Australian schools are unfairly suspending and excluding students, particularly boys, Indigenous students, and students with a disability. Our research is examining exclusionary policies and practices in Australian schools and the impact they have on vulnerable children. The findings suggest that these practices are discriminatory and harmful to the health, welfare and academic achievement of the children involved.
Recent publicly available data from 2019 shows that school exclusionary practices are being disproportionately applied towards particular groups of students in Australia. Our analysis shows that the following groups of students are at greater risk of being unfairly suspended and excluded from schools:
- In Queensland, Indigenous students received a quarter of all fixed-term and permanent exclusions (25.3% and 25.4% respectively), despite making up just over 10% of all Queensland’s full-time state school enrolments.
- In NSW, of all short and long suspensions approximately 25% were for Aboriginal students, even though this group represents just 8% of all student enrolments.
- In Victoria, 6.5% of all expulsions were for Indigenous students, however, this group represents only 2.3% of the student population.
Students with disability funding
- In Victoria, students with disability funding received 14% of all permanent exclusions yet constituted only 4.5% of all government school enrolments.
- In South Australia, over three quarters of all suspensions were given to male students (77%), a ratio of over 3:1 compared to females.
- In Victoria, males received over 80% of the permanent exclusions, a ratio of 4:1 compared to females.
- In NSW, around three quarters of all short and long suspensions in 2019 were for males (75.3% and 73.9% respectively).
It’s not just happening in Australia
A recent review of US research concluded that marginalised groups, including students from particular racial backgrounds, students with disabilities, boys, and, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, were disproportionately at risk of being suspended and excluded from school.
Similar findings have been observed in England. Research has shown disproportionately higher rates of exclusionary practices are applied to Black Caribbean students, Gypsy/Roma and Traveller pupils, Mixed White and Black Caribbean pupils, boys, as well as those with disabilities and/or behavioural, emotional or social difficulties.
What exclusionary practices are involved?
Exclusionary practices involve removing students who disrupt the ‘good order’ in schools and threaten others’ safety. This includes suspensions in which a child is removed from a class to a different place in the school (in-school suspension) or suspending a child from attending school for a set number of days (out-of-school suspension). It can also include exclusions or expulsions, whereby a child is removed from the school either temporarily or permanently.
Why it matters
Exclusionary practices that disproportionately affect vulnerable groups of students have the potential to contribute to ‘deep exclusion’. Deep exclusion refers to ‘exclusion across more than one domain or dimension of disadvantage, resulting in severe negative consequences for quality of life, well-being and future life chances’.
Research shows that there is a clear relationship between suspension from school and a range of behaviours detrimental to the health and wellbeing of young people’ including alienation from school, involvement with antisocial peers, increased alcohol and tobacco consumption and a lower quality of school life which increases the likelihood of school dropout, and involvement in illegal behaviour.
Students who are considered vulnerable or disadvantaged in more than one way are at heightened risk of being suspended from school and are therefore more likely to be adversely affected. Thus, school exclusions are likely to both result from and contribute towards further deep exclusion.
What is possible instead?
We believe exclusionary practices should be considered as a last resort and that legislation and policy related to school exclusions can be framed in ways that provide guidance for school discipline while also keeping students in school where possible. We hope our ongoing research will help provide the evidence base for policy and school-based interventions that enhance the success of vulnerable children in our schools.
For those who want more information – please visit our website School Exclusions Study
Anna Sullivan is an Associate Professor and Director of Research for Educational and Social Inclusion Group at the University of South Australia. She is a leading expert in school discipline and is committed to investigating ways in which schools can be better places. A/Prof Sullivan was lead researcher of a major Australian research study investigating behaviour in schools. The findings from this research have led to a greater understanding of teachers’ views of student behaviour and how school leaders can enact behaviour policy to support students in humane and caring ways. Her research has informed education policy and practice internationally.
Neil Tippett is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of South Australia, who completed his PhD at the University of Warwick in May 2015. His doctoral research examined school bullying from a socioecological perspective, identifying how individual behaviour and wider societal characteristics impacted on the likelihood of children being victimized or bullying others at school. Currently, his research interests include child safety, mental health, and student wellbeing and behaviour. Most recently he played a central role in reviewing and updating the National Safe Schools Framework, the Australia-wide document guiding how schools and communities can support the safety and wellbeing of their students.
Bruce Johnson is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Australia. He is an international expert in school discipline and classroom management. His research interests include human resilience, curriculum theory and development, school reform, classroom management, and sexuality education. He was a Chief Investigator on the Australian Research Council Linkage funded Behaviour at School Study
Jamie Manolev is a PhD candidate at the University of South Australia undertaking research within the fields of classroom management and school discipline. His expertise is in discipline, classroom management and critical policy analysis. He has worked as a research assistant on two ARC Linkage projects: The Behaviour at School Study, and the Refugee Student Resilience Study.