It is perhaps not surprising that in a year which saw millions of children learning at home during the Covid-19 pandemic, rates of permanent exclusions and suspensions were down in England.

According to National Statistics, there were almost 3,000 fewer permanent exclusions in 2019/20 – a rate of 0.06% - and rates of suspensions fell from 5.36% in 2018/19 to 3.76% in 2019/20. In the summer term of 2020, there were just 40 permanent exclusions in total.

Unfortunately, these figures are no cause for optimism. In autumn 2020, before the pandemic hit, permanent exclusion rates were 5% higher than the same term in the previous year, and suspensions were 14% higher. In primary schools, permanent exclusions increased by 20% in autumn 2019 compared to autumn 2018. This year’s overall figures are masking an underlying trend of rising exclusions, most commonly due to ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’, that continues unabated.

The statistical release does not include a breakdown of figures for care-experienced children but, in the calendar year 2020, children represented in The Adoption Barometer 2021 were 14 times more likely to be permanently excluded and almost two and a half times more likely to be suspended than national averages for England. Over three years of The Adoption Barometer, reported exclusion and suspension rates for adopted children have remained persistently higher than national averages.

It is tempting to explain this year’s lower overall exclusion rates as being entirely a result of the impact of Covid-19 school closures, and that certainly will have been a huge contributory factor. Yet it seems overly simplistic to dismiss this as a blip, especially when many of the children most vulnerable to exclusion, including those with SEN, looked after children and adopted children, were able to attend school along with children of key workers.

But school was a very different place during lockdown and some children who had previously struggled the most were able to settle, learn and thrive like never before in this new environment. In Adoption UK’s Home Learning During the Covid-19 Lockdown report, adoptive parents commented warmly on the positive impact of smaller class sizes, more varied activities, more opportunity for outdoor learning and play and higher staff to pupil ratios. One parent described how she felt her child’s teachers had been given the opportunity to see him as a whole person for the first time in six years at the school. For some children at risk of exclusion, the temporary ‘normal’ of lockdown schooling might have made all the difference to their educational futures.

The upheavals of the Covid-19 pandemic have called every aspect of our education system into question, and exclusions should be no exception. There are hundreds of children who might have been excluded during 2019/20 but instead were given another chance in 2020/21. Those children deserve a wholehearted commitment to ensure that the lessons of lockdown are learned so that their reprieve from exclusion is more than a short-term postponement.

Rebecca Brooks
Adoption UK's Education Policy Advisor
Author of 
The Trauma and Attachment Aware Classroom