Risks of school exclusions in England may be higher after COVID-19

22 June 2020

The educational disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has produced potential new and heightened risks for school exclusions, according to research from the University of Oxford’s Department of Education.

The Excluded Lives Research Team’s report, School Exclusion Risks after COVID-19, is drawn from discussions with practitioners and professionals from health, education, criminal justice, local authorities and third sector voluntary organisations. It highlights that safeguarding and education are inextricably linked. And it emphasises that regulations need to allow for agile and flexible services which meet the needs of those most at risk.

The recent pandemic has raised questions about how at-risk-of-exclusion students might be identified and what return to school support and guidance exists or can be developed to support practitioners as well as children and families.

The report has implications for a more thoughtful approach to risk management and GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), in order that we can ensure that children’s entitlements are well met by provision.

Schools, which are well placed to be a key service, need supporting to be proactive rather than reactive in their approach. Both within and across services there was evidence for the importance of strategic development and early intervention.

As one discussant said, ‘We have got to stop fishing victims out of the pond. We need to go upstream to stop the perpetrators.’

Ian Thompson, Associate Professor of Education at Oxford said, ‘We know the impact of COVID-19 on schools is substantial for practitioners and students. The social and emotional disruption caused by the pandemic and the subsequent school closures is highly likely to have increased or exacerbated student anxiety and other mental health issues. There is also a concern with school connectedness for vulnerable students, whose patterns of school attendance have been disrupted. These concerns raise issues around transitions back to school settings.’

Professor Harry Daniels said, ‘All children will have experienced some adverse effects from the COVID-19 pandemic, but for some these will be traumatic and long lasting and this may impact negatively on whether and how they return to school, and the likelihood of formal, informal and self-exclusion. 

‘Those adversely affected by COVID-19 are extremely diverse. This suggests there is a need to think beyond conventional and recognised categories of vulnerability.
‘This calls for a needs-based holistic approach involving good collaboration and communication within and between services and flexible and responsive curricula. Now is the time for schools to reconsider the role of education, take back control over their educational offer and balance the pursuit for academic excellence with student wellbeing.’

A number of recurring themes emerge in the report which have broader implications for the formulation of policy and practice. These include: 

  • (Re)integration and re-engagement
  • Access to learning
  • Importance of communication
  • Implications of policy and legislation changes (behaviour, SEND, and school exclusion)
  • The need for multi-agency working and contextual safeguarding
  • Preparing the school community
  • Flexibility and new ways of working.

Exclusions have risen sharply in England in the last few years. Over-represented groups include children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), from particular ethnic backgrounds and those living in areas of high deprivation. 

Heightened anxiety, bereavement, poverty, disconnection from schooling and the digital divide have heightened the risk for children and young people who were already struggling with aspects of schooling and have produced new unexpected categories of risk.

Enquiries to: ian.thompson@education.ox.ac.uk and harry.daniels@education.ox.ac.uk

Notes for Editors

  1. The multi-disciplinary and multi-site Excluded Lives Research Team, led by Professor Harry Daniels and Professor Ian Thompson, is conducting a four year Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded research project on the consequences of school exclusion across the UK.
  2. This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant number 1811EP001/LH7).
  3. Members of the Excluded Lives Research Team at the Department of Education, talked to practitioners, policy makers and professionals in different parts of England to glean an understanding of their perceptions of the situation.
  4. The full report can be seen here.
  5. Excluded Lives website: http://www.education.ox.ac.uk/research/excluded-lives/ 
  6. Twitter: @ExcludedLives