Government plans to slash temporary exclusion rates by expanding academy trusts have been branded naïve after analysis revealed chains in left-behind regions dish out the most suspensions.
Department for Education officials set out how expansions and mergers of academy trusts could boost attainment in 55 priority areas said to have the lowest key stage 2 and GCSE results.
New “trust development statements” put forward plans to tackle a range of issues, including cutting temporary and permanent exclusion rates in seven of the areas.
But analysis by Schools Week shows academies in those regions are, on average, suspending more children over the age of 11 than maintained schools.
Our findings have prompted calls for the government to rethink its strategy. But turnaround trusts said suspensions were necessary to ensure failing schools were safe for pupils and staff while embedding better behaviour standards.
‘We’re not making hamburgers’
Stephen Morales, the chief executive of the Institute of School Business Leaders, called for a more “nuanced” approach.
“You can’t assume that a structure that works somewhere in the system is transferrable elsewhere – we’re not making hamburgers.
“I’m worried we’re thinking this will solve everything. There are important ingredients – like good governance, strong leaders, talented teachers – but to take an entire approach and drop it on another setting I think is a bit naïve.”
The development statements welcomed growth bids from trusts with – among other things – a track record of cutting suspension and exclusion rates in Bolton, Bradford, Doncaster, Kirklees, Liverpool, North Yorkshire and Peterborough.
However, latest figures show the areas’ secondary academies issued, on average, 303 suspensions between September 2019 and December 2021. The number at local authority-maintained schools was 239.
In each of the seven regions – identified as “education investment areas” by the DfE – at least three of the five schools with the highest number of suspensions were academies.
However, academies in those regions did exclude fewer children on average (three over the period) than maintained schools (four).
‘Sanctions provide guidance’
Doncaster had the four schools with the highest number of suspensions – all of them academies – across the seven EIAs. Each member of the quartet issued at least 2,146 sanctions over the period.
Outwood Academy Danum, run by the Outwood Grange Academies Trust, was first with more than 3,000 suspensions, equating to about eight every school day.
A spokesperson noted “unsatisfactory behaviour within our academies will neither be ignored nor tolerated”.
She insisted most parents and carers expected “no less”, adding that the “focus of sanctions is to provide guidance” so youngsters could make positive changes.
Bolton St Catherine’s, run by the Bishop Fraser Trust, issued 887 suspensions over the two years, the highest of any secondary in the borough.
Rachel Lucas, the school’s head, said her “red-line policy ensures consistency of sanctions for students so our school is safe and children are happy to be here”.
“We want them to follow the rules, accept the consequences if they make a wrong choice and know what their choices mean, both in school and in the wider community.
“This has not been a quick process and has meant that we have had an increase in suspensions whilst we embed this culture.”
Suspensions shrink as learning climate improves
Kearsley Academy, which is part of the Northern Education Trust, registered the second-highest number of sanctions (590) in Bolton.
However, Rob Tarn, Northern’s chief executive, said suspensions had shrunk by “more than half” since the end of 2021 as the school had developed a “much-improved climate for learning”.
“We would always strongly advise against setting numerical targets for suspension rates. These are easily achieved by headteachers simply no longer signing suspension letters.
“This can result in unethical leadership behaviours such as illegal exclusions or lower expectations of student conduct, children feeling less safe and declining standards.
“The only reduction in suspensions of any value are those driven by improved school cultures.”
Responding to our findings, a DfE spokesperson said it was not possible “to draw conclusions by comparing top-line data” in this way.
She also stressed “permanent exclusions and suspensions are more common in secondaries – over 80 per cent of which are academies – and many of the poorest-performing ones have been placed in trusts”.
“Schools benefit from shared resources and knowledge when they are part of a family of schools, including on how to support positive behaviour.”