Suspended pupils a year behind peers at GCSE – EPI

Pupils who receive multiple suspensions from secondary school are on average 12 months behind their non-suspended peers academically by the time they sit their GCSEs, according to new research from the Education Policy Institute (EPI). The report comes in the context of rates of suspension from secondary school increasing substantially in the years before the coronavirus pandemic. After dipping during the pandemic itself, in 2022 they then reached their highest point in more than a decade.

The EPI report, which was commissioned by the charity Impetus, used the national pupil database (NPD) to anaylse a cohort of 585,827 students who were in Year 7 at a state school in 2014, following them until they sat their GCSEs in 2019. In addition to finding that students who received multiple suspensions are a year behind academically, the report also found that pupils who are suspended at least once are, on average, not receiving a standard pass in GCSE English and maths. After accounting for other factors - including demographics, socio-economic disadvantage, prior attainment and school characteristics - the effect of multiple suspensions on attainment was reduced by approximately 45 per cent, yet remained significant. Although the association between suspensions and GCSE grades persisted after controlling for a wide range of student and school characteristics, the researchers say they cannot be sure that the suspension itself causes the difference in GCSE grades, as other unmeasured characteristics could be contributing.

Researchers also found a strong association between suspension and additional needs. Students who had been suspended 10 times were almost three times as likely to be identified with SEND as students who were suspended once. Social, emotional, or mental health (SEMH) needs were the most common amongst suspended pupils. For suspended pupils identified with SEND as whole, more pupils were identified with SEND before their first suspension rather than after their first suspension. However for those specifically with SEMH needs, the majority had their needs identified only after their first suspension. The authors suggest this could indicate that some pupils who may have benefited from additional support instead faced disciplinary action.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found that multiple suspensions are a risk factor for permanent exclusion. Pupils suspended ten times were 15 times as likely to be permanently excluded as pupils who were suspended once. The authors say this raises questions about the effectiveness of multiple suspensions as a sanction which can prevent permanent exclusion. By the time they sit their GCSEs, pupils with multiple suspensions are less likely to be in a mainstream school and more likely to be in alternative provision (AP). Pupils suspended ten times were almost 15 times as likely to finish secondary school in AP compared with pupils who were suspended once.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including that schools should proactively identify those at risk of suspension and plan early intervention to reduce the need for suspension. The authors also suggest that more research is needed to understand the drivers behind the recent rise in suspension rates in secondary school, and that the Department for Education (DfE) should work with Ofsted to ensure that pupils who are suspended have access to high quality education. They also call for schools and colleges to be equipped with the resources to recognise pupils with mental health and other additional needs. 

Ben Gadsby, head of policy and research at youth education charity Impetus (who commissioned the research), said: ‘While it is not a surprise that suspended pupils get worse outcomes, this new research puts a number on the ‘suspension grades gap’ for the first time. While suspensions are sometimes necessary, supporting pupils who are struggling to engage in mainstream education must continue to be a priority for whoever is in government. We should aim for lower exclusion levels not simply for the sake of it but because it would be a sign of a more effective education system for pupils and teachers alike.’ 

Commenting on the report Paul Whiteman, general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Schools only use suspensions and exclusions as a last resort to ensure the safety of pupils and staff. They work hard to help children secure support with challenges in their lives – but there are often long waiting lists for community services or help is simply not available. This can have a huge impact on both families and schools, affecting children’s behaviour and wellbeing, as well as their academic achievement. As this report points out, suspensions themselves do not necessarily cause worse grades – the picture is far more complex than that with suspension rates and lower GCSE grades being driven by a range of complex and common causes. We need to see the government invest far more in the support services that sit around schools which should be there to support children and families to get early help before problems become entrenched and harder to solve.’

A DfE spokesperson said under proposed reforms, mainstream schools will receive ‘targeted support’ from AP schools, and that this would ‘increase attendance and allow schools to support pupils who are at risk of exclusion’.

Full report:

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