Belief in fairness is near universal. Real fairness may be a long way off, but most people believe everyone deserves a shot at success. Want to cause trouble? Tell people about postcode lotteries; tell them that Barnstaple’s residents enjoy better access to cancer drugs than Barnsley’s. It feels wrong.
I’m studying this postcode lottery: I’m examining how locality affects education for Teach First. Do the needs of deprived students differ from one area to another? Do a teacher’s priorities change if they move from Hackney to Blackpool, or from Wolverhampton to South Leeds? Should they?
I looked at two sets of statistics on Thursday. The first inspired me: in two boroughs – Westminster and Islington – students attend university in equal numbers, whether or not they receive Free School Meals. The second astonished me: they showed how many young people were excluded from school in each local authority. They felt wrong.
Permanent exclusion is the most drastic thing a school can do to a child; unfair application of this power would be appalling. Yet the disparities between different areas are striking. So let’s say you’re worried about your son or daughter – they’ve been in trouble in school before – and you’re mobile. Where should you move?
In 2013-2014, not a single student was permanently excluded from secondary school in six local authorities: Darlington, Kirklees, Redcar and Cleveland, St Helens, Slough and Wigan. In eighteen more local authorities, fewer than five students were excluded.*
The average secondary school permanent exclusion rate is 13 per 10,000. In Dudley, 40 students were excluded per 10,000. Dudley is comfortably the worst place to take your child: they would be twenty times more likely to complete school in Leeds. Other bad choices include Tameside (37 per 10,000), Oldham (32), Medway (31), Nottingham, Middlesbrough and Hull (all 30).
Best and worst options in London
At all costs, avoid Lewisham; 38 pupils were excluded per 10,000. Tower Hamlets excluded only 3 per 10,000, so a move from New Cross to Wapping – ten short minutes on the Overground – slashes your child’s risk of exclusion to a twelfth. Adjacent boroughs create traps for the unwary elsewhere: choosing poorly multiplies your risk of exclusion fourfold on the border between Ealing and Hammersith and Fulham (28 per 10,000 in Ealing; 6 per 10,000 in Hammersmith and Fulham). Likewise, if you live in Kilburn, at the junction of three boroughs, know that choosing Brent over Westminster doubles your risk of exclusion; choosing Camden triples it.
What does it all mean?
I cannot understand these figures. Are we honestly to believe that young people are ten times worse behaved in Lewisham than Tower Hamlets? Can it possibly be fair that the nuclear button is pressed twenty times more frequently in a year in Dudley than in Leeds? What code have Darlington schools cracked to avoid exclusion entirely, that Middlesbrough schools have not yet deciphered?
Permanent exclusion changes lives. Excluded children are three times more likely to leave school with no qualifications and 37% more likely to be unemployed (Barnado’s, 2010, p. 43). For 13% of excluded children, their ‘criminal career’ begins the month they are excluded. Society bears a cost too, calculated at almost £65,000 over an excluded child’s lifetime. Mindful of these costs, these decisions are not to be taken lightly.
Exclusion is a battleaxe: blunt and devastating. I’m not trying to argue it’s always wrong: sometimes it may be unavoidable, or even desirable. I’m not trying to argue that growing up in Leeds is identical to growing up in Dudley (I hope to establish how different it is in due course). But if we are to exclude young people, we must do so fairly, consistently and defensibly. When a child begins to get into trouble at school, a move of a few hundred metres could save their school career. That’s a postcode lottery. That feels wrong.
* Where fewer than five students were excluded, the DfE do not provide the number, or a percentage of the school population.
The data, for the 2013-14 school year, can be found here. I gave all figures as a number per 10,000 pupils, to avoid the confusing effect of discussing the exclusion of 0.03 pupils per hundred in Tower Hamlets. The data also covers fixed term exclusions, and permanent exclusions from primary schools and special schools; I have concentrated on permanent exclusions as more drastic, secondary school exclusions as more numerous.
I’ve focused on geographical inequities because I’ve never seen them discussed. There are many other inequities, somewhat better known: Black Caribbean boys are three times more likely to be excluded; those receiving Free School Meals are three times more likely; students with Special Educational Needs are ten times more likely (Barnado’s, p.8). Closer examination of shady managed moves and ‘unofficial exclusions’ would do no harm either.
I am very grateful to Peter Atherton (@dataeducator) who saved me from at least one embarrassing mistake in my use of data..
And if anyone can get me up-to-date exclusion statistics for Blackpool, I’d be very grateful.