Thousands of vulnerable children are falling through gaps in the education system, putting them at risk of low attainment, serious violence, county lines, criminal exploitation, grooming and harm, the Commission for Young Lives has warned.
The report calls for a new era of incentivising all schools to become more inclusive and makes a series of recommendations for how schools can be supported to divert vulnerable teenagers away from crime and exploitation and enable them to thrive.
Anne Longfield, Chair of the Commission on Young Lives, said: “Look behind the headlines of the tragic deaths, acts of serious violence and criminal exploitation of our young people over recent years and so often you see a pattern of children disengaging and falling out of school and into harm. Not all children who leave mainstream school will be affected, but the statistics show that too many will - even more so if the child has Special Educational Needs or is Black. These are the young people at the sharp end of an education system which has not always prioritised the needs of vulnerable children, and one that I believe could and should be transformed to ensure all children can succeed.”
The report highlights the disadvantages and dangers that falling out of school can have on some young people, which includes:
The Commission highlights how they met with one mother whose five-year-old was excluded from school 17 times in a year.
Thousands of children are leaving school without good qualifications, but also the culture of exclusions has grown in recent years. There was a 5% increase in the number of children excluded from school in the autumn of 2019 compared to the same period the previous year
Furthermore, permanent exclusions have risen from 5,082 in 2010/11 to 7,894 in 2018/19, before Covid, which the Covid-affected year of 2019/20, saw 5,057 children in England permanently excluded.
Across a 10-year span, from 2010-2020, children aged between 12 and 14 have consistently been the age group with the highest numbers of exclusions. Yet these are often the children most at risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system, the report warns.
Recent research by the Department for Education and Ministry of Justice has highlighted how one in five children that had ever been permanently excluded were also cautioned or sentenced for a serious violence offence. 59% of children that had ever been permanently excluded were also cautioned or sentenced for an offence.
There is also evidence of criminal gangs trying to coerce vulnerable children to become permanently excluded for taking drugs or weapons to school, or for violent behaviour.
Highlighting the poor outcomes for children in Alternative Provision, the report warns that just 4% of pupils in AP passed English and Maths at GCSE, compared to 64% in mainstream school.
The Commission urges the culture of exclusion to be challenged in favour of encouraging a more inclusive education system, holding schools accountable for excluding or moving children off the school role, but also providing them with the support and resource they need to keep children in school.
The report calls for:
A ban on primary school exclusions from 2026.
Removal of a child from secondary school becomes a genuine last resort, and is only possible following a programme of support.
A new requirement for every school to publish their inclusive 'education for all' strategy and report annually on the number of children who have been excluded or moved from the school roll.
A new transitional fund to pump prime local authority area wide inclusion strategies and support packages for schools including therapeutic support, educational psychologists, family workers, youth workers and mental health support.
School league tables to include an agreed measurement of pupil wellbeing alongside exam results.
A new inclusion measure to be introduced by Ofsted, as a key measure to inform judgement.
Alternative provision should be renamed 'specialist provision' and be available to support struggling pupils to progress with their learning in school.
The use of the label 'Pupil Referral Unit' should be scrapped.
Teams of youth and community workers in all schools to build relationships and support young people, and a key role for school-based family workers, working alongside and as part of the supporting families' teams and liaising with children's centres, family hubs and children's services.
Anne Longfield added: “We should celebrate the excellent outcomes our education system provides for most children, while being determined to change the fact that thousands of children in England are leaving school without good qualifications or are falling through gaps in the education system, putting them at greater risk of danger.
“A system that has no real accountability for a five-year-old boy being excluded 17 times in a year, or where a vulnerable teenager is out of school for months or even years, is not a system that is working for every child.
“Over recent years, we have seen the growth of an exclusions culture that perversely rewards removing some vulnerable children from school roll. That must not continue. We need a new culture of inclusion and accountability, that recognises and rewards nurture and which sticks with children and families from cradle to career.
“This does not mean that our ambitions for academic achievement and high standards of behaviour should be lowered - far from it. Our ambition must be for all children to feel learning and achievement is for them, and to feel school is somewhere that they want to be.
“Inclusive schools and college around the country are already showing how it can be done. They are an anchor in the community, offering families and children the support they need to do well. But too often they are the exception because the system does not provide schools with the direction, support, and resources needed to deliver for every child. The Government's Education White Paper and SEND Green Paper are a welcome change of direction towards this more inclusive system, though not yet with the necessary financial support.
“High aspiration, high standards and high expectations should always go alongside a sense of responsibility for all children. We should never be content with an education system that too often provides those who want to exploit children with a conveyor belt of vulnerable teenagers. An inclusive education system is a key weapon in our battle against them,” she concluded.
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