Following the publication of DfE data on pupil suspensions in England for the 2022/23 autumn term, we have explored how suspension rates have changed from before the Covid-19 pandemic. There has been an increase in the suspension rate across England in the 2022/23 autumn term compared to the 2019/20 autumn term.
In this analysis, we look at pupil suspension rates across England, taking the number of suspensions and dividing this by the pupil headcount. For example, if there were 100 suspensions among 1,000 pupils, the overall suspension rate would be 10%. We also examine how the reasons provided for pupil suspensions have changed from before the Covid-19 pandemic.
- The overall suspension rate for all pupils across England has risen by 0.8% points since the Covid-19 pandemic
- Suspensions citing persistent disruptive behaviour as a reason have seen the largest increase
- FSM eligible pupils have seen a seven times larger increase in overall suspension rate from before the pandemic compared to non-FSM eligible pupils
- SEN Support pupils have seen almost a three times larger increase in overall suspension rates compared to pupils without an identified SEND
- Suspension rates of SEMH pupils have seen the largest increase since before the pandemic among all primary needs, largely driven by suspensions in secondary schools
England’s increasing suspension rate
The overall suspension rate has risen from 2.2% in the 2019/20 autumn term, to 3.0% in the 2022/23 autumn term, equivalent to 69,000 additional suspensions across England. The increase is largely driven by the increasing suspension rates in England’s secondary schools, rising by 1.7% points up to 5.9% in 2022/23. Conversely, suspension rates in primary and special schools have fallen from before the Covid-19 pandemic, with special schools in particular seeing a decrease of 0.6% points, down to 4.3% in 2022/23.
Figure 1 – Suspension rate of pupils in England across different school phases
Key Finding: The overall suspension rate of all pupils across England has risen by 0.8% points since the Covid-19 pandemic
Examining which reasons provided for suspensions are becoming more prevalent as we move past the pandemic reveals that suspensions as a result of persistent disruptive behaviour have seen the largest increase between the 2019/20 and 2022/23 autumn terms1. Notably, across all schools, suspensions which cite persistent disruptive behaviour as a reason have risen by 7.8% points, up to 47.5% of all reasons in 2022/23. This increase is over eight times larger than what is seen for other reasons which have seen an increase in prevalence since before the pandemic, such as damage and sexual misconduct. Conversely, suspensions citing physical assault against either a pupil or an adult as a reason have seen the largest decreases.
Figure 2 – Change in reasons cited for suspensions across all schools from the 2019/20 to 2022/23 autumn term
Key Finding: Suspensions citing persistent disruptive behaviour as a reason have seen the largest increase among all reasons
Suspensions of vulnerable pupils have increased more than others
We can also explore whether different pupil groups are showing larger increases in suspension rates. Female pupils have seen a larger increase in their overall suspension rate compared to their male peers, rising 0.9% points to 2.1% in 2022/23. However, the greatest increases since before the pandemic are seen within vulnerable groups such as those who are eligible for free school meals (FSM) and pupils with SEN Support. Notably, there has been a seven-times larger increase in the suspension rate of FSM eligible pupils (+1.4% points) compared to pupils who are not FSM eligible (+0.2%), raising questions as to what is driving the increasing suspensions of disadvantaged pupils in particular.
Key Finding: FSM eligible pupils have seen a seven times larger increase in overall suspension rate from before the pandemic compared to non-eligible pupils
Furthermore, we have seen an increase of 1.5% points in the suspension rate of pupils with SEN Support, rising from 6.7% in 2019/20 to 8.2% in 2022/23. This increase is almost three times larger than the increases seen among both pupils without SEND, and pupils with EHCPs. The large discrepancy in the suspension rate increases between different pupil groups may raise questions about how inclusive the post-pandemic learning environment has become.
Figure 3 – Change in suspension rate from 2019/20 to 2022/23 by pupil group
Key Finding: SEN Support pupils have seen almost a three times larger increase in overall suspension rates compared to pupils without SEND
SEMH pupils have seen the largest increase in suspensions
Using the last full academic year’s suspension data from prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, we can also examine how suspension rates have changed for SEND pupils with different primary needs. We have compared data from the 2021/22 academic year to the 2018/19 academic year. As shown in figure 4, across all schools, the groups of SEND pupils who have seen the largest increases in overall suspension rates are those with primary needs including social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH, +4.6%), other needs (+4.4%), moderate learning difficulties (MLD, +4.0%) and specific learning difficulties (SpLD, +3.2%).
In contrast, pupils with severe learning difficulties (SLD, +0.2%), profound or moderate learning difficulties (PMLD, +0.4%) and hearing impairments (HI, 1.2%) have seen the lowest increases in suspension rates compared to before the pandemic. The large increase in suspensions of pupils with SEMH is driven by the 8.1% point rise in secondary school suspensions of SEMH pupils, and negated slightly by the 0.9% point and 10.6% point decrease in suspensions of primary and special school SEMH pupils respectively.
It is worth noting however that while the suspension rate of SEMH pupils has seen a large increase since before the pandemic, the permanent exclusion rate across all schools has instead seen a 0.21% point decrease. The key driver behind this decrease is the fall in secondary school permanent exclusions of SEMH pupils, possibly suggesting an effort has been made by schools to ensure these pupils are being kept on roll. This could be used to explain the contrastingly large increases in suspension rates of SEMH pupils, with schools deciding to utilise suspensions in place of permanent exclusions.
Key Finding: Suspension rates of SEMH pupils have seen the largest increase since before the pandemic among all primary needs, driven by secondary school suspensions
Figure 4 – Change in suspension rate from the 2018/19 academic year for SEN pupils with different primary needs
This analysis explores the rise in suspensions of school pupils across England since before the Covid-19 pandemic. This is primarily driven by an ever-increasing secondary school suspension rate, with suspensions for persistent disruptive behaviour becoming more common. This may be impacted by the extended period of time away from in-person schooling for pupils over the pandemic, leaving them less able to handle the requirements of classroom learning compared to before the pandemic.
We have also explored a concerning discrepancy in the increasing suspension rates of vulnerable pupils, such as those who are FSM eligible or requiring SEN Support, compared to their peers. This raises questions around the inclusivity of the educational settings these pupils are in, and whether any factors driving these large increases in suspension rates for these pupil groups in particular can be better managed. We also highlight a more positive trend, that shows while suspensions of SEND pupils with primary needs such as SEMH or MLD in particular are increasing dramatically, this is coupled with decreasing permanent exclusion rates. Therefore, it may be that an effort is being made to keep pupils on roll.
Addressing rising suspension rates is key to fostering a successful and inclusive educational experience for all pupils, particularly those in vulnerable groups. A focus on supporting teachers in being better prepared for dealing with increasingly common pupil behaviour problems may be beneficial in helping curb this trend. Further research should also explore examples of best practice regarding interventions and alternatives to suspending pupils, ensuring that pupils remain in school as much as possible throughout their education journey.
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1Percentages discussed in the reasons analysis are the percentage of all reasons, not the percentage of all suspensions. It should be noted that in 2019/20, only one reason could be provided for a suspension whereas in 2022/23, multiple reasons could be provided for a single suspension. Furthermore, due to changes in which reasons could be provided for suspensions, we have rebased the percentages presented in the analysis, excluding those with reasons labelled as:
- Abuse relating to disability
- Abuse against sexual orientation and gender identity
- Inappropriate use of social media or online technology
- Use or threat of use of an offensive weapon or prohibited item
- Wilful and repeated transgression of protective measures in place to protect public health.
Therefore, figures presented in this analysis may differ slightly to published figures.