000 pupils. This was closely followed by the North West of England and the West midlands, both with rates of 13 exclusions per 10,000 pupils. Hartlepool, Stockton-on-Tees and Redcar and Cleveland were the Local Authorities (LAs) with the highest exclusion rates. The region with the lowest rate of fixed-term exclusions was outer-London with 339 exclusions per 10,000 pupils. When we examine the rates of permanent exclusions the region with the highest prevalence is the North East of England with 14 permanent exclusions per 10,000 pupils and the lowest rate was found in the South East of England with 6 exclusions per 10,000 pupils (Department for Education, 2019). There is evidence to suggest this can be linked with SES. The North East of England also has the highest level of children receiving free school meals which is a further indicator of deprivation (DfE, 2017). A report undertaken by the Children’s Commissioner examines the divide in educational attainment between the North and South of England in more depth in an attempt to dismantle the barrier between where a child grows up and their educational attainment (2015).

Furthermore, areas with high levels of deprivation and poverty often have higher levels of schools and alternative provisions that fall into the Ofsted rating of ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Needs Improvement’. Research undertaken by Gill, Quilter-Pointer and Swift (2017) shows that children living in the North East of England are eight times as likely to attend an alternative provision setting rated Inadequate by Ofsted. Inadequate education has been linked to many negative outcomes for young people. For example, the poorer quality of education (influenced by resources and teaching staff a school receives) a child receives, the less likely a pupil is to gain the necessary skills and qualifications needed for the labour market (Francis et al., 2019).  Moreover, work undertaken by Lupton (2004) found that within disadvantaged areas with high levels of deprivation, both pupil attainment and quality of schools are lower. This cycle of deprivation, poor education and negative life outcomes is known as the intergenerational poverty cycle (Serafino and Tonkin, 2014), which explains how young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to remain poor and unable to escape the cycle due to lack of resources.

School Exclusions and County Line Gangs

Recently, County Line Gangs have been increasingly responsible for many pupils experiencing severe absence. However, this is an area that often goes unrecognised despite it having clear links to student school absence. The term ‘County Lines’ is used by law enforcement and various government agencies to describe a particular model of drug dealing.  This model relies on the use of dedicated mobile phone lines by gangs to infiltrate counties where a potential profitable drug market may be identified (Home Office, 2017).

One factor frequently referenced in school exclusions and county lines literature is the relationship between exploitation and a young person who is not in mainstream education (Robinson, 2020). Many have debated whether the journey into criminality that a young person faces begins at permanent exclusion or if exclusions are a symptom of bigger problems and inequalities that have not been addressed in a young person’s life (Berridge et al., 2006; Holt, 2011; The Children’s Society, 2019). The groups established to be most at risk of school exclusion are often the most vulnerable young people in society and senior gang members known as ‘elders’ often entice young people with the promise of status or street capital (Harding, 2012;2014). Further material rewards that would not traditionally be available to these young people such as mobile phones, designer clothes and in some cases, drugs are often used as bribes and once a young person is involved, intimidation, threats and violence are used to keep young people under gang control.

County Line Gangs are not only often responsible for the initial school absence but contribute to repeat school absences through coercion and manipulation. Gangs will often successfully groom and recruit young people which results in those young people having to leave school to fulfil tasks placed upon them. This is then amplified when the young person gets excluded from school. For example, when young people are excluded from school, gang members tell young people they now have no prospects of education and their only choice if they want to succeed in life is to join the gang (CCO, 2019). White and Cunneen (2015) argue that young people who have been excluded from education often seek a sense of identity or belonging that comes with gang involvement and the social aspect of gangs is often as motivational as the economic advantages that come with gang affiliation.

It is very well known that the systemic social and educational inequalities that certain young people face put them at higher risk of negative life outcomes; this includes being targeted by gangs for county lines involvement (Firmin and Pearce, 2016). Gang associated children are more likely to be vulnerable and experience factors such as; parental substance abuse, neglect, violence towards them within the home, offending within the family housing instability, a greater risk of mental health issues, SEND issues, personal risk such as substance abuse, sexual abuse or have been reported as missing children and finally due to their schooling situation (See, Thompson, 2019;Andell and Pitts, 2018). Children facing school instability is a vulnerability that gang members target; young people who are associated with gangs are six times more likely to be in alternative provision settings (CCO, 2019). This suggests that there is a prospective link between alternative provision settings and involvement with gang related activity for a group of young people that are already facing a host of complex vulnerabilities and social disadvantages.

Alternative Provisions

One of the purposes of Pupil Referral Units (PRUs ) is to aid children in re-joining mainstream education and are only intended for temporary use. Many concerns have been raised regarding the quality of education provided for young people at PRUs with complex mental, behavioural and social vulnerabilities (Thacker, 2019). There are often poor educational and social outcomes associated with pupils who attend PRUs due to the poorer quality of education provided (Michael and Frederickson, 2013).

PRUs are educational provision settings with a high quantity of young people facing a complex interplay of vulnerabilities. Similar to exclusions, vulnerable or disadvantaged young people are over-represented within PRUs (Black, Bessudnov, Liu and Norwich, 2019). The decision to refer a young person to a PRU often increases the risk of gang recruitment amongst other potential harms such as poor educational attainment and achievement (Michael and Frederickson, 2013). Gangs are known to systematically pray upon vulnerable cohorts of young people (Anello, 2018). Therefore, it is not surprising that PRUs can be considered breeding grounds for delinquency, truancy, and gang involvement (Smithson and Ralphs, 2016). Whilst the phenomenon of gangs has been historically documented for decades (see Thrasher, 1926; Merton, 1938; Sutherland, 1947; Graham and Bowling 1995) the diversification of how gangs are operating in the 21st century with regards to child exploitation and county lines drug dealing has yielded an insubstantial amount of literature.

Some have criticized the safeguarding policies of PRUs and have argued that the insufficient provision of education and protection they provide is why so many young people are being exploited and coerced into gang involvement. Following the publication of The Report of The Practitioners’ Group on School Behaviour and Discipline (2006), the poor quality of educational provisions for those with special behavioural, emotional and social difficulties was highlighted. This sparked concerns for disadvantaged young people attending alternative provisions of education and the vulnerability they face regarding gang and criminal involvement. A document issued by The Annual National Conference for Heads and Aspiring Leaders of Pupil Referral Units (2019), establishes that there is a need for new and improved approaches to managing, motivating and reintegrating pupils if PRUs are to improve both basic educational provision and employability skills that young people can obtain.

Recommendations and Conclusion

This work demonstrates the need for a consistent national multi-agency response from all levels of society. It is recommended that a review takes place of the use of exclusionary measures within schools. It is also recommended that a formal system is created that monitors and records school exclusions as a means to ensure exclusions are not being overused or used in a discriminatory way. Furthermore, a funded qualitative research project needs to be undertaken to examine the overuse of informal exclusions and the overuse of harsh punitive and discriminatory methods of sanctioning vulnerable young people. It is recommended that PRUs increase safeguarding policies and staff awareness training with regards to signs of child criminal exploitation. Finally, it is recommended that further research is undertaken to investigate the responses of schools and authorities when working with young people who experience severe absences, school exclusions or who have been coerced into gang membership. These young people are being failed by the education system and the authorities. There is a cycle of systemic inequalities for young people who are already some of the most deprived and vulnerable members of society and this needs to change.




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January 2023