As exclusion numbers soar and absence rates rocket, the risk of falling out of mainstream education is rising year on year for vulnerable young people. With mainstream classrooms failing to accommodate increasing numbers of pupils, this poses uncomfortable questions about how inclusive England’s schools really are.

Since the publication of the Timpson review in 2019, the exclusions landscape has deteriorated. The fall in exclusion rates as schools closed during lockdown only temporarily masked the long-term trend which spells worsening prospects for vulnerable pupils.

The impact is played out in national statistics. Last academic year, over a million days of education were lost to suspensions. The suspension rate has surged in the wake of the pandemic, reaching the highest level on record. Permanent exclusions mirror these trends, returning to their pre-pandemic highs, with no sign of abating.

Vulnerable pupils are markedly overrepresented in these statistics. Pupils with special educational needs, eligible for free school meals, or known to social services are leaving mainstream classrooms at significantly higher rates than their peers.

These two reports consider the pressures on schools and multi-academy trusts, arising from issues beyond the school gates and examine how these can act as barriers to inclusive learning.

Suspended Reality: Part 1 examines current exclusion trends and interrogates the effectiveness of the current school system through the lens of vulnerable pupils. At the heart of the issue, is an accountability system that inadvertently disincentivises inclusive schooling.

A striking illustration of this exclusionary practice is the annual spike in pupil referral unit enrolments in Year 11 which occurs shortly before January. Only the exam results of those pupils who are enrolled in a school at the January census date in Year 11 contribute to the performance data, and therefore league table standings, of that school.

Maintaining a sharp focus on academic performance is crucial for improving children’s life chances. However, this emphasis should not come at the expense of the most vulnerable pupil groups. The existing accountability framework needs recalibrating if it is to deliver positive outcomes for all pupils, including the most vulnerable.

Suspended Reality: Part 2 explores the drivers behind rising rates of school exclusion, focusing on multi-academy trusts, informed by extensive engagement with a broad range of education leaders across the sector. It considers the challenges faced by multi-academy trusts, many of which have sponsored ‘inadequate’ schools, inheriting very challenging environments in the process.

Both reports set out a vision for meaningful reform that will put inclusion at the heart of the education system, ensuring that every child is able to receive the support they need to thrive.

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