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The prevalence of school exclusions in the UK, their root causes, and the importance of preventative offerings over reactive interventions

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This paper was written by Matilda Shaw from Goldsmiths University, and Jody Audley from Catch22.



School exclusions and their societal impact on mental health and well-being, criminal activity and inequality remain a challenge in the UK.

The prevalence of exclusions has been consistent in recent years (Government Digital Service, 2023), not only negatively impacting an individual’s trajectory but also disproportionately affecting certain students. Academic literature identifies vulnerable populations according to factors such as ethnicity, gender, ability, and socioeconomic status (Graham et al., 2019).

This review aims to explore evidence-based literature on solely government-funded ‘state’ schools, delving into the impact of exclusions, their effectiveness as an intervention, and potential alternatives to better utilise government resources. The objectives of this review are to understand the prevalence of school exclusion and address the effectiveness of Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) – specialist schools that facilitate teaching for children excluded from mainstream schools.

The disproportionate nature of exclusion risks for vulnerable children will be explored and the balance between preventative and punitive measures will be discussed. Identifying the findings of prominent and recent literature promotes better-informed policymaking for the allocation of resources and discourages unsuitable and unsupportive educational practices that may persist in current schooling procedures.

Understanding school exclusions

Exclusions are a disciplinary measure taken by school authorities in response to a student’s severe or persistently poor behaviour that is detrimental to other pupils and/or staff. There are two types of exclusions: fixed-term (also referred to as a suspension or temporary exclusion) and permanent, which are determined according to a breach of the school’s disciplinary policy.

PRUs are better equipped to adapt to the more specialised needs of their students. PRUs hold an average of forty-seven pupils per school, with a higher teacher-student ratio than state schools (National Statistics, 2023). These schools implement a specialised curriculum which aims to create a supportive and tailored educational setting where students can receive personalised attention, targeted interventions, and dedicated resources and facilities that address an individual’s specific challenges and needs. The purpose of PRUs is to mitigate mainstream disruptions caused by challenging students by removing them from the traditional classroom setting and providing a more supportive, educational environment that more closely considers the academic, social, and emotional development of excluded pupils.

In 2022’s autumn term cohort, 3,104 children were permanently excluded from state schools across the UK, at a rate equivalent to four permanent exclusions per 10,000 students (National Statistics, 2023). This rate of exclusions has been consistent in the last five years, discounting the pandemic, staying between 0.03-0.05%. 55% of permanent exclusions are attributed to disruptive behaviour. In the 2022/2023 academic year, 7,470 students attended PRUs across the UK from ages 4-16 (National Statistics, 2023).

The process of initiating an exclusion, finding a suitable PRU, and navigating the waiting list can be a prolonged and disruptive experience for students. The efficiency of this transition hinges on various factors, including the capacities of surrounding schools, local policies, admission criteria, and the urgency of each individual’s circumstances. This transition can present significant challenges, with more than a third of councils in the UK reporting waiting lists for their PRUs, with an average of 20 children on each list, receiving either online tutoring or none at all (Hill et al., 2023). The prolonged transition between schools not only isolates children from in-person teaching but also hinders academic progress as they adjust to home-schooling, leading to shortfalls in adapting to new learning techniques, potential delays in resource allocation, and disengagement from the online learning format. Moreover, the extended waiting time for PRU placement has implications beyond academic concerns. Children are ‘often not doing anything purposeful’ while they await a transfer to a PRU and lose support from their original school whilst they are awaiting enrolment to a PRU. (Martin-Denham, 2020). Children in this situation often find themselves isolated from the normal social dynamics of a classroom setting, impacting their ability to form relationships and engage with peers, and potentially worsening any emotional or behavioural challenges they may already be facing. This shows that delays in PRU transitioning can stunt many aspects of an individual’s progress, disrupting crucial aspects of education outside academic achievement. Therefore, prioritising efficient transitioning processes would minimise these negative academic and social-emotional consequences associated with exclusions.

Understanding the nuanced impact of school exclusions on different demographic groups is essential for addressing enduring disparities in exclusion rates and tailoring interventions to mitigate these disparities effectively.

Contributing factors to school exclusion

The impact of school exclusions is not uniform, with certain demographic groups bearing a disproportionate burden. Research has identified specific communities facing enduring disparities in school exclusion rates, prompting the need for more nuanced exploration:

Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller students

The exclusion rates among Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils highlight a concerning trend. The highest exclusion rate across all ethnicities was that of Gypsy/Roma Children (18 per 100), and travellers of Irish heritage (12 per 100) (National Statistics, 2023). This means that exclusions affected more than 1/10 of children from these ethnicities. The alarmingly-high exclusion rates for Gypsy/Roma children and travellers of Irish heritage, exceeding 10% for both groups, underscore a troubling pattern that demands urgent attention. Research has found confounding variables of higher prejudice and lower school attendance among Gypsy/Roma travellers which could account for the higher exclusion rates in this group (Binns, 1990). These findings could perhaps exist due to linguistic differences, nomadic lifestyle (moving frequently for work or cultural reasons) and discrimination or lack of sensitivity in educational settings for this marginalised group.

Black Caribbean students

Black Caribbean pupils emerge as another particularly vulnerable group, experiencing a significantly higher likelihood of school exclusions compared to white pupils (Graham et al., 2019). National statistics (2023) found that Black and mixed-race pupils of Caribbean ethnicity had the second highest exclusion rate of 0.05 and 0.09 (respectively, per 100 pupils). Another study found that Black Caribbean students are nearly four times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion compared to the rest of the school population (Demie, 2019). This overrepresentation in exclusion statistics has been investigated in research, pointing to reasons such as institutional racism, lack of diversity, teacher’s low expectations, and lack of effective training on multicultural education (Demie, 2019).

Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND)

Pupils with SEND without an Education, Health, and Care (EHC) plan had an alarmingly high rate of permanent exclusions per 100 (0.12) (National Statistics, 2023). Individuals with SEND face a heightened risk of exclusion due to potential systemic barriers for disabilities, inadequate teacher training and restricted resources. This group demand more specialised attention, due to diverse learning needs, varied support requirements and accessibility considerations, which PRUs are often more equipped for despite not being schools specifically for SEND pupils.

Free School Meal eligibility

The correlation between eligibility for free school meals (FSMs) and higher exclusion rates underscores the presence of socioeconomic disparities affecting educational experiences. Research has shown that semi-permanent exclusions were four times more prevalent among FSM-eligible students compared to their non-eligible counterparts (National Statistics, 2023), suggesting that a student’s family wealth could influence the likelihood of exclusion. This disparity in exclusion rates may exacerbate educational inequality, with economically disadvantaged students facing additional barriers to accessing and benefiting from education. However, it is essential to note that while these disparities are evident, further research is needed to comprehensively understand the underlying factors contributing to the disproportionate exclusion of students from poorer backgrounds and how these factors intersect with educational opportunities.


Gender also has a high determining power of exclusions. Male pupils were found more than twice as likely to be excluded than female pupils, with exclusion rates of 0.05 and 0.02 respectively (National Statistics, 2023). Research has shown the highest rate of exclusion for boys is between the ages of 12 and 14 (Thomson, 2023) which is in alignment with the period that boys start puberty (starting at age 12) (NHS, 2022). This could point to puberty as a factor that influences the gender disparity and accounts for a significantly higher rate of exclusion for boys at these ages. These statistics only recognised cisgender and transgender students so the effect of exclusions on gender non-conforming students, another vulnerable characteristic, is not examined here and current academic literature lacks exploration of this.

Mental health

Students with mental health difficulties have previously been identified as another vulnerable group to school exclusion, with up to ten times increased risk compared to their peers without such difficulties (Martin-Denham, 2020). This may reflect a lack of awareness within the education system on the implications of mental health issues. The challenges these students face in navigating the school environment are multifaceted. Mental health issues can impact concentration, emotional regulation, and social interactions, making it more difficult for students to engage effectively in academic and social pursuits (Nurtureuk, 2023). Exclusion rates are observed to be higher among students with attention difficulties compared to those without (Lereya et al., 2019), indicating a potential teacher misinterpretation of attention-related behaviours as deliberate disinterest or normal disobedience. This misalignment between the needs of students with mental health difficulties and the understanding of school staff jeopardises a supportive learning environment for these at-risk pupils.


The prevalence of school exclusion varies across different regions of the UK, with exclusion rates during the 2022/23 Autumn term ranging from 0.06 in the Northeast to 0.02 in the Southeast (National Statistics, 2023). Simultaneously, the National Funding Formula (NFF) highlights that, over the last decade, schools in the North of England received, on average, less funding when compared to their southern counterparts (Mon-Williams et al., 2023). This persistent funding inequality between the north and south of the UK raises concerns about the quality of support in education, and the reasons for the higher prevalence of exclusions in the North. While statistical differences in exclusion rates between regions are evident, the correlation between funding disparities and the prevalence of exclusions in the North and Northeast of England suggests a complex interplay of different socioeconomic factors.

Statistical evidence on the identified vulnerable groups shows that various factors can contribute to an individual’s risk of exclusion. Socioeconomic factors such as limited access to resources, educational support and extracurricular activities could explain some of these findings.

Discrimination, explicit or implicit, could impact disciplinary actions and explain some disparities found in the impacts of exclusions. Targeted interventions must focus on these groups and explore why these disparities exist.

School exclusion impact: the individual

School exclusions are implemented to allow schools to maintain safe learning environments for other students, impose accountability and reduce classroom disruption. Though effective at providing solutions for the rest of the class, the impacts of exclusions are significant and widespread for the individual excluded.

Research indicates that the adoption of zero-tolerance policies in education is associated with elevated rates of exclusions (Jean-Pierre & Parris-Drummond, 2021). Not only have these policies proven to be ineffective, but they have also demonstrated detrimental effects (Jean-Pierre & Parris-Drummond, 2021). The term “zero tolerance policies” refers to a philosophy or policy mandating predetermined consequences, often severe and punitive, without considering the gravity of behaviour, mitigating circumstances, or situational context (American Psychological Association, 2008). This approach does not consider a child’s intention or circumstance and provides reason to exclude where it may not be appropriate or reflect the true nature of the behaviour. Yet, zero-tolerance dictates automatic suspensions, managed moves, and exclusions (Perry & Morris, 2014). This approach prioritises discipline over holistic understanding of root causes, and behavioural triggers that may have contributed to misdemeanours occurring. Attitudes towards discipline determine the extent of exclusionary interventions that are implemented.

Ramifications from the absence of intervention also present issues. The fallout from not excluding a child who is presenting troublesome behaviours can create problems for other students and teaching staff. As mentioned, the most common reason for exclusion in the academic year 2022/23 was disruptive behaviour (National Statistics, 2023). Implementing this intervention may be motivated by various concerns, including issues such as unfocused classrooms, negative peer influence, teacher burnout, and safety apprehensions, all of which are potential consequences of disruptive behaviours. These behaviours can significantly affect a teacher’s ability to deliver lesson materials and create a worsened learning environment and quality of education for others. While some interventions may be more effective than others, it is crucial to comprehend and compare these interventions to the impacts of no intervention at all.

Prioritising disciplinary procedures within schools has been shown to have significant implications on an individual’s academic achievement, mental health and risk of involvement in crime. School suspensions have been correlated to lower grades on cognitive tests in both science and maths (Davis & Jordan, 1994) which could be a result of knowledge gaps from missed teaching or other stressors associated with the process of being suspended.

Exclusions not only serve as disciplinary actions but also bring about notable social and emotional repercussions. Studies have highlighted the detrimental effects of exclusions on teacher-student relationships. One meta-analysis (Gregory et al., 2012) noted an association between temporary exclusion, decreased teacher-student relationships, and increased student misbehaviour. These strained teacher-student relationships have also been shown to lead to resentment and mistrust among students (Skiba et al, 2011). Physical separation from peers and potential stigmas, further jeopardize peer relationships. Similarly, feelings of isolation, including social alienation and loss of social connections, worsen the impact of exclusions, inducing loneliness and contributing to mental health challenges. Research by Hawker and Boulton (2000) highlights the significant correlation between social exclusion and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety among adolescents. Moreover, research has also shown that excluded students were more likely to experience feelings of loneliness and social isolation, which can have lasting effects on their emotional well-being and academic performance (Bradshaw et al., 2009). Thus, the disruption of social connections exacerbates the negative consequences of exclusion, underscoring the importance of addressing the social and emotional needs of students within the educational system.

Heightened stress is another notable risk for the excluded population, stemming from disrupted routines, uncertainty about the exclusion decision, and concerns about external opinions of them following exclusion. This stress is linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety (Wolf & Kupchiks, 2016). In summary, the consequences of suspensions and exclusions extend beyond immediate disciplinary actions, encompassing complex social, emotional, and mental health challenges.

School exclusion impact: wider society

As the excluded individual continues to develop, research has found that they become subject to a greater risk of poor mental and physical health, unemployment, homelessness, and involvement in crime (Pirrie et al., 2011). This may be a result of continued lack of support, isolation from mainstream society, and other implications from educational disruption such as lower grade attainment, limited access to useful opportunities, and lacking positive influences.

This raises serious concerns about the immediate and lasting consequences of exclusions on students’ overall well-being and future trajectories. The concept of the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ is particularly relevant in understanding potential consequences from exclusions, suggesting a greater risk of entanglement in the criminal justice system. This ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ is a term used to describe a systemic phenomenon where punitive measures within the educational system inadvertently contribute to students’ involvement risk in criminal activities later in life (Arnez & Condry, 2021). This phenomenon reflects a broader failure in educational systems to address underlying issues and implement supportive interventions in response to students’ behaviour. Punitive measures, such as school exclusions, used without addressing the root causes of behavioural issues can exacerbate challenges rather than provide constructive solutions. Potential feelings of alienation, frustration, and resentment from exclusions can create poor environments and mindsets that make an individual more vulnerable to negative influences and engage in activities leading to criminal behaviour. Failing to address initial issues and resorting to harmful disciplinary techniques feeds into a myriad of disadvantages, pushing individuals towards the criminal justice system. Despite the evident negative outcomes associated with the school-to-prison pipeline, exclusive approaches to discipline continue to be relied upon, pointing to a critical need for a re-evaluation of current practices.

Embracing preventative approaches that strategically focus on targeted interventions within schools not only safeguards against immediate behavioural challenges but also holds the transformative power to significantly mitigate the risk of subsequent involvement in the criminal justice system for individuals. By proactively addressing the root causes of behavioural issues and implementing targeted interventions, this approach serves as a pivotal deterrent, charting a course toward a more secure and positive future for students, reinforcing the critical role of education in breaking the cycle of disadvantage and steering individuals away from potentially detrimental pathways.

The nature of exclusions and their impact on individual mimics that of the current UK Criminal Justice System. Both systems rely on punitive measures ostensibly aimed at safeguarding the school or community, yet they carry profound and lasting repercussions for the individuals involved. Research articles highlight similarities in negative outcomes between school exclusions and criminal justice interventions (Arnez & Condry, 2021) (Pirrie et al., 2011). One consequence is the potential disruption of post-16 education. Exclusions are documented on student records which impacts their access to selective schools that look unfavourably upon excluded individuals. This impact of a school record parallels that of a criminal record. Criminal records document previous arrests and convictions and pose a deterrent to future employers. This demonstrates how exclusions are not an isolated issue and its punitive practices serve as a barrier to future opportunities, hindering an individual’s development and ability to progress in the long term much like the current criminal justice system. This draws attention to broader societal implications of disciplinary approaches, showing permanent effects on trajectories for those affected.

Alternative interventions

Considering the profound and long-lasting consequences associated with punitive disciplinary measures in both education and the Criminal Justice System, it becomes imperative to explore alternative approaches. Recognizing the parallels between the impact of school exclusions and criminal records, a shift towards preventative measures emerges as a promising alternative to break the cycle of disadvantage.

Preventative measures

Preventative approaches are an alternative practice to punitive discipline that aims to target the root cause of behavioural problems rather than reacting to behavioural symptoms and has been shown effective in addressing behavioural issues and preventing school exclusions (DeSouza et al, 2020). Examples of this regarding preventing school exclusions include counselling programs, parental support, and more specialised training for teachers. If allocated and implemented effectively, preventative measures can stop poor behaviour from occurring in the first instance through identifying and supporting root causes of behaviour and enabling many individuals involved with the child/young person to respond appropriately and conductively so they are always met with preventative responses rather than punishment. This approach invests school resources upfront, directing them towards preventive measures rather than PRUs or disciplinary procedures, thereby avoiding the negative consequences of exclusions.

Managed move

Another alternative to a permanent exclusion is a process called a “managed move” where a voluntary agreement is made to move a child to a different mainstream school in the local area. Considering this option before resorting to a permanent exclusion can offer a second chance to the child and is supported by research (Craggs et al, 2018). Allowing the child to be involved in the conversation and volunteer to change schools also gives them some agency in the decisions made about their behaviour, which a wealth of research has identified as a successful way to encourage cooperation and generally obtain better outcomes (Smith, 2019). Considering this option before resorting to a permanent exclusion can provide a second chance for the child before more extreme measures are taken.

Elective home education

Elective home education is another option to be considered instead of a permanent exclusion. This means that disruptive behaviours, or those that jeopardise safeguarding, can be isolated away from other mainstream students as the individual completes their schoolwork from home rather than in the usual school environment. Insights into elective home education research have shown the value of this option as an alternative to school exclusions and their implications (Robinson, 2016). In this way, the individual would not be impacting the education of others, nor would they have implications in the future from a permanent exclusion on their school record. However, the effectiveness of this option depends on individual circumstances. The demand on parents and guardians to support home education and the lack of socialisation due to the removal of the school environment could result in ineffectiveness and potential drawbacks to this option, necessitating a thorough evaluation of individual circumstances before permitting this alternative intervention.

Resource allocation in mainstream schools

Allocating school resources to prioritise the facilitation of challenging behaviours could reduce the exclusion of pupils from educational settings. An example of this is the allocation of funding for London Secondary schools, with high exclusion rates, to develop on-site inclusion units to facilitate teaching space for those students with disruptive behaviour (Cohen, 2020). Equipping mainstream schools with funding for additional staffing, specialised staffing, and better training for behaviour management, could provide coping mechanisms that are sufficient enough to keep at-risk children in the classroom rather than marginalising them further by removing them from the school completely. This also disrupts the cycle of the school-to-prison pipeline by not removing the pupil from “society” and labelling them as “too naughty to be there”, but instead providing additional, bespoke support to them so they can remain in a regular school environment.

Adopting alternative approaches to punitive disciplinary measures in education holds the potential for more positive and long-lasting impacts. By investing in preventative measures that target the root causes of behavioural problems, there is a prospect of reducing overall behavioural issues and cultivating a positive and inclusive learning environment. This strategic allocation of resources could lead to a more supportive educational system, equipping at-risk children with the necessary support to thrive both academically and socially, thus minimising the detrimental consequences associated with exclusions.

Furthermore, the implementation of managed moves provides students with an opportunity to reflect on and learn from their mistakes, fostering successful reintegration into mainstream education. This alternative offers a second chance for students, potentially averting the enduring negative consequences linked to permanent exclusion. These alternative approaches strive towards creating a more inclusive and supportive educational system, ultimately contributing to improved mental health, enhanced academic success, and a reduced likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system for individuals who may otherwise face the harsh repercussions of exclusionary measures. The emphasis on preventative, and rehabilitative strategies not only benefits the immediate educational environment but also lays the foundation for a more fair and positive societal impact in the long run. By fostering proactive intervention, we not only address immediate challenges but also cultivate skills and mindsets that can lead to reduced rates of future disruptions, improved academic outcomes, and enhanced social cohesion.


Research suggesting effectiveness in exclusionary practices is scarce. Therefore, the government’s continual reliance on them points to other reasons for their keep: Ineffectiveness in government strategy when approaching policy making; reluctance to change; sticking to the status quo; and general societal preference for punishing approaches are all plausible explanations for maintaining exclusions in most schools (Obsuth et al., 2017).

Intervention, especially that of early effect, has however been shown to improve the outcome for wellbeing and engagement in education for vulnerable individuals (Snell et al., 2013). Perhaps this controversy stems from the conflicting priorities of investing resources upfront to improve the discussed challenges in the long term or whether to improve the overwhelming reality for schools currently struggling to cope with facilitating all students’ needs. The persisting reliance on exclusionary practices, despite the lack of supporting evidence, underscores the urgency for reform in disciplinary approaches within educational institutions. A shift towards more inclusive and restorative practices is imperative to address the root causes of challenging behaviour and provide support for students at risk of exclusion. Initiatives that promote positive teacher-student relationships, mental health support, and problem-solving interventions can contribute to a more constructive and nurturing educational environment. These approaches to mitigate school exclusions have shown to have a lasting impact on future risk factors for delinquent behaviours, improving crime rates and longer-term society well-being. Further research could benefit from focusing on the discriminatory impacts of school exclusions and intersectional studies that delve into factors of race, gender, ability, and socio-economic status. The recognition of the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ necessitates a broader societal conversation about the interactions and relevance of education, disciplinary practices and the criminal justice system and how more effective approaches implemented in schools could elicit more effective outcomes in adulthood.

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