School Exclusions — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 26 February 2020.

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Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 9:30, 26 February 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered school exclusions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and it is super to see the Minister and shadow Minister, and many other Members, here today. I want to thank the hundreds of members of the public who sent in responses for the debate, for their views and thoughts. I also pay tribute to the Select Committee on Education, the Children’s Commissioner for England and the many charities and organisations that have done so much in the relevant area. On the day after the Marmot review, it is timely that we should be looking at one element of inequality in society that is moving in the wrong direction, and that we need to try to shift: the increasing number of school exclusions.

Soon after I became an MP, a distraught mother came to my constituency surgery. Her son, who was on the way to being diagnosed as autistic—we all know how long the diagnosis can take—had been doing well at school, but when he had come back after half term lots of changes had been made to the classroom. He was unsettled by that and ended up demonstrating behavioural issues over a period of a week. He was permanently excluded from school as a result. He was five years old. I found it utterly extraordinary.

The boy’s mother had the wherewithal to come to her MP and find a charity to help support her. She managed to overturn the decision on appeal. She also happened to be a black woman. She sat in my surgery and said, “I do not want my son to be another one of those black boys.” It was horrifying, and I subsequently learned that it was not an uncommon example and that there is a huge problem. There has been a 70% increase in permanent exclusions since 2012, and just 1% of children who are permanently excluded get a good pass in maths or English at GCSE.

Of particular concern to me is the link to the epidemic of serious youth violence, which has left hundreds of young people dead on our streets in recent weeks. In Croydon there was a review of 60 cases of serious violence—60 young people who were either victims or perpetrators of crime. Of those 60 children, every one who was convicted of a crime had been excluded from school, and one in three had been excluded in primary school. We disagree on many things in this place, but I think we can all agree that our children deserve the best start in life, and that no child deserves to be left behind. I secured the debate because too many children do not get that start, and too many are being left behind. I fear that the draconian language coming from the new Government may make the problem worse, not better.

Today’s debate follows a report by the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime on the link between violent crime and school exclusions. We set up the all-party group in 2017 to develop solutions to the knife crime crisis. We had repeatedly been told anecdotally that school exclusions were contributing to a feeling of abandonment and hopelessness among young people vulnerable to crime. There is a correlation. Exclusions have risen by 70% as knife crime has reached the highest levels on record, but it is not enough simply to draw those parallels.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. On the point about the spike in figures, between 2000 and 2010 there seemed to be a welcome dropping off in the number of exclusions. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need a fundamental re-examination of why there has been a spike in the past four or five years, to try to get figures down again, for the reasons she has articulated?

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

That is absolutely right, and the peaks and troughs in the numbers of school exclusions pretty much mirror those for knife crime. We need to understand why those things are happening and actively work to reduce the current peak in school exclusions.

The all-party group, supported by Barnardo’s and Redthread, spoke to young people across the country who had convictions for knife offences. They told us that being excluded had left them with more time to spend on the streets, getting into trouble. We sent a freedom of information request to local authorities, to get a better understanding of the state of provision for children who are excluded. The research revealed a crisis in support for excluded children. We analysed evidence from organisations such as the Institute for Public Policy Research and The Difference, charting the worrying rise in off-rolling and “grey exclusions”, and from the St Giles Trust, whose work with victims of county lines exploitation drew a direct link to those who were excluded from school.

We know that the public are concerned about the issue. Barnardo’s polled the parents of children under 18 and found that three quarters believe that children who are excluded are more at risk of involvement in knife crime. Children have not got 70% naughtier since 2012; something has gone wrong, and it is leaving vulnerable people exposed to involvement in crime. My hope today is that the Minister will listen to the evidence that the all-party group has collected, and the testimony of other Members in the debate, and agree to take some of our recommendations forward.

I will quickly look at the statistics. The latest set of data is for England in the year 2017-18, when there were 7,900 permanent exclusions—that is the 70% increase that I mentioned. The highest levels were in Redcar and Cleveland, and the highest levels for fixed-period exclusions were in Hartlepool. Half of all excluded children have special educational needs, yet support for special educational needs has undergone some of the biggest cuts. According to 2019 figures, it is estimated that there have been cuts to SEN funding of 17% per pupil since 2015. The SEN type most affected by exclusions were people in the social, emotional and mental health categories.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend referred to the exclusion of children with autism. Another issue is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. People with ADHD are over-represented in the prison population. The Mayor of London is investing £4.7 million to tackle school exclusions via the violence reduction unit. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government would do well to follow his example and invest more in support for schools and for vulnerable children?

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

My hon. Friend has anticipated something I was going to say later, which is that many organisations are pushing against the tide and trying to address those difficult issues.

There is a link between children’s family income and exclusion: the worse off a child is economically, the more likely they are to be excluded. Children who are eligible for free school meals are four times more likely to be excluded. There is a link with ethnicity: rates are higher among mixed-race and black pupils. There is a link with gender: males are more than twice as likely to be excluded as females. There is also a link with geography: the rate of permanent exclusions for the most deprived areas is higher than for the least deprived ones. We know that there is a link to what then happens in future life: 42% of adult prisoners and 90% of young offenders were excluded from school.

At the same time as the number of exclusions has increased, the number of pupil referral units and alternative provision academies and free schools has decreased. The number of APs has steadily fallen, from 349 in 2013-14 to 328 in 2017-18, yet the number of pupils has risen year on year. The number of fixed-period exclusions in those schools has risen dramatically, from 15,500 in 2013 to 26,500 in 2017, suggesting a growing inability to cope with the pressures internally.

On the issue of knife crime, there were 44,771 offences in the year ending September 2019. That is the highest figure on record, up from 23,751 for the year ending March 2014—an 88.5% increase over that period. For the year ending March 2019, juveniles—those aged 10 to 17—were the offenders in one in five cases.

I want to say something about our research on the link between knife crime and exclusion. Barnardo’s surveyed all local authorities in England, 80% of which responded, and discovered that one in three councils have no vacant places in their pupil referral units. Even where there is space, there is a postcode lottery in relation to the quality of support provided. Nationally, almost one in five spaces are in alternative provision that Ofsted has rated inadequate or requiring improvement.

It is likely that pupils who are not being educated in the state sector are being educated in non-maintained provision and, as many of us will have seen in our case load, families are sometimes strongly encouraged to home educate. The alternative providers may be offering quality provision—many of them do—but there is also the problem that many of them are not full-time, breaking the statutory obligation to our young people. Every excluded child is legally entitled to full-time education in alternative provision, but our investigation found that that is not happening, with some excluded children getting as little as two hours’ schooling a day.

The system is at breaking point, and not just because of the 70% rise in official exclusions. Research from the IPPR and The Difference revealed that the number of children in AP is five times higher than the number of officially permanently excluded pupils; the true number is around 50,000, with the growing use of managed moves and off-rolling that, again, many of us will have heard about in our case load. The report by the St Giles Trust that I referred to earlier was commissioned by the Home Office. It looked at the issue of children running drugs between London and Kent, and found that 100% of those involved were not in mainstream education; they were either in AP or not in any form of education at all.

The Mayor of London produced research that found that excluded pupils are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and criminal gangs, with nine out of 10 young people in custody in London having been excluded. Research by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime indicates that pupils in alternative provision are more likely to know someone in a gang or who carries a knife than those in a mainstream setting. Professionals giving evidence to our all-party group believed that criminal gangs are aware of how school exclusions can increase vulnerability and are seeking to exploit this fact. We even heard about pupil referral units where criminals would wait outside and ask people if they wanted to be involved in county lines as they left the unit.

Of course, those strong correlations do not prove that school exclusions are causing knife crime. The fact that someone is excluded does not mean that they will become a criminal, and school exclusion is often a symptom of vulnerability for many years throughout their life. However, there is a common thread running through all the vulnerable children who are being excluded. There is a great deal of commonality between them, because of the issues they face, and those who carry knives. They are not getting the support they need from a system that is catastrophically failing them.

The Timpson review was released last May, but the Government are yet to act on any of its findings. The review had several important findings that chime with those of the all-party group, particularly on off-rolling and the quality of alternative provision. I am sure that Edward Timpson will want to go through that in more detail, but suffice it to say that it is disappointing to see the lack of action on such a crucial issue, having been presented with so many clear recommendations from that report and our all-party group.

The previous Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, said in 2018 that he would not rule out legislation to ensure more accountability for schools that permanently exclude children and place them in alternative provision. However, there have been no changes to school exclusions legislation in England in the past 12 months. The Government said in response to the Timpson review that they would launch a consultation, but that consultation has yet to be launched. They also said in their response that they would rewrite their guidance on exclusions and behaviour and discipline, which they are yet to do.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Labour/Co-operative, Ealing North

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on such a vital issue. Schools such as Northolt High School in my constituency want to keep the number of exclusions as low as possible. They know the importance of that and they want to do it in a positive and inclusive way, but they need funding. The school has submitted an expression of interest to the Excluded Initiative, which the John Lyon’s Charity is running with the Evening Standard and others, to fund their inclusion programme. Northolt High School should be strongly commended for taking that initiative, but I am concerned that such an important programme may only go ahead if it succeeds in getting charitable funding through a scheme that will no doubt be overbid. If the school’s bid to that initiative is unsuccessful, would she join me in urging the Minister to commit to meeting its excellent headteacher and others who may miss out on such bids, to see whether other funding can be found to support their plans?

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I know that the Minister is always very obliging in agreeing to meetings, so I am sure he will do that. My hon. Friend makes a good point about the Evening Standard campaign; it is very worthy and greatly to be commended, but it is no replacement for what the state should be legally providing for our children.

There were warm words after the Timpson review, but the new Conservative Administration seem to lack any recognition of the link between exclusions and crime, and they seem to be worryingly relaxed about the exclusion of children. The Conservative manifesto put an emphasis on backing headteachers to exclude children and a sinister suggestion of creating secure schools for young offenders, all the while failing to restore the per pupil funding that was cut from our schools.

A greater emphasis on teachers being able to discipline children, 10,000 more prison sentences in place and secure schools for young offenders: these are draconian measures to deal with problems that would be far better dealt with by tackling the underlying causes in the first place. It is blatantly obvious that funding cuts have meant that schools are increasingly unable to properly support the heightened needs of students, particularly those with special educational needs.

When I surveyed headteachers in Croydon, the vast majority had cut SEN funding due to funding issues. It is no wonder that they are then overwhelmed and so many SEN children are excluded. As has already been mentioned, there are many organisations, large and small, working against the tide to try to help the situation, from Another Night of Sisterhood in Croydon—a small organisation that works to try to support parents who do not know how to deal with potential exclusion—to the Mayor of London, who has awarded £4.7 million to areas of London blighted by youth violence to prevent pupils from being excluded.

I again pay tribute to the Evening Standard’s £1 million campaign, The Excluded, which aims to encourage greater inclusion in schools by funding inclusion units. Some 57 applications from local schools have already been made. The scheme is modelled on what was done in Glasgow alongside the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, where exclusions were reduced by 85%, and on pioneering London schools such as Dunraven in Lambeth.

Turning to what needs to be done, our all-party group’s investigation concluded last year and made a series of recommendations, which I hope the Minister will look at. Perhaps he would agree to meet the all-party group to discuss their implementation. School rankings and results must take account of all pupils, including those they exclude. All excluded children must have access to the full-time education to which they are legally entitled, which many do not currently get.

All education providers must have the funding and backing they need to support vulnerable children, and schools must be recognised for the central role they play in a multi-agency response to keeping children safe, with funding to support that work. Everyone working in the education sector must be trained to understand vulnerability and trauma. I have been on trauma training, and it really does change the way you view a child; anger is a cry for help, and understanding the issues is enormously useful for teaching. Schools should be supported to focus on prevention and early intervention, and every council should have a leader responsible for children excluded from school.

We know these things can be done. In Scotland only five pupils were permanently removed from the classroom in 2016-17, and in South Tyneside exclusion rates have fallen by almost 60% over the past 10 years. Wandsworth used to have one of the highest rates of permanent school exclusions but now has one of the lowest. Schools in my constituency, such as St. Mary’s Roman Catholic High School, manage to exclude tiny numbers of people despite a challenging intake and challenging issues.

My questions for the Minister are as follows. Fundamentally, does he recognise the issues that I am talking about, and does he want to see a reduction in school exclusions, or is he happy to continue to see an increase at this rate? Why are so many vulnerable children getting less support than they would in mainstream schools, especially since in many cases excluded children are exactly the children who need more support? Will he conduct a review into capacity within alternative provision and part-time education, to understand whether there are enough resources to ensure that all pupils who are excluded get the full-time provision to which they are legally entitled? Given that half of all excluded children have special educational needs, what steps is he taking to make up for the vast funding cuts seen to SEN support?

The Education Committee’s knife crime inquiry concluded that schools play a central role in providing prevention and early intervention through a multi-agency response to keeping children safe. Violent crime has doubled in recent years, with more and more young people dying on our streets. There is no single causal factor when it comes to knife crime—if there were, we would have solved it before now. We need to look at this epidemic from every possible angle and focus on preventing crime before it occurs. Exclusions must be a last resort, and alternative provision must be full-time, high-quality and properly resourced. We can cure the epidemic of youth violence if we start from the principle that no child is left behind.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

It might be helpful for Members to know that the winding-up speeches have to start by 10.40 am. I will call first those Members who have notified me that they want to speak.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 9:50, 26 February 2020

I thank Sarah Jones for securing the debate.

School exclusions are the last resort for any headteacher. In my eight years as a classroom teacher in state secondary schools and as a head of year overseeing the behaviour, attendance and achievement of hundreds of students, exclusions were always the last course of action. I feel a little uneasy in this debate, because intentionally or not, I worry that it undermines the first-class work done by teachers and pastoral staff in the vast majority of schools to keep students in school while placing little to no emphasis on parents or carers. There is not some excluding spree going on; it is not a decision taken lightly. The cost-benefit analysis undertaken by school staff is extensive and manifests in many ways. I have seen headteachers keep in internal exclusion children who should in fact have been excluded, due to a fear of triggering an Ofsted inspection and breeding further stresses for teachers, pupils and parents.

I disagree with the premise that school exclusions are to blame for the rise in knife crime. Of course some young people come from troubled homes and may require extra pastoral care and educational support, but there comes a point when we must award more agency to the actions of our young people and show them that poor behaviour has real-time consequences, both at school and in adulthood. We should unreservedly celebrate schools with high expectations and zero-tolerance policies. We should follow the example set by Michaela Community School in Brent and Magna Academy in Poole, both of which have excellent Ofsted ratings, excellent results and the highest standards of behaviour.

When a child is removed from the classroom and placed in isolation or excluded, it is because their behaviour is damaging the learning of their peers or poses a risk to other students and staff. We have created a culture in schools that means we must try to find an excuse for poor behaviour of young people. It is time we start to back our teachers, not run them down. It is forgotten far too easily that teachers spend the vast majority of their time and energy to help and support the 2% to 3% who display poor behavioural discipline, neglecting for large portions of the school day those pupils who behave correctly and simply want to learn.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I apologise for speaking again. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore believe that children have become 70% naughtier since 2012? Does that account for the 70% increase in exclusions?

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

No, I do not believe that children are naughtier. In fact, I think behaviour has improved, which comes from having firm discipline within a school. Students thrive off boundaries that are set and firm, and not moveable. In the early part of my teaching career, I tried to be a friend of the kids, which certainly backfired in my classroom, to the point where I was told to my face to “Eff off” in front of my class. As I developed a firm set of boundaries, I found that my classroom reacted much better; the kids behaved because they knew the expectations. It is important to ensure headteachers set a standard that every teacher meets across the school, therefore creating a culture.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

Does the hon. Gentleman therefore think that young black men from deprived backgrounds are the worst and deserve their higher rates of exclusion from schools—the poorer young black men with special educational needs who are much more likely to be excluded than other groups?

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

The hon. Lady touches on points regarding special educational needs and disabilities, and I intend to talk about my support for better quality alternative provision. I certainly do not look at this along racial or gender lines or across class lines, because at the end of the day behaviour cuts across all those different things. I represent a predominantly white working-class community, where there are students who misbehave just as much as someone from a black or Asian community in a more ethnically and culturally diverse community. I do not wish to virtue signal. This is an across-the-board problem involving people from all backgrounds.

A child’s environment affects behaviour, so why would a school having firm boundaries be a negative? To exclude a pupil is a long, stressful and convoluted process, and the fear of losing an appeal means that many schools provide a wide range of support, from educational psychologists, peer mentoring, behaviour report, positive behaviour report, incentivised reward trips, one-to-one in-classroom support via a teaching assistant, conflict resolution and regular parent or carer meetings. Those are just some of the many tactics I used in my career to keep a young person on track, but I agree that we must have better alternative provision and ensure that a wider and more tailored system of support is accessible to pupils who have been excluded or are at risk of being excluded. I do not want excluded kids to not have a proper education; I want them to be guided, assisted and supported, but my stronger urge is to protect the education of those willing to be educated and those doing the educating.

Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Chair, Backbench Business Committee, Chair, Backbench Business Committee

Given the statistical evidence about the number of youngsters with special educational needs who are excluded, is it not the systems within the schools—so not the teachers’ fault—and the resources available to schools, both inside the school and outside, that actually sell those youngsters short? Quite often, their special educational needs are not properly identified until after their exclusion.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

The hon. Gentleman brings me on perfectly to what I was about to say. If he will allow me, I will go on, and if I do not answer his point he should feel free to intervene again.

The Government must of course invest in alternative provision, but schools also need to work collaboratively across their local areas to ensure that the best possible course of action is pursued. Solihull Academy is an excellent example of a group of secondary schools across Solihull working together to find tangible, workable solutions, creating Solihull Academy and making space in the grey area between mainstream education and SEND education. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s point, we absolutely have a big issue with children diagnosed with SEND needs who do not need to be in a special educational needs school but struggle to access mainstream school. Solihull Academy is the perfect example of a school that in that grey area, where those students can get proper one-to-one support and smaller class sizes, allowing them to thrive educationally while not feeling the pressure they currently feel in mainstream secondary schools. I hope that answers his point.

Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Chair, Backbench Business Committee, Chair, Backbench Business Committee

Quoting an example of good practice is all very well, but I am afraid that anecdotes of local good practice do not actually answer the systemic failures across the whole country. In my region, the north-east of England, the number of youngsters excluded from school has gone from about 190 in 2012-13 to well over a thousand in the last year for which statistics are available, 2017-18. The system is failing, and the lack of resources for special educational needs in particular is at the root of the problem.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

The Government committed to investing £780 million into supporting SEND children. I firmly believe that schools go above and beyond. Having spent the vast majority of my career in schools where well over 50% of pupils qualify for the pupil premium and well over 30% have SEND needs, I can only commend the actions that have been taken. Obviously I cannot speak for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency or area, but I would be more than happy to sit with him and listen to his examples.

By utilising smaller classes, encouraging more one-to-one contact and broadening the curriculum, extra support will be accessible and available to kids who need it. Reasons for behavioural and social issues in our young people are widely varied and complex. It is reductive to claim that vulnerability, exploitation, youth violence and abuse will be solved by avoiding exclusions. I have been verbally abused and physically assaulted in front of pupils in the classroom, in the playground and in front of parents. The job of a teacher is to educate and to be an example, not to be treated like a punch-bag. Policies and laws are in place to protect our police, emergency workers, nurses and so on. If we do not have zero-tolerance policies or exclusions, where is the protection for our teachers?

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

To some extent, we are not disagreeing. I do not think anybody is suggesting that we ban school exclusions or that they are not a really important tool. I do not think I have met a single headteacher who would think for one minute that exclusion does not need to be there as the last resort. The argument we are making is that there has been a huge increase in school exclusions, that there is a reason for that—it has to do with funding and some of the issues about special educational needs in particular—and that we would like to see those numbers go down. Smaller class sizes, more interventions in school and more support for kids would all be brilliant. I think that we agree on those things and I would not want to give the impression that we do not, but my argument is that the levels of exclusions are increasing at a worrying rate and need to come down.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

Yes, I find that I normally agree with hon. Members on both sides of the House on what we want to achieve; we just disagree on the method by which we want to achieve that.

I do believe that one issue is attendance. The reasons why kids are not attending school are often overlooked in this context, but again my emphasis is on the young people’s parents and carers, who in my opinion are failing to provide the necessary education outside the school grounds, which undermines what is then done in the classroom by the teacher. In the real world, there are real consequences. I believe that our educational facilities have the responsibility not just to prepare our young people academically, but to teach them that in life, actions have consequences.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury) 10:01, 26 February 2020

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

Some hon. Members here will know that I have spoken a number of times in the past year about county lines and the difficulties facing many young people in my constituency. In my experience, school exclusions are a significant event in the awful and traumatising experience of county lines exploitation. Far too many of my young constituents in Newham have been subjected to county lines or its consequences. I am therefore very grateful to my hon. Friend Sarah Jones for giving us the time and space to talk about this crucial issue.

I think, as my hon. Friend does, that the change of tune that we have heard from the Government about exclusions is truly worrying. I thought that across the House we were moving in the right direction. We had the Timpson review and repeated statements by Home Office Ministers and others with whom I have worked closely on these issues—we often find common ground and agreement—and I really started to believe that the Government were beginning to get it. I was starting to pick up a bit of hope, but that hope was dashed, because the Conservative party manifesto pledged to continue fragmenting the education system with academies and free schools, pledged to

“back heads to use exclusions” and pledged, as we have heard from my hon. Friend, to expand alternative provision—presumably to cope with the inevitable increase in exclusions that would be the result.

I suspect that the Government know that there is already no way in which local authorities can do their duty and ensure that the local school system is inclusive. They are supposed to ensure that no student is excluded without a genuine route back into mainstream education, but this Minister must know that, often, once young people are excluded from our schools, there is absolutely no way back—none at all—into mainstream education. I am worried that the Government’s apparent direction will make that situation much worse.

I remind the Minister again why this issue is so important to my constituency. Exclusion is clearly linked with the horrifying rise in violence and the deaths of so many of my local children on the streets of Newham. When I have talked to the mums of the children who have been groomed and got caught up in the drug dealing, carrying of knives and violence, they tell me loud and clear—they will tell anyone who wants to listen—that their son’s exclusion from school was a tipping point. It did not create the problem, but it made it worse—it made it completely worse.

I talk to parents and young people and I am clear that the bad behaviour comes as a result of real and unimaginable fear. It comes from seeing things and knowing things that I would not want to see as an adult. They have seen people stabbed or shot, or their friend has been stabbed or shot. The fear that they experience is real and has real causes. The world around them is frightening and hostile—it is terrifying. They do not see the police or other adults around them as able to protect them. They do not think it is possible to protect them, so they have to protect themselves. They have to find coping mechanisms, and sometimes that involves going along with the person who is abusing, manipulating and grooming them, because they see no alternative. If collectively we do not protect them, we do not understand that they are acting out of fear and we simply punish the behaviour rather than dealing with the root causes, we will make things worse. There is no doubt about that. The young person understandably will not trust us, and we will fail them.

As my hon. Friend said, the St Giles Trust found in relation to 100 teenage boys who had become involved in county lines that every single one of them had been excluded from school at some point or had spent time in a pupil referral unit. I have spoken before about the impacts of exclusion. I have talked about how children are cut off from their friends and teachers and plunged into an environment poisoned by gangs and how that makes them accessible to groomers. When a child is excluded, it is not some short sharp shock. It will not enable the young person to rethink their life and behaviour and make a change, because there is no way back. Basically, they are left at the PRU, even more vulnerable to the groomers who are sitting outside the gates. The young person cannot escape, because the people grooming them and using them are sitting there, waiting for them to walk through the gates. The groomers are really clever: I have spoken to mums who told me how the groomers managed to manipulate their child into getting excluded in the first place, because it made access to the child even easier.

If a child is excluded, alarm bells will not ring because of truancy. Teachers who have known them as they have been growing up in the school will not see that their behaviour has massively changed, so an alarm bell about the child’s direction in life just is not rung. There is nobody to notice that they have several mobile phones, which is often a massive indicator that the child is involved in illegal drug dealing.

Let us be clear that the children we are excluding are often really quite able children. They are bright and very articulate, and why? It is because they make great salespeople. When it comes to county lines, they have the nous to know how to deal with the circumstances and situations in which they find themselves, and they can chat to their mate and encourage their mate to join them. As I said, they are good salespeople, but these are the children we are leaving alienated, angry and vulnerable. Then we put these children—they are children—with their challenges and vulnerabilities all together in the same place, and provide easy access to them for the people who want to exploit them.

As we know, pupil referral units do not provide the support that vulnerable children need. They are supervised for only a few hours a day; the rest of the time, the young person is often unsupervised and on their own. There is little mental health support, so the trauma that the kids have gone through just is not worked on in any way. There is little chance of their getting back into mainstream education. The buildings are basically like prisons, but the children we are sending there have not been accused of any crime.

Some of the children believe that they are actually involved in an alternative economic model. They have seen their mums and dads going to work and doing two jobs—the lowest quarter of wages in my constituency does not cover the lowest quarter of rents in my constituency. They have seen the adults around them basically with nothing. Then we exclude them from school, and we know that there is no way back into education, so what do they do? They think that there is only one way forward for them, and that is to carry on. We are basically giving the groomers an endless supply of victims. The kids get off-rolled—it happens illegally, but we know it happens—and then they have nothing to do and nowhere to go.

I have heard about that from some courageous women, the mums of the children involved in county lines, who are trying to stand up to the groomers. They have to make hard choices—tough choices—that I could not make about my children’s future. We need to learn from their experience, but too few people listen to the experience of Newham mums. I think that is part of what has gone wrong.

The truth is that exclusions ruin lives, create vulnerability to exploitation by organised criminals and fuel violence in our communities. We desperately need big changes to the school system to achieve a rapid reduction in exclusions. If the Government do not reverse course, and if they do not listen to Newham’s mums and the experts—please listen to the experts and not to the Daily Mail headlines—we will see more lives ruined, more crime, more murdered children and more traumatised communities with wounds that take a very long time to heal.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (North of England) (Northern Powerhouse), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Food and Rural Affairs) 10:10, 26 February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank Sarah Jones for raising this important issue. It is a pleasure to follow the powerful and challenging contributions from Jonathan Gullis and, in particular, from Ms Brown, who spoke passionately.

The rising number of children excluded from school should trouble us all. Increased pressure to concentrate on students who can achieve top results, to seek prominence in league tables and to avoid students who are resource intensive, along with the increased independence that academy status affords, provide both the temptation and freedom to off-roll and exclude certain students. This is morally unacceptable.

I want to focus on the rising number of students who are effectively excluded: the thousands of students in our schools with special educational needs that are not met. It is clear that because of counterproductive Government spending rules, many children are in school but effectively excluded from the support staff and resources necessary to enable them to get the best from their education.

In my 15 years in this place, I have never seen school budgets under so much pressure. Headteachers are having to cut staff numbers almost every year and teaching assistants working with special needs students are most vulnerable to the cuts. Teachers are overstretched as it is and now they are not equipped with the resources to teach those under their care.

I recently spoke to headteachers in the South Lakes and asked them to tell me about the challenges their schools face. Almost without exception, they said that their biggest challenge was meeting the needs of children with special needs. On top of devastating Government cuts and perverse special needs funding rules, every school with an education, health and care plan must find the money from its own budget to fund the first 11 hours of support. That means the Government are effectively punishing schools that do the right thing by taking children with special needs and rewarding schools that say to parents, “I am sorry, but we cannot really support your child here”—an exclusion in all but name.

Cuts in support staff have left teachers isolated in supporting children’s needs in the classroom. St Martin & St Mary Primary School in Windermere described to me the extremely high criteria set to qualify for an education, health and care plan in the first place. We often see that only those children with the most severe additional needs receive any funding support at all; other children with needs are left with no additional support.

Many schools in my constituency told me that parents must contend with incredibly long waiting lists for a special educational need referral, followed by delayed assessments due to a lack of educational psychologists. Children are then often refused support, irrespective of their evident need. Schools in Cumbria, therefore, have to find the resource to support the significant numbers of children who are in limbo waiting for an assessment, who have needs but do not have an EHCP, and who may never get one while at their current school.

The situation results in exclusion within the classroom. Children fall behind and feel isolated from the rest of the class, because they are not being provided with the adequate support to learn and develop. As the attainment gap grows, children can become frustrated and despondent, fostering negative attitudes to school. There is a real danger that they will disengage entirely, exacerbating the problem further. Those are often the children who end up being off-rolled and formally excluded later in their school career.

This week I have been supporting the parents of a child in my constituency, whose school was unable to support them. The school lacked the funding to meet the evident needs of this child. The waiting list for an EHCP meant that resources were so far from becoming available that the school has had to say that it cannot do what it knows it needs to. The parents’ distress is immense. I am angry on their behalf. Their child is effectively excluded from school because of stupid penny-pinching rules. This is unacceptable. Teachers and the children they are so desperate to care for are being failed.

Many children also face exclusion before they even get to the classroom. Many children with special educational needs bring vibrant and valuable contributions to the whole school, their classes and their peer groups. That should be valued and encouraged, but in reality the system makes catering to their needs feel like a pressure and burden on schools. That is completely at odds with society’s claim to champion diversity and value individuals regardless of their ability.

The Government are effectively demoralising our teachers and letting down our children, because schools must foot the bill for those first hours of provision for children with an education, health and care plan. Schools are massively disincentivised from enrolling them. We see national, systematic exclusion of special educational needs children. The headteacher of one of the larger high schools in the South Lakes told me of the real financial pressure of being expected fund those first 11 hours of an education, health and care plan out of their school’s general annual grant funding. That, on top of the Government cuts to the school’s overall per-pupil funding, means that it has no reserves or slack from which to provide this support. It is not alone. This is a pattern right across south Cumbria and beyond. I see it every week as I visit schools and listen to our teachers.

The special educational needs co-ordinator at Cartmel Primary School told me that the local authority recommends it as a school suitable for children with an EHCP. Around 5% of children at the school have one. That is significantly above the national average. While the school expresses its immense pride in its reputation for special educational needs provision and its inclusive nature, through which it earned that reputation, it is in danger of buckling under the financial pressure that falls on its shoulders alongside the usual strains on a small school’s budget.

Cumbria is as vast as it is beautiful. In rural communities such as ours, the alternative options, which a child in a more densely populated part of the world might enjoy, do not exist. The head of Langdale Primary School described how for many pupils the available special schools require travelling extreme distances. She wrote in some distress that, despite the incredible hard work and enthusiasm of her excellent team, their ethos—to be centred wholeheartedly on individual children—was coming under significant strain.

I am grateful to all the headteachers who contacted me—many more than I have had time to reference today. They are all hard-working, enthusiastic and caring, and so are their staff. I am incredibly proud of them, but they are desperate. They are outstanding professionals who love their jobs and schools, but Government funding has put them in an impossible position.

When we talk about exclusion, the finger is often pointed at school leaders. However, those are people driven to make a difference. In the lives of the children of Cumbria, whom they serve, the school leaders are the most heartbroken and outraged by how they have been stripped of the ability to meet the needs they know they should and to support those children in the way they know they should. I stand here on their behalf to say that it is not good enough. That must change for our children, our teachers and parents.

In effect, the Government are excluding children with special educational needs from having the best education, while systematically penalising the schools that do the right thing. That must change. I challenge the Minister to ensure that all funding to support children with EHCPs is delivered centrally and does not come from the school’s own budget; that there will be a speeding up of referrals for EHCPs and their delivery; and that children with additional needs are not excluded before they even start.

Photo of Marsha de Cordova Marsha de Cordova Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Disabled People) 10:29, 26 February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I begin by thanking my hon. Friend Sarah Jones for securing this important debate and for the important work she has done as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime. Since 2012, the number of school pupils being permanently excluded has increased by 70%. Temporary exclusions, where a child is suspended for a fixed period, affect almost half a million children, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of children have been unofficially moved from schools, or off-rolled, because the school is failing to meet their needs. A YouGov survey, published by Ofsted, found that children were being off-rolled particularly when close to their GCSEs. In essence, children are being failed. We do not even know how many children have been off-rolled by schools across the country.

There is no question and no doubt that school exclusions are a social justice issue. It is no coincidence that there is a correlation between child poverty rates and exclusion rates. They are too high and they are in sync. According to research carried out by the Institute for Public Policy Research, excluded children are twice as likely to be in care and four times more likely to be brought up in poverty. Despite what Jonathan Gullis said, exclusions disproportionately impact on black Caribbean boys, who are nearly 40 times more likely to be permanently excluded from schools than other pupils.

Perhaps most striking is the rate of exclusions for children and young people with special educational needs and disability. As a disabled woman myself, I benefited greatly from the special educational needs provision that I had growing up going to primary and secondary school, so what is now taking place for those children is a scandal. More than 418,000 children with SEND were excluded in the last academic year; the majority have been diagnosed with speech and language needs and are unable to communicate with their teachers and support networks in their schools. What is happening is tragic and clearly a result of funding cuts, despite what the Government may say. Schools are being fundamentally let down and are fundamentally not able to provide support for those children with special education needs.

The National Education Union estimates that there is a £1 billion funding gap in SEND provision for our mainstream schools. Despite what the Government claim they are putting in, there is still a shortfall. In the London Borough of Wandsworth, where my constituency is located, a recent Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspection concluded that SEND provision is in need of significant improvement. It revealed that there are currently 170 outstanding education, health and care plan assessments, and that is echoed across the country, where children are being failed and are not receiving their EHCP plans to ensure that the support they need in school is being implemented.

Inadequate support and provision for disabled children and those with special educational needs means they are excluded from education altogether. That is happening to my constituent, whom I will refer to as Jacob. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at age 10. When he arrived at his secondary school, his parents were told that he risked being permanently excluded if he failed to sit up straight or turned around in his seat. Those behaviours are unavoidable for someone with ADHD, and Jacob was soon forced into a reflection room, where he was forced to sit in silence for large chunks of the day. The refusal to make any reasonable adjustments for Jacob’s behaviour in school has resulted in extreme anxiety for both Jacob and his parents. How is it acceptable that a young child is being put through that and being treated in that way?

Jacob’s parents are terrified by the prospect of a permanent exclusion and are worried that he will never get the chance of a decent education. A decent education is a human right. Does the Minister agree that it is unacceptable that children who are registered with special educational needs are not given the support they need? Someone with those needs is five times more likely to be permanently excluded. Does he agree that it is time for us to adequately fund SEND provision?

We know that the story does not end there. Once a child is off-rolled or excluded from school, they face exclusion from their communities, from society and from their friends. Many are placed in what are called pupil referral units or, as many would call them, prison referral units. The published Ministry of Justice figures show that 42% of prisoners have been permanently excluded from school, so it is no coincidence that the soaring rise in school exclusions is coupled together with the rise in crime and knife crime in my constituency and constituencies like it across the country.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Labour/Co-operative, Vauxhall

My hon. Friend mentions that figure of 42%. Does she agree that the prison inspectorate report shows that nine out of 10 young people in police custody have been permanently excluded? A report by the London Assembly highlighted that school exclusions correlate with violence and criminal activity. Does she agree that the Government should welcome the Mayor of London’s funding for additional school provision and roll that out across the nation?

Photo of Marsha de Cordova Marsha de Cordova Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Disabled People)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is time the Government took some leadership from the Mayor of London, who is doing a fantastic job in trying to address some of the challenges that our young people are facing, despite the funding cuts implemented by the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central raised this issue, but it is shameful that the Government have not taken action on the Timpson review. When the Minister responds, will he tell us when that will actually begin to happen?

In conclusion, I return to the point that I made earlier in my speech: it is no coincidence that during the period in which exclusions have risen, child poverty rates have also shot up. Countless youth services and provision have closed. Schools have faced billions in cuts. As the IPPR has illustrated, children in poverty are more likely to be excluded from school, and with more than 5 million children expected to be living in poverty by 2022, the problem is set to worsen. Disadvantaged children such as my constituent Jacob are being trapped in a vicious cycle. Breaking that cycle requires urgent action from the Government to end the funding crisis in our schools, outlaw the dangerous practice of off-rolling and overhaul our education system so that it is open to all children. Finally, we have two weeks until the Budget. Will the Government commit to investing in our young people and our children, because they are the future?

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Order. Before I call the next speaker—we have two very experienced Members left—I should say that we have only about 12 minutes, so it would be helpful if they divided that time between them. I call Jim Shannon.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:27, 26 February 2020

I will keep to your six-minute limit and ensure that Edward Timpson has an equal amount of time to speak, Mr Bone. I thank Sarah Jones for setting the scene, and it was good to hear all the other contributions. Jonathan Gullis referred to his experience as a teacher, which was good to hear in this debate.

The issue is twofold. We must consider the very best interests of the child in question, but the flipside is that we also have a duty of care towards teachers, who have 27 or more other pupils in their classes, to whom they must also provide an education. That scenario is already difficult for all involved, and then we add in the parents—and it can be a recipe for disaster. I was shocked to hear the hon. Member for Croydon Central refer to a five-year-old who was excluded. I find that incredible. I am glad that the matter was sorted—well done to her for doing so. It is good to see the Minister and shadow Minister in their places, and I look forward to their contributions.

I was a rather rambunctious young man, and many a broom crossed my back from my 4-foot-10-inch mother. She loved me, but she also disciplined me with the same enthusiastic passion. My hands felt the sting of the ruler at Ballywalter Primary School, but that is not how things are handled now, thank goodness.

Northern Ireland’s Department of Education publishes annual statistics on public suspensions and expulsions, and the figures from the Library show that Northern Ireland is not the worst for expulsions and suspensions. That is good news. Permanent expulsions numbered only 15 in 2017-18 and the temporary exclusion rate was only 1.4%, so that is good. The higher suspension rate was for key stage 4 pupils, who were in GCSE phases.

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, has referred to money set aside by the Department of Health and Social Care for mental health issues. Has the Minister suggested that some of that money should be drawn down to help in education? That would be important. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I sat on in the last Parliament, undertook inquiries into health and education. We were aware that in Northern Ireland children as young as 10 have experienced mental health issues. It is important to address that.

The pressures on children and, most especially, on their mental health are at an all-time high; the education authorities in Northern Ireland, as well as here on the mainland, have confirmed that. Frustration is often easily expressed in the school setting. There is an onus on teachers to educate to a high standard and yet the pressure on funding makes that harder than ever. More children are being diagnosed with behavioural issues, but there is no funding for teaching assistants or specialised teaching aids.

It is important that classroom assistants are in place. How do we expect teachers to deal with difficult children if they are not given support? The only reason why the number of exclusions is so low is that we have teachers who genuinely care, many of whom put their own mental health, physical health and wellbeing last in their list of priorities, in order to help children. We cannot pay for compassion, but we can support people in their quest to be compassionate; that applies to teachers.

Primary schools in Northern Ireland are carrying out programmes designed to help children learn breathing and calming techniques, starting with five-year-old children in P1. As the hon. Member for Croydon Central mentioned, they are an attempt to instil a coping mechanism in children, so they can process their feelings. I ask the Minister: are there similar projects and schemes here in the mainland? If not, I believe there should be. The thought process is that the earlier this is done, the better, simply to help deal with issues in later life.

Another new programme is called the nurture programme. The Department for Education funds 31 nurture groups. Each group has received some £70,000 per year for running costs over the last five years. Funding of £80,000 per year has also been allocated to the education authority to provide support for these groups. Has there been an option to provide the nurture programme here in the mainland? The funding does not come close to providing for all needs. Given that schools ask parents for additional funding, over and above their school fees for arts and crafts, it is clear that not many have the ability to pay for specialised behavioural intervention at an early stage, which could be when it is most useful. That needs to be addressed.

To tackle exclusions, we must provide teaching support at all levels. There should be someone available to work with each child who is frustrated because they do not understand or have not yet grasped an idea. Support must not be targeted after a child has managed to work their way through the behavioural process, but at the very start of life in primary school—at the very beginning.

There is a Biblical saying that people reap what they sow. I believe that if we sow support and worth into children, they will grow and we, as a society, will reap the harvest of young adults able to deal with the pressures of life, thanks to a little support, feeling and help that shows they are worthy of attention.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Eddisbury 10:33, 26 February 2020

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr Bone, and I appreciate your calling me in this debate.

In March 2018, while having an unexpected and, as it turned out, well-timed break from Parliament, I was asked by the then Secretary of State for Education to undertake an independent review of school exclusion, to explore how headteachers use exclusion in practice and why some groups of pupils are more likely to be excluded than others. The review was published on 7 May 2019, a little over nine months ago. I will not repeat everything it contains—it is available in the House Library for all to see—but I will take the opportunity left in today’s debate to consider what progress has been made since its publication.

It is worth reminding ourselves that, despite the increase in recent years, permanent exclusion remains a relatively rare event. Just 0.1% of the 8 million children in schools in England were permanently excluded in 2016-17; that still means that an average of 40 children every day are permanently excluded, with an average of a further 2,000 pupils each day excluded for a fixed period. As we have heard, permanently excluding a child should always be a last resort, when nothing else will do. I agree with my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis that it is right that headteachers maintain an unfettered discretion to remove children, as long as exclusion from school does not mean exclusion from education.

My review reinforced the need for headteachers to have exclusion available as an important tool that forms part of an effective approach to behaviour management. However, it also found that the variation in how exclusion is used goes beyond the influence of local context and that more can be done to ensure that exclusion is always used consistently, fairly and legally. That is important because outcomes for excluded children are often poor—in some circumstances, as we have heard, they can be catastrophic.

Exclusion should, and often does, help break a negative cycle of behaviour, better protect all children involved and lead to an enhanced prospect of educational and personal success and fulfilment. It should not be a trigger or contributor to a worsening trajectory of academic attainment, to the risk of becoming a victim or perpetrator of crime or to prospects of employment rather than prison.

We know from the analysis in my review that there are characteristics closely associated with exclusion: for example, children with special educational needs and those receiving support from social care. Indeed, the analysis showed that 78% of permanent exclusions were issued to pupils who either had SEN, were classified as “in need” or were eligible for free school meals. A large part of the solution must be to better identify, at an earlier stage, those children at risk of entering a revolving door of exclusions, so we can reduce avoidable and unnecessary use of such a sanction. I know that is what headteachers want, too.

That is why I recommended, and the Government endorsed, a practice improvement fund of sufficient value, longevity and reach to support local authorities and mainstream, special and alternative provision schools to work together to establish systems that identify children in need of support and deliver good, effective interventions for them. Such a system would better utilise the expertise and professionalism within alternative provision.

The Conservative party manifesto contained a welcome commitment to an alternative provision reform programme. With that in mind, I ask the Minister to think not just about the capital investment required to improve pupil referral units, which hon. Members have referred to, but about the workforce development required to ensure that the best and brightest are working in alternative provision. That expertise and specialism needs to be integrated into mainstream schools. The charity The Difference, referred to earlier, is undertaking such work; Kiran Gill and her team are already starting to have a strong impact.

I do not have time to go into detail on a number of issues, but I want to flag them with the Minister. They include fixed-term exclusions, the commitment to reduce the upper 45-day limit—the equivalent of a whole term—for which a child can be out of school and the pernicious practice off-rolling, which is illegal and on which Ofsted has borne down. It will be interesting to hear what further work will be done to make sure that it forms no part of our school system. There are also issues around managed moves—voluntary agreements between schools—that mean that a lot of children move around our school system, sometimes undetected; statutory guidance was recommended by my report.

I will briefly touch on the responsibility and accountability of schools. The oral statement made by the previous Secretary of State made it clear that the Government were going to fulfil that recommendation. Lord Nash, the then Lords Minister, was clear that he supported it, although more recently I noticed that Lord Agnew was talking about involving multi-academy trusts in providing alternative provision. It would be good to understand the current thinking on how we make schools better accountable for pupils who are excluded.

Part-academisation causes a problem for some of the recommendations made in my report when it comes to trying to define the role of local authorities. In hindsight, it would have been better, either by evolution or revolution, for us to have completed the academisation of the school system or decided that local authorities had a clear role within it. I tried to define that by saying that local authorities should be responsible for vulnerable children, such as children in care or children with special educational needs. That system could hold true in the future and help ensure that there is co-ordinated action around children at risk of exclusion.

I ask the Minister: when will work on the accountability of excluded children be stepped up and shared outside the Department for Education? When is the consultation on reducing the upper limit of fixed-term exclusions going to happen? How are the Government going to continue to tackle and bear down on off-rolling? How will the Minister help truly integrate alternative provision into the mainstream, so it acts as much as a preventer of exclusions as a recipient?

I know that the Minister is very committed to the programme. To that end, and now that I have been given a more lengthy opportunity to make myself useful on the Back Benches, I tentatively suggest to him that one way to achieve that, for our mutual benefit, would be to re-engage my services with the clear and specific purpose of helping to implement the review’s recommendations by way of a small delivery body. As I said, I know he is keen to make significant progress on this aspect of school life. It goes to the very heart of the Prime Minister’s welcome mission to spread opportunity across our country, with education a vital ingredient for achieving that.

Photo of Mike Kane Mike Kane Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 10:40, 26 February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Bone, and to follow Edward Timpson, who is a fellow Manchester City fan. I am sure that he will be on the edge of his seat tonight for the quarter final of the European cup. Governments should walk the walk, not just talk the talk, and that was a clear offer to the Minister to begin implementing the Timpson review proposals on this subject.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Sarah Jones on securing the debate, her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime, and her powerful testimony about the five-year-old who was excluded. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Brown on her work with mothers in Newham and my hon. Friend Marsha De Cordova, who spoke about Jacob in particular. These are real human stories of lives that are affected day in, day out.

Our children must have access to high-quality full-time education. The vast majority of our schools want the best for their pupils. A small minority engage in poor practice in excluding and off-rolling. As we have heard, for the children such practices have a devastating, lifelong impact on their chances. I had to question my researcher yesterday when he pulled out the following statistic, and I publicly apologise to him. The Education Policy Institute found that there were 69,000 unexplained pupil exits from school in 2017 alone. When he put that fact in front of me, I had had to pull him up and say, “Are you sure?” That is nearly one in 10 of the school population. What is going on, Minister? The number has risen by 12% between 2014 and 2017.

We have a duty to protect and nurture the most vulnerable children in society, but under this Government’s regime vulnerable children, who are already at an increased risk of low educational outcomes, are systematically over-represented among those experiencing unexplained exits from school. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea pointed out that among black and ethnic minority children the rate of exclusion is 40 times greater. The Government need to recognise the complex causes of difficult behaviour in their policies and guidance.

Schools should be supported to focus on prevention and early intervention. Jim Shannon talked about the importance of teacher support. As a result of the culture that has been created and the huge funding cuts imposed, schools often struggle to focus enough resources on wrap-around care for vulnerable students, clearly resulting in an increase in exclusions. If we are to begin to address the school exclusion crisis, the Government must first reverse school cuts, which they are not doing.

The Government must also overhaul the assessment system. As the hon. Member for Eddisbury said, schools must use the exclusion mechanism consistently. The report of the APPG on knife crime, the EPI report, and my party’s manifesto all recommended that schools remain responsible for the pupils they off-roll. Schools must be accountable for the welfare and education outcomes of all pupils who attend, so that no children are lost to the system.

Schools must play an important part in turning around the growing number of exclusions, but the issue goes much wider, and cannot be solved by schools alone. Cuts in funding for local authority support, which has been mentioned, and for child mental health services are affecting the ability to support the children who are most in need. As Members of Parliament, our Friday constituency surgeries are now rammed with parents whose children are suffering in school and cannot access mental health support services. I do not think that any MP could deny that they are seeing an increase in their case load in this area. I hope that the Minister will come away from this informed and constructive debate, reprioritise, and commit to reducing the number of school exclusions in our system.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 10:44, 26 February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate Sarah Jones on securing the debate. In her excellent opening speech, she rightly said that we all agree on one thing—that every child in this country should have the benefit of a world-class education that prepares them for adult life and helps them to fulfil their potential, including children who have been excluded at some point during their school career.

The Government are committed to ensuring that all teachers are equipped to tackle the low-level disruption and the serious behavioural issues that compromise the safety and wellbeing of pupils and school staff. Ensuring that schools are safe and disciplined environments benefits all students. In 2018, the Department for Education’s school snapshot survey of teacher opinion found that 76% felt that behaviour was good or very good in their school. According to recent data from Ofsted, behaviour is good or outstanding in 85% of primary and 68% of secondary schools. Although behaviour in schools is broadly good, those figures show that there is still more to do to tackle the casual disruption that deprives children of up to 38 school days a year, according to Ofsted’s estimates, as well as the challenging behaviour that can result in permanent exclusion. Behaviour cultures are set from the top, and the Government are determined to support headteachers to build and maintain a culture of good behaviour in their schools. For example, we are investing £10 million in behaviour hubs, so that schools with a track record of effectively managing pupils’ behaviour can share that best practice with other schools. That programme will launch in September 2020 under the supervision of a team of expert advisors on behaviour management led by Tom Bennett.

Alongside that, we are reforming teacher training as part of the early career framework, and we have bolstered the behaviour management element in the core content for initial teacher training, so that all new teachers will be taught how to manage behaviour effectively on entry to the profession.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Eddisbury

On teaching training, one of my recommendations was about trauma and attachment training, and really getting under the skin of why some children are struggling to meet the behaviour standards that we expect of all pupils within our schools. Will the Minister recommit to that recommendation, and explain how he intends to move it forward?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I will come to headteachers having to take into account the circumstances of pupils before they make a decision about exclusions, and to ensure that support is available for children who have special educational needs. I point out to Opposition Members that for the coming financial year we have increased spending on high needs education by 12%—an extra £780 million—which demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that special needs education is properly funded.

Visiting outstanding schools has shown me that a strong behaviour culture can help children who might otherwise struggle to engage in their education to succeed. Michaela Community School, a free school in Wembley to which my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis referred, is unapologetically strict in its standards of behaviour. The whole institution emits a sense of positivity and purpose quite unlike any other school that I have visited. In an area of significant deprivation, children are brimming with pride at the progress they are making.

At Reach Academy Feltham, behaviour is tracked on a transparent points-based system called “Payslip”, which gives rewards and privileges for good behaviour and deducts points for disruption. The school has a notably low number of fixed-term exclusions, and has not excluded a pupil permanently in the last two years.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

The Minister is giving some good examples of individual schools, but does he accept our fundamental premise that the 70% increase in school exclusions, and some of the societal indicators of whether someone is more likely to be excluded, are really significant and need to be considered at national level, not just at the level of individual schools?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will come to exclusions in just a moment. However, as my hon. Friend Edward Timpson pointed out, permanent exclusions are at 0.1% of pupil attendance in our school system.

The approach at Reach Academy Feltham indicates that when children know what is expected of them and how poor behaviour will be dealt with, they are less likely to display the persistent disruptive behaviour that is still the most common cause of exclusion. As my hon. Friend the Member reiterated, exclusion is an essential tool for headteachers to use when a pupil oversteps the bounds of what is acceptable in a school, either because of one serious incident or through persistent disruption. This Government therefore back, and will always back, headteachers who use exclusion to ensure they have good discipline in their schools, including permanent exclusion where it is used as a last resort. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said, speaking from his eight years of experience as a secondary school teacher, it is important to protect all pupils and their teachers from disruptive or violent behaviour in schools. He is right: all teachers have the right to teach and all children have the right to be taught in a safe and disciplined environment, without danger, intimidation or distraction.

It is important to put this debate on exclusion rates into perspective. As I said in response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Croydon Central, the rate of permanent exclusions last year was 0.1%, and the longer-term trends show that the rate of permanent exclusions across all state primary, secondary and special schools has followed a downward trend. In 2006-07, the rate was 0.12%; by 2012-13, it had fallen to 0.06%. That rate has since risen, but it is still lower now than in 2006-07. That is because, as set out in the DFE’s exclusions guidance, we expect all schools to

“consider what extra support might be needed to identify and address the needs of pupils” from groups more likely to be excluded

“in order to reduce their risk of exclusion.”

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

In 1997, the Labour Government inherited record numbers of permanent exclusions. The level in 1996-97 was about 12,000 a year, but by the time the Labour Government left office in 2010, exclusions had more than halved to 5,700, and crime fell over that same period. Does the Minister agree that where we have seen reductions in school exclusion, all kinds of other things follow? Where there have been increases in public spending in areas such as education, there have been reductions in school exclusion and in crime. Over the past 10 years, and over the past few years in particular, we have seen increases in violent crime and in school exclusion as funding for our public services has been reduced.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Analysis has shown that excluded children have a higher risk of being a victim or perpetrator of crime, but although there is a strong correlation between those two issues, we have to be careful to not draw a simple causal link. The evidence does not suggest that exclusion causes children to be involved in crime; what it does suggest is that engagement in education is a strong protective factor for children who might otherwise be vulnerable to involvement in crime. It is therefore vital that schools and colleges enable all children to achieve, to belong, and to remain safe in education. That is the part played by the Department for Education in a wider cross-Government approach to tackle crime and serious violence. We will continue to work closely with other Departments, including the Home Office, to ensure that young people remain safe.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North pointed out, the focus must be on attendance, which research suggests is associated with risky behaviour linked to serious youth violence. Ministry of Justice research on the educational background of young knife-possession offenders showed that 83% had been persistently absent in at least one of the previous five years; overall, school attendance has improved significantly since 2010. That is why we have put such an emphasis on ensuring that children attend school.

Headteachers are best placed to judge what extra support may be needed in their school. Ofsted’s new inspection framework continues to include consideration of the reasons for exclusions and their rates and patterns, as well as any differences between pupil groups, as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury. Inspectors also consider evidence of off-rolling, and they are likely to judge a school to be inadequate if there is evidence that pupils have been removed from the school without a formal permanent exclusion, which my hon. Friend has also mentioned as a concern.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Labour/Co-operative, Ealing North

The Minister has referred to the role that headteachers play in deciding what support they need to make sure exclusions are as low as possible. I reiterate my comment about Northolt High School in my constituency, where the headteacher has applied through the Excluded Initiative for charitable funding to help with some of its inclusion work. If that school is unsuccessful in its bid, would the Minister agree to meet its excellent headteacher and others who may be unsuccessful in their bids to discuss what other funding might be found to support their plans?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I am happy to meet the headteacher in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to discuss these issues; I always learn something in those meetings, and they can be extremely helpful. However, I point out that we are increasing high-needs funding by 12% and overall school funding by 5% this year alone, with a three-year settlement, and that school funding will rise to £52 billion by the end of that three-year settlement period.

Nothing I have said detracts from the fact that for the one child in 1,000 who is permanently excluded, their exclusion is a sign that something has gone seriously wrong. Without the right support, vulnerable children and young people can be left at risk of harm, including becoming involved in serious violence. We need to offer those children a fresh start—a school that can re-engage them with their education. For many excluded pupils, that will mean alternative provision. Good alternative provision offers excluded pupils a second chance to develop those core skills and readiness for adult life.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. Although 85% of state-funded alternative provision across the country is rated good or outstanding —an increase, by the way, from 73% in 2013—it remains the case that in some areas, permanently excluded pupils are not able to secure good-quality AP quickly, increasing the risk of them becoming caught up in knife crime. The report on knife crime produced by the all-party parliamentary group chaired by the hon. Member for Croydon Central emphasised the importance of full-time education for all children, including those vulnerable to exclusion. The hon. Lady referred to the fall in the number of pupil referral units between 2014 and 2017. The facts are that in 2014, there were 371 PRUs and alternative provision academies; in 2017, there were 351; and as of June 2019, there were 354. Eight alternative provision academies are in the pipeline to open before 2023.

Our focus must be on improving the availability of good-quality AP, so that when a child is excluded from school, that does not mean exclusion from good-quality education. Those children must have timely access to the support and education they need to help reduce risk, promote resilience, and enable them to re-engage with education and make good progress. We know that is possible, because there is excellent and innovative practice out there.

One great example is the parent and carer curriculum taught at the Pears Family School in Islington, which is an AP free school that opened its doors in 2014 and was found to be outstanding three years later. What is unusual about that school is that parents attend with their children several times a week, and in those sessions parents help pupils to make progress with their reading and are taught how best to support their children in their education. As a result, a high proportion of pupils are successfully re-integrated into mainstream school after a short placement. That model is currently being trialled by the Pears Family School and the Anna Freud Centre in three other AP settings across England. That is just one of the nine projects supported by our £4 million AP innovation fund, which we established to test the effectiveness of innovative approaches to improving alternative provision, an approach that I know my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury supports.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Croydon Central and to other hon. Members for having raised their concerns about this issue. I assure the hon. Lady and other Members that we take this issue very seriously and are addressing it, including by improving school behaviour and providing the right support to those at risk of exclusion.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Eddisbury

I realise that we are about to finish, but I reiterate my offer to my right hon. Friend the Minister. He may need some time to consider the generosity of it, but in the meantime, would he agree to meet me to discuss the implementation of my review, and to write to me in advance of that meeting to answer the questions that I put?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend. He has raised the issue of accountability measures: expectations for pupils in AP have not been high enough in the past, and as part of our drive to improve quality across the AP sector, we will consider how we can better assess performance and strengthen accountability for pupils in AP. We will have more to say on that in due course.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 10:59, 26 February 2020

Very quickly—gosh! I was hoping to read out a couple of quotes from the hundreds of people who sent in amazing responses, but I do not have time, which is a great shame. I will pass them all to the Minister, and will publish them in some way. Children are more likely to be excluded if they are poor, have a special need, live in a deprived area or are black, and they are then more likely to go into crime. I thank the Minister for his response, but—

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Order. I am sorry to cut short such an important debate, but time has beaten us.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).