This article appears as part of the Lessons to Learn newsletter.

Last weekend, alongside our articles about additional support needs provision and Autism Acceptance Week, we published some in-depth analysis of school exclusions data in Scotland.

The picture it paints is striking to say the least. Exclusion is a complicated issue at the best of times, but the increasing levels of violence and aggression in schools have made it even more fraught.

There are extremely good reasons for wanting to reduce the instances of school exclusion, and strong arguments for doing so from a children’s rights perspective, but many now seem to feel that we have gone too far and that pupils who should be excluded are instead being kept in classrooms.

So what does the latest data really tell us about the situation? The most obvious point is that the use of exclusions has indeed fallen dramatically across the country since 2007. Back then, the exclusion rate was 63.5 per 1000 pupils; today it is 16.6. That is higher than the 2021 figure, but Covid-era school closures obviously had an impact on the number of pupils being excluded from school, and once you remove that blip the established and stable downward trend reappears.

Map out the figures and you see that there’s quite a bit of variation in exclusion rates, although even then the scale of these differences has narrowed quite dramatically over time.

There are also some really significant differences between various groups: when you pull the data apart, you find that children with additional support needs, those from deprived backgrounds, those from gypsy/traveller families, and those with experience of the care system, remain much more likely to be excluded from school. Is that really acceptable?

And remember, the overlap between those groups – those from deprived backgrounds are significantly more likely to have additional support needs, for example – will only exacerbate the problem.

Put simply: the most vulnerable, and the most marginalised, are also the most likely to be excluded. That’s the reality we need to confront, whether we like it or not.

While putting the original story together I got in touch with a few different people and organisations to get their views on what the data tells us, and what Scotland should be doing about school exclusions.

The Scottish Children’s Services Commission (SCSC) told me that higher exclusion rates for pupils with ASN are “no surprise” and highlighted the “devastating cuts in spending on support for these individuals.”

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Their spokesperson added: “There are long-term risks for young people, who are excluded from school and many of these risks can be financially costly for society. To deliver on the promise of inclusion, genuinely preventing the need for exclusions from school, whilst fully protecting the health, safety and wellbeing of teachers, support staff and students, requires significant and sustained investment.”

The Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland, Nicola Killean, went even further.

She told me that, during the first six months of her time in the role, children have told her that they “worry about seeing their classmates struggling, and they have talked about them needing more support and understanding”.

Her organisation is “concerned about the proportion of children who are living in poverty, and disabled children and those with other support needs who are excluded”, as well as the long waiting lists for diagnosis of conditions such as autism.

More resources are needed, she says, but Killean also supports even more radical steps, including banning exclusions in primary schools. This, she told me, is in line with the position adopted by the UN, whose Committee on the Rights of the Child explicitly advised the UK to “monitor the use of exclusions and ensure that they are prohibited in primary schools and used in secondary schools only as a measure of last resort.”

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The exclusion rate is higher (and increasing) in England, so that second point may be of more relevance south of the border, but ‘prohibiting’ primary school exclusions applies to Scotland just as much any other part UK.

In 2022-23 there were 1,760 instances of exclusion from primary schools, about 15% of the overall total. The number rises in each stage, from 69 exclusions of primary 1 pupils – who, for the record, are as young as four years old – to 503 of them for primary 7 pupils. What would it take to end those types of exclusions entirely and for good?

And what about giving young people a right of appeal against their exclusion? That, too, is recommended by the UN and supported by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland. It sounds, on the face of it, entirely unworkable, especially when most suspensions are only for a day or two – but maybe that is, in and of itself, an argument against exclusions anyway?

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The Scottish Government wants this to be the best place in the world to grow up, and fought for the incorporation of the UNCRC into Scots law, so can we expect to see further changes in line with UN recommendations in the coming years?

In response to the UN, the government stated that exclusions are already a ‘last resort’ in Scottish schools. A spokesperson told me the same thing. The government has also insisted that existing guidance prohibits the use of ‘informal exclusions’ (although that definitely doesn’t mean they’re not happening) and that young people have a right to have their education supported during an exclusion (although the reality is quite different).

And what about ending primary school exclusions, or allowing students to appeal?

Well, I think you know the answer to that already don’t you?

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