When I introduced my 10-minute rule Bill on the reform of the Social Mobility Commission in May, I said that social justice was the defining issue for our country, so I am pleased to be making this statement on the publication of the Education Committee’s fifth report of this Parliament, “Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions”. I thank the officers of the Committee, and particularly its hard-working members, two of whom are here today: the hon. Members for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker) and for Gateshead (Ian Mearns).
Social justice is the defining issue for our country. It is fundamental for ensuring that all pupils can climb the educational ladder of opportunity. At the moment, alternative provision is either a springboard or a millstone. For some pupils, it enables them to achieve in a safe and supportive environment; for others, the poor quality of provision and the lack of ambition of some teachers drag them down, opening them up to stigmatisation and underachievement at 16, which then sets them up for underachievement as adults.
Pupils attend alternative provision for a number of reasons. We find pupils who have been permanently excluded, as well as those who are too ill to attend school and those who have been sent to an alternative provider to improve their behaviour. The report certainly got a lot of coverage, which this forgotten part of our education system deserves, but it seemed to divide the education sector. Some welcomed its approach to greater transparency by schools and clearer, stronger rights for pupils who have been excluded. Others were concerned that the report and its recommendations were an attack on a headteacher’s right to exclude and on the importance of ensuring that pupils can learn and staff can teach in a safe and welcoming environment.
I know that the Minister for School Standards is serious about this issue, and that he is doing a lot of work on it, but I was disappointed to see a senior adviser to the Department for Education describing our report by saying:
“It would make more sense if you held it upside down and read it backwards”,
and that the exclusion figures represented
“too small an increase to panic about”.
That is wrong-headed, not just because of the impact of exclusion on the children and their prospects in education and employment but because of the impact on society, which is estimated at a cost of £370,000 per child excluded in lifetime costs. It is not much of a surprise to learn that 58% of young prisoners were permanently excluded from school. I know that the Government are conducting a review of exclusions, led by the very able Ed Timpson, so I was really very disappointed to see that response. I was also disappointed that the criticism focused on just one area, which formed only part of our Committee’s inquiry. That means that people might have missed other aspects of our report, to the detriment of highlighting some of the remarkable work that goes on in alternative provision, as well as some of the gaping holes that the children involved can fall through. I will come to that in a bit.
Forty-one children are permanently excluded from our schools every day—the figure has gone up 40% in the past year—and 2,010 pupils are temporarily excluded every day. The latest Government statistics show that pupils with special educational needs account for around half of all permanent and fixed-period exclusions, and pupils who are eligible for free school meals account for 40% of all permanent exclusions. In a number of recent reports, The Times has highlighted the fact that other children are being off-rolled—that is, informally excluded by being encouraged to move to a different school or to be home educated.
Ofsted has warned that half the 19,000 pupils who left a school between year 10 and year 11 in 2017 did not reappear on the roll of another state school, and it is currently looking at around 300 schools that have high numbers of pupils leaving in years 10 and 11. These are the pupils the Committee is concerned about: pupils with special educational needs whom schools exclude because they cannot meet their needs, or without having tried to meet their needs; pupils whose results might have a negative impact on their school’s Progress 8 score and are therefore encouraged to move to a different school; victims of bullying who are moved to internal exclusion; and pupils who are excluded for minor infringements of a uniform policy. We are concerned that those pupils and their parents are vulnerable to poor choices, hasty decisions and a lack of knowledge about their options.
To be clear, we are not saying that schools should not exclude pupils, or that schools must include pupils who are violent and dangerous and pose a threat to the safety of the school, but we do say that schools should be inclusive. They should support children with additional needs, not off-roll or exclude them without trying to meet those needs. If they do exclude, they should remain accountable for their pupils’ results, which we hope will encourage schools to think much more carefully about the type of provision that they are sending their pupils to.
Our report looked not just at the reasons why pupils are excluded and attend alternative provision but at how alternative provision is commissioned and how pupils are referred to it, as well as at the quality of provision and the outcomes and successes of pupils. Unfortunately, we found that while many pupils have excellent experiences, that is not true across the board. There are real weaknesses in the system that educates some of our most vulnerable children. We do not think that pupils should not go to alternative provision, but we do believe that pupils who need to be there should attend, and that they should do so at the right time. We spoke to young people during our inquiry who said that it took failed moves and internal isolation before they found a suitable place to go to school.
We see our report and its recommendations as a bill of rights for pupils and their parents. We believe that if our recommendations are implemented, the experience of pupils in alternative provision will improve. That is why we are calling for more information for parents and pupils; an inclusion measure to incentivise schools to be more inclusive; changes to the weighting of Progress 8 and other accountability measures; and a senior person in local authorities, similar to the existing role of the virtual school head for looked-after children, to champion these pupils and oversee the decisions being made by schools.
We know that 82% of teachers in alternative provision are qualified, compared with 95% in mainstream schools. Vacancies are between 100% and 150% higher in alternative provision than in mainstream schools, and pupils in alternative provision and special schools are twice as likely as their peers in mainstream schools to be taught by a supply teacher. Teachers are inspirational, and children in alternative provision deserve to be taught by inspirational teachers. Many of them are, but alternative provision is too often seen as the poor relation. We think that trainee teachers should experience an alternative provision or special school setting, and that mainstream schools should buddy with alternative provision schools so that they can share expertise, experiences and training. There are also pupils who are being taught in unregistered provision, and we are concerned that there is not sufficient oversight across the board to ensure that pupils who are attending are receiving high quality, safe schooling. But we recognise the importance of it, and we recommended that any provider that wants to educate pupils for more than two days a week should be registered.
I should like to end this speech with the report’s final recommendation. It is a vital one, and it brings out something that surprised me during our inquiry. There is no statutory duty for local authorities to provide alternative provision post 16. We want to see resources allocated so that alternative providers can keep pupils until they are 18 or provide outreach to help pupils to settle in post-16 education. It is absurd that we bring children into alternative provision, acknowledging their need for a style of schooling that is indeed alternative, and then expect them to survive in a further education environment that is much larger and busier than their current provision. If we gave these pupils a little more time, a little more support and a little more nurture, they might achieve higher GCSE grades and go on to a bright future.
Pupils in alternative provision should not be written off. No matter the reason for their attending, they deserve access to a high-quality education and to qualifications of which they can be proud. They deserve the chance to climb the ladder of educational opportunity, but at the moment we are providing too many pupils in alternative provision with a ladder whose rungs are too far apart, not closer together.
Does the Chair of the Education Committee agree that the point of providing state-funded schools is to get children into them, to keep them there and to educate them? The idea of off-rolling children seems to have blossomed dramatically over the past couple of years, and the Minister for School Standards said in evidence to the Committee that off-rolling was “unlawful.” Can we ensure that that process is brought to an abrupt end? We must ensure that youngsters are getting the opportunities that they should get, not just being palmed off and, euphemistically speaking, home educated. To be frank, some good home education is going on, but it is rare. The growth in what is being called home education just cannot be sustained as an educational process.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work on this “Forgotten children” report, and I absolutely agree with him. The Minister was right to say that the practice is illegal, but the fact that Ofsted is inspecting around 300 schools—I gave some other figures—and that The Times has done report after report into the matter shows that it is clearly a scandal that the Government must crack down on. I hope that the Ed Timpson review will make some clear recommendations.
I was stunned to hear that 58% of young offenders have been excluded from school and that there is no statutory requirement on local authorities to co-ordinate alternative provision for children who have been excluded. Persistently badly behaved pupils must be excluded, but proper alternative provision must be made. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in order to address growing criminality on our streets among young people, especially post 16, we must address this problem urgently? Will he also comment on the need for parents to take responsibility for their offspring’s behaviour in school? We do not want the education of well-behaved pupils to be disrupted.
I agree with my hon. Friend that this is not just the fault of Government or of teachers; everybody is involved. When we talk about a bill of rights for parents and children, we do not just mean a charter of grievances; it is about ensuring that there is a fair appeals system and that parents know what to do. However, when there are clear instances of children bringing a knife or whatever into school, the parents must have responsibility for that.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement. Does he agree that the evidence we heard from young people is of great value? Does he, like me, hope that this report will lead to a better understanding of the support that young people and their families need, so that as many young people as possible remain in mainstream education?
I thank the hon. Lady for her commitment and her work on this report. We called the report “Forgotten children” because too many children are being excluded every day. I always believe in parental choice, and some parents will want their children to attend alternative provision, but where it is possible to have qualified teachers in learning support units within a school for a child with severe difficulties, that is welcome.
I warmly welcome the report. The number of children excluded in my county of Norfolk is shockingly high, and excluded children are often then put on a waiting list for other provision because all the units are full. When we know that, as the right hon. Gentleman indicated, children from disadvantaged backgrounds, children with special educational needs, children with mental ill health and children who have experienced adversity of various forms in their lives are disproportionately affected by the propensity to exclude, it is vital that we change how the process operates. Does he agree that the fact that there is such variability between schools, with some well-performing, highly academic schools, often in disadvantaged areas, managing to avoid excluding children, demonstrates that it is possible to avoid it? That should be the rule for every school, and schools should remain accountable for the children they exclude.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. As I understand it, schools in Scotland do not exclude any pupils—perhaps one or two over the past year—and I do not understand why there are some great schools that do not exclude pupils whereas others are excluding many. I am not against exclusion, and schools should have the right to exclude a pupil in certain circumstances, but we must learn from the examples of best practice in the schools that seem to succeed without using exclusions, which seem to have become a first resort rather than a last resort for some.