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School Exclusions and Youth Violence

Volume 653: debated on Monday 28 January 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this extremely important debate to the House. As I hope that the Minister and other hon. Members are aware, I am chair of the cross-party Youth Violence Commission. I established the commission in 2016 as a response to an alarming increase in deaths among young people in my constituency, in London and across the country. We published our initial policy recommendations in July 2018.

I have called many times in the House for the development of a public health policy to tackle violence, and I was pleased that the Government and the Mayor of London committed to that approach at the end of last year. The commission is now working hard to ensure that those words turn into action, and I am pleased that the Mayor of London has established a violence reduction unit similar to that adopted in Scotland to develop this approach. I am still waiting to see what the Government are doing. As part of its ongoing work, the commission is starting to flesh out some of its individual policy recommendations. I would like to use the debate to focus on recommendation No. 4 from our report, which is about boosting support in schools. More specifically, I will be examining the relationship between exclusions and violence, and the role of pupil referral units and alternative provision.

This is in no way intended to be an anti-PRU debate. During my time with the commission, I have seen some brilliantly run PRUs that achieve great outcomes for many of their students. However, I believe that we need a radical re-think of how funding is organised so that we can prevent the need for PRUs in the first place.

I hope that the Minister has had time to read the commission’s report for himself, as the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) clearly had when she responded to my Adjournment debate on the role of youth services in tackling violence. I was pleased to see in today’s press that she continues to stand up for vulnerable young people by criticising her Government’s delay in introducing a law to make it illegal for sports coaches to have sexual relations with 16 and 17-year-olds in their care.

The number of pupils being permanently excluded from schools is on the rise. Between 2012-13 and 2016-17, the number increased by 67%. Referrals to children’s services when gangs are identified as a factor at assessment rose by 26% between 2015-16 and 2016-17. During the same period, hospital admissions for under-18s who had been assaulted with a sharp object rose by 20%.

The hon. Lady has brought an important issue to the House for consideration. The stats show that 72% of parents think that when their child is excluded from school they are at risk from youth violence. This suggests that there is real concern among parents about the problems that follow exclusion from school. Does the hon. Lady agree that that concern must be addressed to ensure that there is life and a place to go after exclusion?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Therein lies one of our problems: when kids are seen to be excluded, they are not only excluded from school; they can sometimes feel like they are absolutely excluded from society as well.

To go back to my point about figures and statistics, I believe that this is incredibly concerning, particularly given that the Government’s own serious violence strategy recognises school exclusions as one of the risk factors for involvement in serious violence.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate and her generosity in giving way. Analysis was done of 60 serious cases of youth violence in Croydon, and in every case, that child was outside mainstream school. We also have in Croydon a situation that is mirrored elsewhere: some schools seem to exclude huge numbers while others tend not to exclude at all. The disparity makes it clear that something has gone wrong, so does my hon. Friend agree that we need to consider what Ofsted and other organisations can do to try to stop so many exclusions happening in certain schools?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. The work in Croydon has been fantastic at identifying the need to follow the evidence, and the evidence clearly points to the link between school exclusions and youth violence. It is important that we continue always to follow the evidence.

I know of 10 young people in my constituency who have been killed as a result of youth violence since I was elected in 2015, and we know about those cases only because they have been reported in the press or the families have contacted me. It should not come as a surprise to Members that certain groups of children are more likely to be excluded and end up in alternative provision settings. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research’s 2017 report “Making the Difference: Breaking the Link Between School Exclusion and Social Exclusion”, excluded pupils are many times more likely to come from a vulnerable background compared with the general student population in England. They are 10 times more likely to suffer from mental health problems, seven times more likely to have a special educational need, four times more likely to qualify for free school meals, and twice as likely to be in the care of the state.

What about the outcomes for those young people? The commission’s research has shown that it is difficult to separate out pupil referral units from data on all alternative provision settings, which include those that provide education for children who cannot attend a mainstream school for other reasons. However, the data that we do have makes for depressing reading. In 2016-17, only 4.5% of children educated in alternative provision settings achieved a 9-to-4 pass—an A to C in old money—in GCSE English and maths. By comparison, of the mainstream school population in England, 72.4% achieved a pass in English literature and 70.7% in maths.

Reintegration into mainstream education may also be used as a measure of success. However, the Education Committee’s 2018 report “Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions” suggests that it

“is often not a possible outcome for pupils, with some schools being reluctant to reintegrate pupils.”

Although some PRUs provide support for pupils who are reintegrated, that does not apply across the board. When pupils are reintegrated without such support, schools can struggle to keep them in school, and they are likely to return to alternative provision. Once they leave the pupil referral unit, the picture remains bleak.

A 2012 Ministry of Justice study found that 42% of prisoners reported having been permanently excluded from school, with the figure rising to 63% for temporary exclusions. That provides a stark contrast when compared with the less than 1% of the general population in England who end up in prison. The same Education Committee report found that 94% of year 11 pupils from a mainstream or special school go on to sustained education or an employment or training destination, compared with 57% from alternative provision. That has had the knock-on effect that pupils from alternative provision face limited choices when they leave education.

Of course, it is not inevitable that pupils who have been excluded will go on to become involved in serious violence and crime. However, we cannot ignore the link between school exclusion and social exclusion. Once children and young people are permanently excluded, it is difficult for them to re-enter mainstream education. That means that they are more vulnerable to grooming by criminals and to becoming the victims or perpetrators of violent crime.

What are pupil referral units costing us? The answer is not entirely straightforward. Each place receives £10,000 of central Government funding, but that is topped up by local authorities to varying degrees, depending on each individual’s need. In answer to a written question, the Department for Education told me that it estimates the average per-pupil cost of alternative provision, including PRUs, to be £17,000 nationally. By way of example, the average cost of a place at Abbey Manor College, the PRU local to my constituency, is £18,000, which is £1,000 a year more than the average cost of a place at a private school in 2018, and almost three times the cost of a state secondary school place in the same year.

As part of our research, the Youth Violence Commission held five evidence sessions. At the third of these we heard from experts, teachers, practitioners and, most importantly, young people themselves about the vital role that education can play in the prevention of youth violence, but what shape should that role take? Our interim report made five recommendations in this area. The first, and perhaps the most important, was for a long-term aspiration of zero expulsions from mainstream education and a reallocation of funding away from PRUs towards support and earlier intervention in mainstream schools. In order to achieve that, schools must be properly incentivised to keep pupils on their books.

The launch of Ofsted’s consultation on its new framework for the inspection of schools and colleges offers some hope that things may be starting to move in the right direction. The proposals aim to address concerns that education has become too narrowly focused on exam results, and schools that push out less able children—a practice known as off-rolling—could now risk being punished by inspectors. However, it is clear that a great deal remains to be done if we are to achieve this necessary shift in focus.

The Youth Violence Commission’s report also recommends an overhaul of the way in which careers advice is delivered in schools to ensure greater inclusion, greater emphasis on high-quality sex and relationships education, and better integration of support services such as school nurses, social workers and mental health professionals.

Once we had our recommendations, we needed to test them on the professionals. Earlier this month I met representatives from five teaching unions. I have to admit that I had expected some push-back against the commission’s recommendations. Teaching, as we all know, is already a demanding and stressful job, and I feared that the unions would view the recommendations as putting more pressure on their already overworked members. Well, I am pleased to report that I could not have been more wrong. I learned that there is huge appetite and enthusiasm for teachers to be able to do more to help vulnerable pupils. However, they simply lack the time and resources.

Four main strands came out of our discussion, the first of which is that we need to learn from what worked in the past. In 2002, the Labour Government set up the behaviour improvement programme as part of their street crime initiative. The programme targeted 34 local authorities that had some of the highest crime rates, and worked with two to four secondary schools in each area and their feeder primaries. The programme’s behaviour and education support teams provided a full range of specialist support to vulnerable pupils.

The same Government’s “Every Child Matters: Change for Children” agenda was launched in 2003 to promote the wellbeing of children and young people. Ministers wanted to ensure that every child had the support that he or she needed to stay healthy, to be safe, to achieve economically, to make a positive contribution to society and to enjoy life. That is not unreasonable, as I am sure the Minister would agree.

Healthcare practitioners, social workers, early years practitioners and other agencies shared information about vulnerable children. The child was central to their plans, and partners regularly worked with them in an attempt to achieve the best possible outcomes. Sadly, the coalition Government brought those programmes to an end in 2010.

Secondly, the union representatives suggested that pupil referral units should play a greater part in early intervention and prevention. In the past, PRUs engaged in inreach work with mainstream schools to try to prevent exclusions from happening in the first place. Unfortunately, that is no longer happening due to funding cuts, which mean that PRUs are able to perform only their statutory minimum duty.

I made an intervention on last week’s Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) on funding for pupil referral units to raise this point about funding for inreach work. Although the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), went some way towards addressing it, I hope that the Minister for School Standards might be able to give a fuller response today.

The third point that came out of the consultation meeting was the need for inclusive accountability. It was suggested that schools should be held accountable for every student who walks through their doors in year 7. Although that might cause some problems with schools refusing to take perceived “problem” pupils in the first place, it would address the problem of off-rolling in GCSE years in an attempt to improve results. This clearly links with the proposed changes to the Ofsted framework I mentioned. Finally, the unions highlighted the need to build resilience in young teachers, especially regarding how to cope with behavioural issues and violence. Behaviour management should be a higher priority in teacher training programmes. At present, trainees are given inadequate guidance on how to support and manage behaviour.

In conclusion, I am asking the Department to consider conducting a fundamental review of how funding for alternative provision is best spent. As I stated earlier, the Youth Violence Commission’s findings ultimately point towards achieving zero exclusions, but we note that this is a long-term goal and that smaller steps need to be achieved along the way. Primary school teachers frequently tell me that they can identify which of their pupils are likely to be involved in future violence. The current system is failing too many of those children and simply has to change.

I will finish with a few words from one of the young people who attended our evidence session:

“I didn’t get a lot of support at school. I just got moved from place to place and I didn’t have a mentor to be able to talk about my problems with. I basically grew up in prison—I went when I was 15.”

I hope that the Minister agrees that that is categorically not the outcome we want for our vulnerable young people and that he will be able to address some of the points I have raised.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) on securing this debate and on her speech, and I pay tribute to her for her work as chair of the Youth Violence Commission.

Over the past year, too many young people have lost their lives as a result of violence, including 14-year-old Jaden Moodie just a few weeks ago. Tackling this issue is a priority, and we know the impact of these tragic incidents is devastating for both the families and friends of those concerned. This is not a matter that can be tackled in isolation, which is why the Serious Violence Taskforce was established by the Government in April 2018. Chaired by the Home Secretary, it brings together cross-party MPs, police leaders, local government and the voluntary sector with the aim of ensuring that sustained and decisive action is taken against violent crime.

The Government’s serious violence strategy, published in April 2018, signals a step change in the Government’s approach. It is focused not solely on law enforcement, important as that is, but on a multi-agency approach across a number of sectors, such as education, health and social services. Early intervention and prevention are at the core of the strategy, which is why the Home Office has established the early intervention youth fund. Through the fund, 29 local projects in England and Wales have been awarded a total of £17.7 million over two years to divert children and young people away from violent crime.

Schools play an important role in the safeguarding of pupils. Schools and colleges, including alternative provision, to which the hon. Lady referred, have a statutory obligation to safeguard and promote the welfare of their pupils. The Department has clear guidance in “Keeping children safe in education” and “Working together to safeguard children”. They set out what schools and colleges should and must do to implement their obligations, and how agencies should work together to ensure the welfare of children. The Department has worked with the Home Office, the police, Ofsted and the Health and Safety Executive to produce new school security guidance, which makes explicit reference to the serious issue of knife crime. We have also created a resource for teachers, so they can raise awareness about the dangers of knife crime among young people. This complements the national knife crime media campaign that has been launched, #knifefree, to raise awareness of the consequences of knife crime.

Equally crucial in safeguarding children and young people is the role of social care. Evidence from joint targeted area inspections of local authorities, health and police has shown that children who have grown up neglected are vulnerable to exploitation as adolescents. That is why the Department is improving the quality of children’s social care services, including through an £84 million investment in strengthening families and protecting children, as well as establishing a new national response unit to help local authorities to support vulnerable children at risk of criminal and sexual exploitation, including through county lines and other forms of gang involvement and sexual exploitation.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) on securing this Adjournment debate and on the tireless work that she has put into driving forward the work of the youth violence commission. Does my hon. Friend agree that education, local government and health all have a part to play in diverting young people away from serious violence, and that although the Ministry of Justice makes the savings when we divert young people from prison and criminality, we should look into some way to recycle the savings back into those areas of Government upstream of the problem, so that we can keep young people safe and out of trouble?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is why the taskforce was established in the first place: to make sure that we were not operating in silos and that those sorts of funding issues did not prevent the action that we know needs to be taken.

Children who need help and protection from social care—those with a social worker—not only lack safety and stability but often have very poor educational outcomes, including being more likely to be excluded than other pupils. The children in need review aims to understand what works to help those vulnerable children to reach their potential.

Let me move on to the important issue of pupil behaviour and the related matter of school exclusions. The Government are committed to ensuring that all teachers are equipped with the skills to tackle the serious behavioural issues that compromise the safety and wellbeing of pupils and school staff, as well as the low-level disruption that too often gets in the way of effective teaching. It is vital that all schools are safe and disciplined environments. There is more to be done, though, which is why the Government are investing £10 million to create behaviour hubs to facilitate the sharing of best practice in classroom and behaviour management. We have also strengthened teachers’ powers to discipline pupils. Teachers can now take action on poor behaviour that takes place outside of school. We have also clarified teachers’ powers to use reasonable force, they have stronger powers to search pupils for items that could be used to cause harm or break the law, and they can now issue same-day detentions.

Parents also have a fundamental role to play and are often well placed to support schools with the early identification of any problems that may be influencing a child’s behaviour. The special educational needs and disability code of practice, for example, sets out that schools should work with parents to identify any underlying problems that might be related to behavioural issues. Any form of violence in schools is unacceptable. Schools’ behaviour policies should set out how poor behaviour, including incidents of violence, are dealt with. Should the incident constitute a criminal offence, the school should of course report it to the police.

All children have the right to a school environment that is safe and conducive to education, and the Government and I fully support headteachers in the use of exclusion where it is warranted. Exclusion on any grounds other than behaviour is unlawful, but it is for the headteacher to take the decision based on the evidence available and the need to balance the interests of the excluded pupil against those of the whole school community. There has been in recent media coverage some misinformed conflation of fixed-term exclusions with permanent exclusions. The statutory guidance on exclusions makes it clear that, in all cases, a decision to permanently exclude a pupil should be taken only in response to a serious breach or persistent breaches of a school’s behaviour policy, and if allowing the pupil to remain in school would seriously harm the education or welfare of others in the school. But exclusion from school must not mean exclusion from education. When a child is excluded, suitable full-time education has to be arranged from the sixth school day of exclusion.

There are differences in exclusion rates between schools, between different local authority areas of the country, and between pupils with different characteristics, despite all state-funded schools in England operating under the same exclusions framework. That is why last spring the Government launched an externally led review of exclusions practice, led by our former colleague Edward Timpson, which is due to be published shortly. This will examine the factors that drive those differences, and also explore and evaluate best practice for those where the disparities are less significant.

Regarding the potential links between exclusions and crime, which the hon. Lady mentioned in her opening remarks, it is correct that children who have been excluded from school are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. A recent study found that 23% of young offenders sentenced in 2014 to less than 12 months in custody had been permanently excluded from school prior to their sentence date. However, while there is some correlation between exclusion and crime, we do not have evidence to suggest a causal link. What we do know is that there are children who face difficult circumstances, where complex and multiple vulnerabilities can damage their outcomes, falling behind others from the early years onwards. Of pupils in 2016-17, approximately one in 10 needed a social worker over the previous six years. Of these, 35% also had special educational needs, 42% also claimed free school meals, and 17% faced all three disadvantages. The compounding impact of these children’s vulnerability on their educational outcomes can be entrenched by poor experiences in education, including exclusion.

The Ministry of Justice did publish some analysis last June that looked at the educational background of young offenders who had committed a knife offence, and it was not possible to identify whether there is an association between exclusions and knife possession offending. Although a higher proportion of offenders had been persistently absent or excluded from school, only a very small proportion committed the knife possession offence shortly after being excluded from school. Around 74% of offenders committed the offence more than one year after being permanently excluded.

As I have said, exclusion from school must not mean exclusion from education. Alternative provision is the system that is in place to educate those pupils who are unable to attend mainstream school. This could be for a variety of reasons, be they behavioural or following on from exclusion. There are some excellent examples of alternative provision that not only have high standards for behaviour, progress and attainment, but have strong interventions in place to support their pupils at risk of involvement in crime. For example, London East AP —LEAP—has an ethos of high expectations on pupils’ results, outcomes and behaviour. It does not accept an excuse culture among staff and pupils. That type of alternative provision is not necessarily widespread across the country, and we are determined to make sure that every alternative provision setting is as good as the best in the country and that the best practice is shared. That is why we are taking forward an ambitious programme of reform of the AP system over the coming months and years, which we believe will deliver sustained improvement.

As we set out in our vision document published last March, our objective is to make sure that the right children are placed in the right alternative provision, that they receive a high-quality education and that they achieve meaningful outcomes after leaving alternative provision.

In conclusion, I want to assure the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford that this Government are determined to do everything they can to break the deadly cycle of violence that devastates the lives of individuals, families and communities. In doing this, it is vital to develop a truly effective, multi-agency approach to tackle the root causes of violence. We must continue to work together, so that every young person is safe and free to fulfil their potential, away from violence.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.