The need for better understanding on the effectiveness of measures to address school exclusion

Feb 19, 2024 | Blog

by Kyann Zhang, LSE

School exclusion has been a topic of rising interest over the past few decades, and with this there is increased awareness of its impact on those excluded. It is recognised that students who fall into ‘vulnerable’ categories – such as those with special education needs, or from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – are more likely to experience permanent exclusion (Graham et al., 2019). Likewise, it has been shown that failure to complete schooling has detrimental effects on the student’s future well-being. Consequently, exclusion from school can be a contributing factor in maintaining – and even worsening – existing disadvantages and socioeconomic inequalities.

Despite this, school exclusion remains a growing problem in the UK, and the progress in addressing this problem has been insufficient. Many education providers, parents/caregivers, and students themselves are concerned about this issue, but there are not enough effective measures in place to prevent exclusion, or to mitigate the negative effects that follow.

But the question remains: how do we identify measures that are ‘effective’ in addressing these issues?

To answer this, we need to understand how disciplinary action is carried out, and how these actions affect students. Typically, schools in the UK employ a range of disciplinary measures of varying severity, ranging from temporary in-school suspensions to permanent exclusion (expulsion). While these practices are common, there is a lack of consistency in how they are applied, both within and across different schools. It is also difficult to infer whether intermediate measures – such as in-school suspensions – help to prevent permanent exclusion, or in fact exacerbate the problem. Further complicating the matter is a not-insignificant level of ‘grey’ exclusions, whereby parents/caregivers are ‘encouraged’ to voluntarily remove their child from school to avoid having permanent exclusion on their record.

All this makes it highly challenging to decipher what is ‘working’ and what is not. And all this is before permanent exclusion officially happens.

Following a permanent exclusion, guidance is lacking on identifying the best course of action for the student. There is little consensus over what constitutes a ‘typical pathway’ for a student following their exclusion. Often, it is unclear who is responsible for following-up with an excluded student – if there is anyone at all.

While there are guidelines (e.g. Department for Education, 2022) set out on the process of exclusion, including specified timeframes within which certain steps – such as placement of the excluded student in an alternative facility – must be taken, it is unclear the degree to which this is adhered. Anecdotal evidence – for example, those collected as part of stakeholder interviews in the Excluded Lives project – suggest that actual placement can take much longer than the six days mandated in the guideline, thus resulting in a longer period of uncertainty and disruption for the student, and by extension their families. In some cases, the delay may result in students becoming ‘lost to the system’, but it is difficult to estimate the extent of the problem.

For students who are offered a place in alternative provision (AP), things are not necessarily more straightforward. AP can take many forms, with variations in duration, purpose, and mode of delivery. As such, it is near-impossible to design a set of standards against which all provision can be compared. Consequently, whether AP is ‘effective’ in improving student outcomes frequently has no clear answer.

The lack of measures in place to follow-up with student progress is a frustrating barrier to efforts at evaluating existing programmes, and in turn when trying to identify and recommend effective (and cost-effective) measures. At the same time, it obscures attempts to identify strategies that are not effective (or cost-effective), which would allow resources to be redirected for better use. Given that securing funding for programs is an on-going challenge for many providers, it is somewhat counterintuitive that there is not more effort on part of providers to demonstrate effectiveness.

All this results in an absence of reliable data on these impacts, which has made it difficult to reliably estimate the true, long-term costs of school exclusion. Previous efforts to account for this have had to rely on broad assumptions around these issues, which inevitably leaves some level of uncertainty in the results.

It should be noted that the absence of such information is not reflective of a lack of care on part of the schools, APs, and others involved in the disciplinary and exclusion process. From conversations conducted as part of the Excluded Lives project, it is evident many of them are aware of measures that improve outcomes for their students. However, these accounts are largely anecdotal, and not readily accessible for use in analyses. Moreover, for students who are not placed with a suitable provider, there may be no information at all.

Of course, collecting data on these issues is not a trivial task. Keeping track of students following exclusion can be a complicated, resource-intensive process. Also, there is no generally accepted framework for measuring effectiveness when it comes to outcomes for APs. While a successful return to a mainstream school, or the achievement of certain qualifications may serve this purpose to a certain extent, these fail to capture other factors such as improved confidence or social skills.

As well as this, while it is acknowledged that school exclusion has long-term impacts that affect sectors beyond education and employment – such as health and criminal justice – efforts to value these have been limited. Consideration for these effects are mostly raised as a factor in studies of other social costs – for example, as one of a number of potential risk factors for substance abuse (Macleod et al., 2013), or mental health problems (Toth et al., 2022). While such studies can present evidence on the wide-spanning effects of school exclusion, it is difficult to consolidate results from separate studies to form a complete picture.

Addressing the issue of permanent school exclusion and its negative consequences requires more than an abstract notion of ‘needing improvement’. We need to know which strategies are getting desired results, and how these can be delivered in a cost-effective and accessible manner. To achieve this, measures need to be in place to follow-up on the progress of students, which in turn need a pre-defined framework to allow meaningful measurements to happen. We also need better clarity and communication among the institutions involved in the exclusion process, as well as communication with students and parents/caregivers. Increasing awareness of the long-term costs of school exclusion to wider society will also strengthen the argument for investing resources in preventing and mitigating the problem.

School exclusion is a highly complex problem. It is no surprise then that it will need a multifaceted response. Understanding what existing strategies are working is an obvious starting point. Knowing how much is (truly) at stake will be a potential driver to further develop and implement more effective solutions.



Department for Education. (2022). Suspension and Permanent Exclusion from maintained schools, academies and pupil referral units in England, including pupil movement: Guidance for maintained schools, academies, and pupil referral units in England.

Graham, B., White, C., Edwards, A., Potter, S., Street, C., & Hinds, D. (2019). Timpson review of school exclusion: consultation outcome: May 2019.

Macleod, J., Hickman, M., Jones, H. E., Copeland, L., McKenzie, J., De Angelis, D., Kimber, J., & Robertson, J. R. (2013). Early life influences on the risk of injecting drug use: case control study based on the Edinburgh Addiction Cohort. Addiction (Abingdon, England), 108(4), 743-750.

Toth, K., Cross, L., Golden, S., & Ford, T. (2022). From a child who IS a problem to a child who HAS a problem: fixed period school exclusions and mental health outcomes from routine outcome monitoring among children and young people attending school counselling. Child and adolescent mental health.