‘It’s Like Being In Prison’: What’s Behind The Rise In School Exclusions?

I first came across Lewis just before the initial lockdowns in 2020. He was 18 years old, in the middle of his A-level studies, and full of energy and defiance. But Lewis also had an overwhelming sense of injustice stemming from his time in a London secondary school. He was bounced from one disciplinary action to another from year 9, when he was just 14 years old. Eventually, he spent six weeks in a room known as “the annexe,” and even had to stay home on occasion with no homework or structured activities.

“I was often one of the few black students in the top sets for a lot of subjects, so I stood out,” Lewis explains. “But I was also acting out. I had a lot going on – my mother had a miscarriage, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, and an uncle of mine was sectioned. I’m not making excuses for my behavior, but I did talk to some of my teachers about what was happening.”

Lewis is now a member of the Advocacy Academy in Brixton, London, which aims to develop young leaders and activists. He participates in a project known as IC Free, which sheds light on the issue of school exclusions and its disproportionate impact on black and ethnic minority students.

Exclusions, whether permanent or temporary, often lead to the first step down a path that can culminate in crime and imprisonment, and thus, it is almost impossible to separate its impact from the "isolation units" within schools.

Lewis and his colleagues also highlight the risks posed by pupil referral units (PRUs), which often become easy targets for the drug trade. When children are excluded from state schools, they are often sent to such units. Drug dealers frequently frequent these establishments, looking to recruit young people who have little to do and can be easily manipulated.

Recent government figures have shown that temporary exclusions are on the rise in English schools. Schools restrict the movement space available for pupils during the pandemic, leading to more internal exclusions. Today, students such as Esther Atunrase, 18, continue to advocate against these harmful practices, such as internal isolation booths that violate students’ rights. In her experience, she was often bullied for her height and then punished for self-defense.

The reality of school exclusions is concerning, with permanent exclusions rising by 60% in just five years. It is time we start addressing these issues and saving the future of our students by providing safe, nurturing, and inclusive environments.

Before meeting Esther and Lewis, I spoke with a London-based teacher who preferred to remain anonymous as they were well-versed with school discipline systems and had worked at a PRU. She shared her observations on exclusions and related issues. According to her, when there’s a fight, the only option in the school’s system is "assault." Consequently, children are excluded for reasons that don’t align with the incident. Similar trumped-up charges are used to place pupils in isolation rooms, which often have a high representation of black children. This teacher worked at a PRU where only three out of 15 staff members were qualified teachers. She encountered "naughty but bright" kids who often felt hopeless, especially those who were in year 10 or 11. The learning environment was poor as the children would come in with headphones and would be playing cards or arriving when they wanted, making it feel like a bad youth club.

Several factors explain why exclusions have been the go-to punishment for disruptive children in English schools. The first is austerity measures that have affected pastoral care and social care beyond the classroom in the past decade. Secondly, the fragmented schools system creates opportunities for some academy chains to avoid accountability. Lastly, there is an overarching focus on exam results and discipline, which has been championed by Conservative education secretaries, including Michael Gove. Though the government has pledged to help intervene early to prevent exclusions, the new education secretary Gavin Williamson has still expressed support for headteachers who suspend or expel pupils.

Exclusions disproportionately affect pupils of black Caribbean heritage, individuals from Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities, boys, and those with special educational needs. The Outwood Grange Academies Trust, which runs schools across several "left-behind" areas, has exclusion policies that highly prioritize discipline. A single unreasonable request can lead to fixed-term exclusion in these schools. Nine of the 45 schools in England that excluded over 20% of their pupils were run by this trust in 2016-2017.

In James’s school, there is a conduct policy that imposes various "repercussions" based on the infraction committed, with C4 meaning a half-hour detention, and C6 leading to an exclusion that lasts for a fixed period. Additionally, the Outwood school network utilizes solitary booths, which they euphemistically refer to as a "reflection room." Every one of James’s exclusions, his parents claim, amounted to almost four school weeks, and he was always required to spend at least half a day in the reflection room after each exclusion. Martin, James’s father, comments that "James would describe it as a tiny seat with a booth where he can’t even fit his shoulders in. They have to sit there silently for half a day, perhaps even a whole day. They get three washroom breaks. In theory, they assign them work, but in reality, they don’t do it."

According to James’s parents, every time he received an exclusion, they received a call, and that was all. The work he was assigned to complete at home was minimal and unrelated to his GCSE course work. Jenny, James’s mother, stated that "he can complete it in about half an hour, and it consists of very simple material, such as ‘I before E, except after C.’ In any event, nothing compares to having time with a teacher."

In November, Jenny informs us that, based on teacher evaluations, James earned six strong GCSEs and briefly both registered at the local Outwood sixth form to study three A-levels before deciding to enroll in a building apprentice scheme. Jenny states that "I am glad he found his calling, but it upsets me that his opportunities may have been wider if his education had been normal." She also mentions that James’s two years of recurrent exclusions and isolation took a toll on him.

Becky Hunter and her fourteen-year-old child, Mackenzie, reside in Skellow, a former mining village near Doncaster. Mackenzie has been diagnosed with autism and is currently in year 10 at the Outwood academy in Adwick. The school had the eighth-highest fixed-term exclusion rate in England, with 27.9% of students receiving an exclusion.

When we meet, Mackenzie is home due to another fixed-term exclusion, this time for refusing to sit in the "reflection" booth. Becky informs me that Mackenzie was excluded 16 times in year 7, and 25 times in year 8. Furthermore, between September 2019 and March last year, he was excluded an additional 11 times. When he is in school, according to Becky, he is frequently left alone with a laptop and directed to use a math app and complete reading material. She appears exhausted as she relays Mackenzie’s latest exclusion. "This time, it’s for a day and a half because he refused to sit in the booth. He’s been excluded for playing with a fidget toy that they issued him. He’s been excluded for requesting work. He’s been excluded for counterattacking against students who provoked him. Yesterday, another student turned off his laptop, prompting him to throw a pencil at him. They instructed him to go to the reflection room, and he refused."

"When Mackenzie’s at home," she continues, "he sends an email to his teachers and asks for coursework. However, all we receive is this." She hands me a booklet sized A5, consisting of 16 crookedly photocopied pages, that contains a guide on how to compose a narrative entitled "The Robbery," as well as a collection of math questions. "He’s had the same workbook for around two years now. How many times can you complete a workbook?"

Mackenzie joins us and sits beside his mother.

How does it feel to be excluded, I inquire him? "I’m glad to be out of that school and away from kids who harass me. But it’s terrible since I’m not gaining knowledge." I ask him to describe the reflection rooms. "You receive a chair, you get a desk. It has sides and a mirror – so if you bend your head down, the instructor can see you." What does he do when he is in there? "Just sits there and colors."

"Coloring," Becky repeats. "In year 9."

The Outwood Grange Trust refused to address the specific issues raised regarding the cases of James and Mackenzie, but issued a brief statement stating that they do not agree with the comments being made. They also claimed that thousands of parents have faith in their academies, citing the positive Ofsted evaluations and numerous inclusion awards the trust has received as evidence of their success.

In contrast, Lincolnshire has taken a different approach by swapping their PRUs with alternative provision (AP) in 2017. Two compact schools run on the basis of unconditional "positive regard" were established for children who have been excluded. These schools adhere to a therapeutic concept promoting institutionalized kindness. The Wellspring consortium, an academies chain that began in Barnsley, manages these two schools as well as 24 other educational facilities.

On a Tuesday morning in March, I visited the Wellspring AP located in Grantham, Lincolnshire, accompanied by Dave Whitaker, a teacher who serves as Wellspring’s director of learning, and Phil Willott, the Grantham facility’s executive principal. The difference between APs and mainstream schools was striking, with pupils receiving personalized and focused guidance. Most pupils at Wellspring have a history of trauma, making the approach towards these children unique in that it takes into consideration what happens to children experiencing high levels of stress, understanding that disruptive behavior is often a form of misdirected communication.

Whitaker claims that telling teachers to "F-off" is a high-risk behavior usually exhibited under constant stress. These pupils adopt high-risk behaviors as they struggle to connect with their surroundings. Therefore, the priority is developing strong relationships between pupils and staff to minimize any chances of conflict.

Some pupils come from challenging home environments where they have witnessed violence and aggression. While visiting, I met two pupils, Emily and Jade, who spoke positively about their experiences at Wellspring. Emily, a bright and talkative nine-year-old, stated that the school is helping her to understand different ways of dealing with challenges and has been beneficial for her education. Meanwhile, Jade, 14, said that she felt understood and supported by the staff at the school. She credited the school with making her feel more in control of her actions and emotions.

Initially, they began to exclude me for minor infractions. Eventually, I was completely dismissed.

When asked what she did while being excluded, she responded, “I watched TV. I wasn’t too concerned. Honestly, I would rather be at home. I didn’t learn much anyway. Every lesson I attended, I was kicked out because the teachers couldn’t handle me.” When inquired if she thought she was treated fairly, she replied, “At times, I was because I wasn’t the most agreeable person. However, I believe they could have placed me in isolation instead of excluding me. They got tired of trying to correct my behavior, so they began excluding me for trivial matters and, in the end, expelled me.”

Even though most children chose to stay home, the Grantham AP remained open during the first lockdown. “We conducted countless welfare visits and made daily phone calls,” Whitaker stated in October. “We had staff members knocking on doors, distributing work, and monitoring remote learning. It was a drastic learning curve.”

What occurred once students returned in September? “Exclusions persist- we have received new referrals,” he shared. “We haven’t seen an unusual surge in the last couple of months, but it hasn’t entirely ceased either.”

Three weeks following my visit to Grantham, I spent two hours at a Harvester on the outskirts of a large northern city talking to Ananya, a mother of four who works as a secondary school teacher. Her son, Joe, 16, is of mixed British-Asian and Black-British parents. He attended a “school in a leafy village” before enrolling in an academy in the suburbs, managed by a trust that oversaw 40+ schools. Joe was one of the few non-white students in the class.

Initially, Joe was expected to excel in secondary school. However, during year 9, he became familiar with the school’s disciplinary system: report cards, detentions, and the exclusion room. Ananya had been diagnosed with a serious, long-term illness. "I felt that I was very open to the school," she explained. "I informed them that he was experiencing trauma. He had to undergo tests and became anxious: "Do I have it too?" The school assured me that they would keep an eye on him and were willing to speak with him if he wanted to talk. And that was where it ended."

Joe began to skip classes during the early part of year 10. Ananya received a phone call informing her that fireworks had been ignited on the school grounds, Joe had refused to have his bag looked through, and he had left school grounds. He was expelled for three days. When he returned to school, he and his mother were told that he was being investigated for having ill-gotten substances, resulting in ten additional days of expulsion. "The story shifted from a firework display to a drug investigation," Ananya explained. "And I believed there were racial undertones." She claims there was no evidence: "It was based only on the rumors of other children."

By the conclusion of the week, Joe had been permanently suspended from school. He received no education from November 2017 until March 2018, when he was enrolled in a PRU. The curriculum was from 9 am to 1 pm, and according to Ananya, "There was no culture of learning: it was just about the number of students present." Joe was discovered with a small amount of marijuana, cautioned by the police, and permanently suspended from this institution. He soon connected with older people involved in gangs and crime. A stabbing incident hospitalized him. In the summer of 2018, Joe was arrested. "He was involved in a gunfire situation where shots were fired at a house. At that point, it was clear he was involved in what some might term gangs or county lines," Ananya explained.

Joe was detained at a juvenile center and then moved to the south of England due to safeguarding concerns, where he resided with his biological father. During his trial, it was acknowledged he had been targeted. Joe received a non-custodial community order. After a series of care placements, he was eventually authorized to live close to his mother.

What about the remaining 20% if the zero-tolerance approach works with 80% of kids? Do we simply accept the fact that they are suffering as collateral damage?

Currently, he is in custody at a correctional facility located in a different part of the country where he spends almost the entire day locked up behind bars due to staff shortages. As a result of the pandemic, Ananya has not been able to see her son since last March, and she worries that the ongoing situation could lead to his trial being delayed. In less than a year, her son will reach the age of 18. She expresses that it feels like a bereavement as her child is still alive but inaccessible.

Even though Joe’s story took place outside the walls of the classroom, it still highlights the painful reality of many of our educational institutions and how they function. The question of what to do with children who continuously misbehave, break the law, or have no interest in learning is an age-old one. Nevertheless, we must also consider how we treat those who have been traumatized, have special needs, are going through adolescence, or are subjected to other people’s prejudices. Sadly, many young lives are being ruined by policies, systems, and decisions that prioritize discipline over care and basic human compassion.

According to Dave Whitaker, "Suppose 80% of students respond well to a zero-tolerance, no-excuses policy in school. What about the remaining 20%? Do we consider them as mere collateral damage or work towards improving our systems to achieve near perfection?"

Ananya believes that the education system can be beneficial as long as children are conforming to the norm. However, the moment a child deviates from the set norm, the support offered by the system becomes insufficient. This leads to the children becoming emotionally damaged.


  • ewanpatel

    I'm a 29-year-old educational bloger and teacher. I have been writing about education for about six years, and I have a B.A. in English from UC Santa Cruz. I also have a M.A. in English from San Francisco State University. I teach high school English in the Bay Area.