Suspensions have risen post-pandemic, with 250,000 more days lost since 2018/19 - a 30% increase.
For the first time, the majority of suspensions are of children living in poverty, widening further the poverty gap in lost learning.
As schools begin a new year free from pandemic disruption, a clearer picture emerges of the looming shadow it has cast for the most vulnerable children.
New Department of Education data reveals 3,000+ children a day lost learning through suspension from school in 2021/22 (latest available figures). Analysis of the data was carried out by a new ‘Who’s Losing Learning? Coalition’, made up of founding organisations The Difference, Impetus and IPPR.
The ‘Who’s Losing Learning? Coalition’ aims to reveal the extent of post-pandemic lost learning and its disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable. In the run up to a General Election, The Coalition will conduct new analysis and policy development to tackle this urgent social justice problem.
The Coalition’s new analysis has found:
- The equivalent of 3,000+ children each day have been losing learning having being sent home from school, up from 2,300 in 2018/19
- More than half of all suspensions were of children living in poverty, 3.7 times more likely to be sent home than other children. Compared to pre-pandemic suspensions, the numbers of children in poverty losing learning in this way has increased by 75%, compared to a rise of only 4% for those not in poverty.
- Children with social workers are 4x more likely to lose learning through being sent home from school, with worrying implications for their safety.
- Children with special needs are also more likely to lose learning this way - 4x more likely to be sent home than other children; those in the higher tier of recognised need with Education Health Care Plans are 3.7x more likely
- Racial inequalities persist. While white British children still make up the majority of suspended students (73% or 3 in 4), certain heritages continue to be excluded at higher rates. Black Caribbean children are 1.5x more likely to lose learning through suspension than white British peers; dual heritage white and black Caribbean children are 1.7x more likely to lose learning. The comparatively smaller Irish traveller and gypsy roma traveller populations continue to be the most over-excluded: 2.4 times and 3.2 times more likely than white British children, respectively.
- These demographic patterns repeat across other types of lost learning such as children non-attending, leaving school rolls in unexplained ways and permanently excluded children. In each instance, children with the above identities are losing learning the most. The ‘Who’s Losing Learning? Coalition’ is calling for a clearer understanding of these patterns across this lost learning, so that policy can support schools to deal with the root causes of lost learning - children’s mental health and safety - rather than siloed policy responses to the symptoms of attendance, exclusion, suspension or off-rolling.
The scale of the problem
- Pre-pandemic research established a clear pattern of repeat suspensions as a warning sign of the path to permanent exclusion, where children are told to leave their school permanently. Fewer than 5% of these young people get the passport GCSEs they need in English & maths, and they go on to cost the state £370,000 each in extra health, education, welfare and criminal justice costs.
- Suspensions have risen by 140,000 per year, compared to pre-pandemic data.
- Because suspensions have been rising, we can expect a rise in permanent exclusions to follow. This could see this cohort’s £2.4bn total cost to the state rise next year. It threatens system failure in state pupil referral units, where capacity is already unable to cope with demand.
- Suspensions are a point of intervention for schools when difficult behaviours come to the fore, and begin to escalate. They mark a potential to investigate the cause, and reduce likelihood of further risk and harm. A 30% increase in suspensions suggests schools and teachers need more support to do this.
Can the situation be improved?
The Who’s Losing Learning? Coalition is calling for the following:
- We need to look at the causes behind symptoms like a rise in suspensions. Ahead of a General Election, the ‘Who’s Losing Learning? Coalition’ will join the dots between different types of lost learning: falling attendance, persistent absence, pupil moves and off-rolling, as well as suspensions and exclusions. All of this lost learning is happening to the most vulnerable learners who are disproportionately in poverty, unsafe, suffering mental ill health and with special needs - pointing to the need for school reform to break down the barriers to these children’s opportunities.
- We need to build new policy, informed by the front line. The ‘Who’s Losing Learning? Coalition’ has been set up to develop this in the next few months. Analysing the latest data; hearing directly from young people and school leaders; and drawing on best practice in schools nationally, The Coalition will publish new analysis and recommendations for Government in Spring 2024 to help schools reduce the pandemic of lost learning.
- We can learn from schools that are bucking national trends. Some schools, like those working with school leadership charity The Difference, are reversing the trends on lost learning seen nationally. These schools are taking a whole-school, protective and preventative approach to pupils’ mental health and safety, seeing gains in attendance, reductions in suspensions and exclusions. The majority of school Leaders on The Difference Inclusive Leadership Course reported a reduction in suspensions within the first year of study and support.
The Who’s Losing Learning? Coalition
This release marks the launch of the Coalition, intended to grow in the run up to the General Election. Founding members are:
- School leadership charity The Difference
- Youth Education charity Impetus and
- The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the UK’s leading progressive think tank
These organisations have come together to reveal the extent of post-pandemic lost learning through absence, exclusion and marginalisation and to disrupt the pattern which sees young people from certain demographics more likely to lose learning, across all types of lost learning. The Coalition will publish further analysis and recommendations for Government in Spring 2024.
Kiran Gill, CEO of The Difference and advisor to The Timpson Review of School Exclusions said:
The Covid-19 pandemic may be over, but the pandemic of lost learning in England is growing. We should all be worried about the social injustice that the most marginalised children - who already have the biggest barriers to opportunity outside of school - are those most likely to be losing learning through absence, suspension and exclusion.
"The Difference is privileged to work with school leaders across the country leaning into this challenge - upskilling themselves and their staff to better identify and respond to those children whose vulnerability is escalating in increasing numbers.
"This is the new frontier of pedagogy: it is clear that parents and society need teachers who aren’t just raising standards in their subject, but in the practices which makes our children safer, mentally stronger and stops them falling away from learning. We need tools and policy to support school leaders to take the same rigorous approach to understanding and raising standards in this area of schooling, as they did successfully in teaching and learning over the last decade.
Ben Gadsby, Head of Policy at Impetus said:
Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are already less likely to do well at school, get into university and go on to sustained employment. Young people who are excluded or in alternative provision are even less likely. This is why it’s vital that we fully understand what can be done to prevent suspensions, which often lead to exclusions, so that all young people are supported to reach their full potential.
Efua Poku-Amanfo, Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research said:
As we enter a new school year, more and more children will be playing catch up due to the hours lost to valuable learning time. Schools are simply not equipped nor are they properly supported to deal with the scale of this problem, which we fear will widen the gap in educational outcomes for some of the most disadvantaged children.
Comment on Press Release
Geoff Barton, General Secretary of The Association of School and College Leaders said:
We completely support calls to focus on identifying the reasons behind higher rates of persistent absence and suspension, as developing an understanding of the problem is crucial to fixing it. School and college leaders only ever suspend pupils as a last resort but there is clearly a need to look at how to prevent issues from escalating in the first place – and the answer is likely to lie in additional government funding for early intervention, pastoral and mental health support. We also need to ensure there is high-quality alternative provision available in all areas of the country so that children who are not in mainstream education are getting the support that they need.
Rebecca Boomer-Clark, CEO of Academies Enterprise Trust, the biggest multi-academy trust nationally said:
At a national level, these figures make for alarming reading, but they also paint a picture that we all recognise only too well. Tackling persistent absence and high levels of suspensions requires imaginative solutions. We need to dig down into the root causes and support teachers and leaders in every way we can, before this picture becomes normalised.
Dave Whitaker, Director of Learning (Alternative Provision and Special Needs schools) Wellspring Academy Trust said:
AP provision is filling up quicker than ever, schools are excluding children in vast numbers, resources are strained and the children inevitably suffer.
"AP settings are being commissioned to take children with SEND and to act as a substitute for genuine SEND school places - something APs do well in many cases but as a rule they aren’t funded fairly to do. The government's welcomed initiative to increase specialist school places is a long term solution as the free school programme will not solve the problems we are seeing today. Schools, both mainstream and AP, need to be funded to be truly inclusive.
"Accountability measures need to be adjusted to release schools from the intolerable pressure to exclude pupils. They need the support, training and guidance to be truly inclusive. This will only come with a fully integrated model of training, well-funded in-school support and high quality AP. We need to support schools to keep the most vulnerable children rather than force them to exclude. Let's make this really clear - inclusion cannot be done on the cheap and our children deserve better.
 Unless otherwise stated, all statistics are analysis by The Who is Losing Learning? Coalition of Department for Education (2023) Exclusions and suspensions in England between data for the academic year 2021/22 (latest post-pandemic data published this July 2023) and 2018/19 (pre-pandemic data unaffected by lockdowns)
 Analysis by The Who is Losing Learning? Coalition of Department for Education (2023) Outcomes for children in need referring to Children in Need
 Analysis by The Who is Losing Learning? Coalition of Department for Education (2023) Exclusions and suspensions in England between data for the academic year 2021/22 (latest post-pandemic data published this July 2023) and 2018/19 (pre-pandemic data unaffected by lockdowns)
 E.g. Department for Education (2023) Pupil absence in schools in England
 Education Policy Institute (2019) Unexplained Pupil Exits from Schools: further analysis and data
 Social Finance UK (2020) ‘Who is at risk of exclusion?’; Department for Education (2019) Timpson review of school exclusion: Technical note
 Passport GCSEs refer to a 4+ pass in English and maths, which only 4.% of children achieved in latest GCSE results (2022). IPPR (2017) Making The Difference: breaking the link between school exclusion and social exclusion