The article in the link above describes how one of England's largest multi-academy trusts may be stripped of one of its schools because of significant issues with behaviour and a lack of pupil support for key groups. The termination notice is damning and raises a large number of concerns, however the purpose of this post is not to draw more attention to this particular school. I want to focus in on one specific concern that was raised: that pupil suspensions are too high.
From the recent Ofsted inspection that prompted the termination notice:
This begs the obvious question... how high is too high? As a school leader, at what point should you be concerned that you have generated a "culture of sanctions"? What level of suspensions would be notable to an Ofsted inspector and what weighting would that have on your school's overall judgement?
For data purposes we calculate the suspension rate of each school - a small school of 100 students who gave 5 suspensions in that year would have a rate of 5%, whereas a larger school of 1000 students with 40 suspensions would have a rate of 4%.
The most recent set of exclusion statistics that the DfE have published relates to 2019/20 so there is no way for those of us outside of this particular school to know how high their suspension rate has been recently. The last data we have is for 2019/20 and their suspension rate was under 5%, so we have to assume there has been a large increase.
But it is possible to shed some light on how high suspension rates in our state-funded schools can be. Take a look at the following graph which shows 10 such secondary schools, chosen for their particularly high rates. The small black marker indicates the suspension rate for English secondary schools that year, i.e. the national average. All are mainstream schools.
The first thing you can clearly see is that suspension rates can LEAP from one year to the next. Take, for example, school 3, which soared from a rate of 4% to 382% in 2017/18. There were 506 pupils and 1933 suspensions that year.
As you can see, this is not the highest suspension rate in this time period, as school 1 had 468 pupils in 2017/18 and gave 1886 suspensions. Their suspension rate was over 400% - surely this would fall into the category of a "culture of sanctions"?
Which brings me to the title of the blog post - how important are these rates to Ofsted?
Having looked at some of the reports for these schools, I can tell you that whilst the suspension rates were commented on, nowhere have I yet seen any reference to a "culture of sanction" or language that would convey a similar description. Below is a comment from the summary of an Ofsted report of school 2:
During the year of this inspection, school 2 had a suspension rate of 355%. Perhaps the majority of these suspensions occurred after the inspection, but this is extremely unlikely as it occurred in May. And the previous year's data was available... a rate of 393%. The overall school judgement was "Good".
Despite these rates being amongst the highest of all state-funded mainstream secondary schools over a decade, they can be incorporated into the narrative of a "Good" school.
High suspension rates alone do not appear to trigger an Ofsted inspection (or if they are supposed to then a couple of schools on this graph have slipped through the net). School 7 was not inspected until November 2021 despite having consecutive rates of 182% and 266%. School 10 was not inspected until January 2018.
All of this makes it hard to understand Ofsted's interpretation of suspension rates and their importance; or whether there is an official position that may not be applied very equally (clearly 10 schools is an extremely small sample size). Are the number of suspensions and exclusions alone EVER a significant concern to Ofsted, or do they only become significant when combined with other issues? Looking at the data above, do Ofsted just not care that much about suspensions?
The termination notice in the original article about Ark Kings Academy included the following quote:
"Both detentions and suspensions are used very frequently, and leaders cannot demonstrate the impact of these strategies."
The vast majority of educators (including myself) support the use of suspensions for serious breaches of the behaviour policy, yet suspensions are not a cure in themselves. As can be seen above, you can suspend the equivalent of every single child in your school three times in a year... and apparently still "need" to do it again the next year. Rates as high as these will always fall over time as they are so far above the mean, but even such exceptionally high rates of suspension clearly do not transform the behaviour within a school. I believe this is important for all of us to understand. If Ofsted are expecting an immediate impact of frequent suspensions (as could be implied by the quote above), perhaps the 10 schools in the graph above might make them think again.
Many, many commentators, including Ofsted themselves, have emphasised the importance of behaviour in schools. There are urgent concerns about the negative outcomes associated with permanent exclusion; indeed I wrote a whole book on the demographics of excluded children and why some antisocial behaviours might occur. Suspensions disproportionately affect students who receive free school meals, students with special educational needs, and certain ethnic groups such as Gypsy/Roma pupils. For example, take a look at the graph below, which plots average school suspension rates for ten "blocks" of income deprivation (calculated by IDACI rank for 2018/19). You will see that higher suspension levels are associated with areas of higher deprivation.
In my opinion, suspensions matter. They matter to pupils, they matter to schools, they matter to families, and they are disproportionately associated with some of the most vulnerable students in our school system. They could be a useful marker of schools that need more support rather than more judgement. I guess I'm just not entirely clear how much they matter to Ofsted.
[I have tried to use as little information as reasonable so that schools are not easily identifiable (although all of this data is in the public domain).]
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