Pupils who have been suspended are around a year behind their peers by the time they take their GCSEs

The learning loss persists even when controlling for a range of school and pupil factors

A new report published by the Education Policy Institute, commissioned by Impetus, identifies a “suspension grades gap", with young people who experience even a single suspension, or temporary removal from secondary school, less likely to pass crucial GCSEs in English and maths.

This is not simply because of the demographics of pupils who are suspended, or the kinds of schools that suspend more pupils. Even factoring in these differences, pupils who have been suspended do significantly worse at GCSE. This is not to say suspensions cause worse grades – it is likely that both suspension rates and lower GCSE grades are driven by common causes such as social and emotional skills or pupils already being behind academically.

The research follows data showing that the rates of suspension from secondary school increased substantially in the years before the pandemic and reached their highest point in more than a decade in 2022. It also shows that pupils with social, emotional, or mental health needs were more likely to be suspended.

Key findings:

  • Pupils with even one suspension are, on average, not achieving a standard pass in GCSE English and maths
  • Pupils with multiple suspensions have poorer education outcomes. Suspended pupils are, on average, approximately 12 months behind their not-suspended peers and are not achieving a standard pass in GCSE English and maths. This association persists after controlling for a wide range of student and school characteristics.
  • The proportion of pupils identified with special education needs or disabilities (SEND) increases in line with the number of suspensions. Pupils suspended ten times were almost three times as likely to be identified with SEND as pupils who were suspended once. Of all SEND types, social, emotional, or mental health needs (SEMH) were the most common amongst suspended pupils.
  • Multiple suspensions are a risk factor for permanent exclusion. Pupils suspended ten times were 15 times as likely to be permanently excluded compared to pupils who were suspended once.
  • By the time they sit their GCSEs, pupils with multiple suspensions are less likely to be in a mainstream school and more likely to be in alternative provision (AP). Pupils suspended ten times or more were almost 15 times as likely to finish secondary school in alternative provision compared with pupils who were suspended once.
  • Worryingly, separate survey evidence shows that many teachers do not feel equipped to support pupils with additional needs in their classroom.

Policy Recommendations:

  • Schools should proactively identify those at risk of suspension and plan early intervention to reduce the need for suspension. This could include seeking and using all available information on children across school phases, including prior attainment in Year 6, SEND status including for those without an EHCP, attendance history, and previous disciplinary action.
  • Schools and colleges must be equipped to recognise pupils with mental health and other additional needs. Given the link we found between social, emotional, mental health needs and suspensions, it is vital that schools have sufficient resources and teachers are equipped with the skills to recognise mental distress and be able to work closely with healthcare professionals, so pupils are referred on to appropriate services and receive effective support. This could be enabled by the Mental Health Support Teams which are currently being rolled out across the country.
  • The Department for Education (DfE) should work with Ofsted to ensure that pupils who are suspended have access to high quality education. In 2023, the government published the SEND and AP improvement plan which would go some way toward addressing this; this plan included the rollout of a local and national inclusion dashboard, to inform decision-making and drive self-improvement across the system, as well as a bespoke AP performance framework. Implementation of the plan is ongoing, yet as of December 2023 a public version of the new inclusion dashboard had not yet been launched and the extent to which this will be delivered is unclear.
  • More research is needed to understand the drivers behind the recent rise in suspension rates in secondary school. This research could inform more effective interventions that address the out-of-school drivers of suspensions and therefore reduce the need for suspension.

Whitney Crenna-Jennings, Associate Director for Mental Health and Wellbeing at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said:

Given the strong link between the number of suspensions from secondary school and poorer education outcomes, it is vital that schools work proactively to reduce the number of suspensions and are given the resources that they need to identify pupils with mental health and additional needs, to make early intervention possible. More research is also needed to understand the causes of the recent rise in suspensions rates, to inform more effective responses.
Previous survey data shows that many teachers do not feel equipped to support pupils with additional needs. Teachers must be equipped with the skills to identify pupils who require extra support and be able to work closely with relevant professionals to refer pupils on to appropriate services.
Recognising that some pupils will require Alternative Provision (AP), the Department for Education should work with Ofsted to ensure that those who are suspended have access to a high-quality education. The government must also commit to fully implementing its SEND and AP improvement plan, including a bespoke AP performance framework.

Ben Gadsby, Head of Policy and Research at Impetus, said:

While it is not a surprise that suspended pupils get worse outcomes, this new research puts a number on the “suspension grades gap” for the first time. With only half the reason for these different outcomes being explained by measurable differences between pupils and schools, this is an important finding about the need to focus on the underlying issues that reduce pupil’s chances of succeeding in school.
While suspensions are sometimes necessary, supporting pupils who are struggling to engage in mainstream education must continue to be a priority for whoever is in government. We should aim for lower exclusion levels not simply for the sake of it, but because it would be a sign of a more effective education system for pupils and teachers alike.

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