What’s behind the rise in bad student behaviour in colleges?

Colleges are inheriting rising levels of bad behaviour from schools. FE Week investigates the consequences and finds out what colleges are doing about it

Colleges are inheriting rising levels of bad behaviour from schools. FE Week investigates the consequences and finds out what colleges are doing about it


Cyberbullying, vaping, revenge porn, smartphone addiction… College staff are now having to deal with types of anti-social behaviour that were practically unheard of just a decade ago. 

Across England, colleges are reporting a rise in challenging behaviour, particularly among their first-year 16-19 students.

While the immediate impact of Covid has gone away, it has left behind a trail of disaffected young people, who had stopped attending school regularly by the time they took their GCSEs. School absence and exclusion rates for year 11s last year rocketed to record levels, DfE data shows.

More than three-quarters (77 per cent) of college student support staff believe that their students felt more dissatisfaction with wider society in 2023 than in previous years, a survey conducted exclusively for FE Week of The National Association for Managers of Student Services’ members reveals. Almost the same share (71 per cent) believe that this disaffection has contributed to a rise in challenging behaviour.

DfE’s newly-appointed FE student support champion, Polly Harrow, said that “without question, post-pandemic colleges are facing more behaviour that we find challenging.”

The challenge now for colleges is to win back those young people, who have previously rejected, or been pushed out of, mainstream education.

Polly Harrow FE student support champion

Inclusive FE culture

While many schools are responding to increased behavioural disruption with punitive measures such as isolation booths, suspensions or permanent exclusion, colleges generally take a more inclusive approach.

Only 26 per cent of NAMSS respondents believed that their college permanently excluded more students in 2023 than in 2022.

Harrow believes that “colleges do everything they can to keep exclusions to a minimum”.

But they do appear to be resorting to fixed-term exclusions more frequently, some of which are being imposed for an entire academic year. 

Almost half (48 per cent) of NAMSS respondents said their college had temporarily excluded more students in 2023, while only 26 per cent were sure they had not – with the rest being unsure.

One NAMSS member reported a doubling of exclusions and suspensions in the first term of this academic year compared to the same period the previous year, noting that those students were coming onto campus regardless. 

Getting an accurate picture of how many students are being excluded from colleges – and where they end up afterwards – is impossible, because DfE does not collect the data. 

Harrow questions why the department gathers such data for schools and not colleges. “Where’s the curiosity for what the levels of exclusion are in FE?”

The data for sixth forms shows that although they did not permanently exclude any students in the 2022-23 Autumn term, their suspension rate was the highest since these records became available in 2019-20 (0.4 per cent).

The real picture is also difficult to ascertain because while some colleges might ‘exclude’ a student for disruptive behaviour, another college might simply withdraw them, without labelling this as an ‘exclusion’.

The Association of Colleges’ policy manager Eddie Playfair believes that exclusions are used “very sparingly” in colleges, but it is hard to gain an accurate picture because “in some cases, exclusions are just called withdrawals”.

NAMSS chair Lisa Humphries echoes this point.

“Unlike schools, there’s no standard practice. There’s no consistency across the sector because it’s everyone’s individual interpretation.”

While exclusions data remains elusive, our FOI of colleges last year indicated there had been a rise in withdrawals. 7 per cent of students in the 2022-23 academic year had withdrawn from their courses by January 2023, while in the entire 2021-22 academic year, 9 per cent withdrew. 

This could help explain the recent increase in 16- to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training (NEETs), which in 2022 rose to 8.4 per cent – the highest rate since 2012.

Lisa Humphries NAMSS chair

Permanent exclusion last resorts

Colleges only resort to permanent exclusions in exceptional circumstances. For example, last year Plumpton College permanently excluded two students who were arrested after a sheep was attacked and killed on the South Downs. Two others treated as significant witnesses were “withdrawn from their course”.

Blackburn College has excluded 15 students since September, but not all permanently. Its student support director, Matthew Robinson, said around 36 others have been “right at the top of the disciplinary process” but “at some point, interventions worked and they’ve integrated back into college. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be game over for these young people”.

Kirklees College, where Harrow is assistant principal, only permanently excludes students “at risk of harm to themselves or others”, and therefore has only permanently excluded one person in the last five years, Harrow explained.

Harrow sees permanent exclusions as “painful decisions” because authorities often then lose sight of these young people. 

Although legally local authorities are responsible for young people until they are 18, there’s no legal obligation on colleges (as there is on schools) to report to councils when someone is missing from education. 

“There’s an expectation that if you were concerned about someone missing, you adopt the school practice in college…you follow it up to make sure that they’re safe,” said Harrow. “But it’s a grey area, 16 to 18. If they can’t be in college and don’t get a position in another college… it gets very tricky.”

Attendance woes

Attendance and punctuality were the most common types of challenging student behaviour reported by NAMSS members to have increased in 2023 (cited by 84 per cent). One member noted a “general lack of concern if they’re not in class”, with “more hanging around socially”.

In school sixth forms, DfE data shows how severe absence (50 per cent or more days missed) has risen consecutively each year since 2017-18 from 1.1 to 3.3 per cent in 2022-23, while the overall absence rate increased from 7.4 per cent to 10.1 per cent.

Cat Marin, group director at Activate Learning, which runs seven colleges across Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Surrey, said that Activate’s dropout rates have increased most commonly for mental health reasons. 

Robinson said while the “golden number” that colleges aim for is 90 per cent attendance, he believes it is more important for them to consider “the distance travelled”. “If a young person’s attendance at school was 50 per cent, and then they’re at 60% at college, actually, that’s progress.”

Similarly, the City of Liverpool College’s recent inspection, which rated it ‘good’, noted that attendance rates were “not consistently high” but praised leaders for setting “realistic individual targets” in the “context of very high persistent and severe absence rates across schools in the city”. 

“Low-level disruption” was noted by 82 per cent of NAMMS respondents, while three-quarters (74 per cent) reported a “general lack of engagement”.

Humphries says her members are “not seeing more students who are violent”, but “more disengaged students – low-level behaviour stuff. Where we could quickly sort it in the past, it’s becoming harder to do that.”

Over half of respondents said drug and alcohol use (55 per cent) had risen, with one member stating that the “cost of living crisis now makes drug dealing an appealing career option”.

Robinson notes a particular challenge with THC vapes, not just at Blackburn College but among young people across Lancashire.

Ben Beer director of The Safeguarding Group

Social media stress

Inappropriate use of social media was also cited by most respondents (53 per cent) as causing a rise in behavioural issues and was the most common source of student disaffection (cited by 84 per cent). 

One NAMSS member cited a “big increase in the amount of online bullying and harassment caused by students being set up and filmed for public social media sharing and shaming”. 

Ben Beer, director of The Safeguarding Group, which regularly audits colleges’ safeguarding data, believes there has been a shift in the type of college behavioural incidents, which is being driven by the impact of social media.

 “The feeling of behaviour getting worse is a manifestation of colleges not necessarily being prepared for the rapid increase in social media, and how that’s used to facilitate some crime, abuse and harassment. 

“What’s emerging is outside the current skill set or training available to many colleges. There’s loads of bespoke training available on county lines or drugs and alcohol, but not a lot around how we build cultures that respond to some current adolescent issues.”

Beer notes that some colleges have updated their behaviour policies to reflect the changing student culture. 

Weston College’s new student behaviour policy, published in November 2023, includes the rule to ‘behave respectfully towards others online and all platforms of social media.’

Robinson believes that in maths and English GCSE classes in particular, teachers are having to “mitigate” the compulsion that students have to be “connected all the time” through their mobiles, because “sometimes the interest [in those subjects] isn’t there”.

Beer believes that these classes have “unique behavioural pressures” because colleges have “very little buy-in” from students, and the provision is “often under-resourced, with quite transient staff… it’s a really tough gig”.  

The impact of the schools’ crisis

The record numbers of young people dropping out of mainstream schools, either through absenteeism, exclusions or elective home education, is having a profound impact on those young people’s readiness for college. 

The absence rate for year 11s – the final GCSE year before young people start college – jumped to 26.1 per cent in 2022-23, its highest level since records began in 2017-2018. The year 11 suspension rate also reached a record level that term of 6.81 per cent, while the permanent exclusion rate was 0.08 per cent, the highest level since 2019-20.

Over three-quarters (76 per cent) of NAMSS respondents noted a rise in behavioural problems among students who missed a large amount of time in school, due to anxiety, exclusions or poor engagement. Similarly, 69 per cent of respondents to a recent survey of attendees at an AoC safeguarding conference said their college had been impacted by the rising number of school exclusions.

Zoe Lewis principal of Middlesbrough College

Zoe Lewis, chief executive of Middlesbrough College, cannot recall another time in her 20-year FE career where “attendance at schools is lower than at college”. She describes this as “quite remarkable”. 

Middlesborough’s secondaries had an absence rate in summer 2022-23 of 14 per cent, while its suspension rate for year 11s in 2021-22 was a record 90 per cent, compared to 12 per cent nationally.

Many young people leaving mainstream school early end up in alternative provision, which is often unregulated and provided in small, niche settings. Harrow believes the quality of this provision “should be of interest to colleges”.

College can then come as a culture shock to those young people. 

“They find it much more difficult to find a sense of belonging,” said Harrow. “We have to do lots more pastoral care around them to really build trust in an education system that they’ve lost confidence in.”

Similarly, Robinson finds that often, “it’s not until a behaviour incident happens that you realise their previous education setting was very different. When they enter this big, noisy college environment with lots of freedom, they struggle.”

Harrow is calling for “something to bridge the gap” in the sector for the growing cohort of 16- to 17-year-olds “not yet ready to learn”.

Blackburn College is hoping to provide such a service. Robinson said he is exploring expanding the college’s team, which supports the transition of high-needs students into college, to support other students with that transition too.

How colleges are stepping up

Last academic year Middlesbrough College was witnessing “the worst behaviour we’d ever seen”, said Lewis. She witnessed more “vandalism, vaping, backchat…you name it. There was a lack of respect which we’d never had before”.

The turning point came after she observed some particularly rowdy behaviour on one of her regular walks about campus, and decided enough was enough. The college needed to chart a new course, “to support our staff as much as our students”.

Workshops and focus groups with students and staff were conducted to find out “where the pinch points were – what they didn’t like, where they felt we needed to be tougher, where we’d been too tough and just lots of listening”.

Senior leaders came up with a new behaviour action plan, investing in new roles to pilot new initiatives.

Vaping detector

Lewis found that installing vaping detectors “really improved behaviour in toilets and changing rooms”, while installing more CCTV and security in other spaces, offset with “more rewards and celebrations” also made a difference. 

The language of the college’s discipline policy was changed to have a more “positive spin”, to “reduce the friction points, celebrate more and focus on the trouble areas, rather than assuming that all students are problematic”. 

By the start of this year, things “felt completely different”. Attendance rates rose by 2 per cent, and a survey found that student satisfaction with other students’ behaviour, and how the college deals with it, had risen from 88 to 93 per cent.

Middlesbrough’s last Ofsted inspection report, published last month, rated its behaviour and attitudes as ‘outstanding’.

Middlesbrough is not the only college to embark on new behaviour strategies. 

Among the tactics being deployed to tackle disruptive behaviour, NAMSS members reported “employing a team of youth workers”, “strengthening links with parents and carers”, “providing more one-to-one support and reduced timetables” and taking “trauma-informed” approaches.  

Kidderminster College’s principal Cat Lewis explained how just before Covid, the college adopted a more “positive, restorative rather than punitive” behaviour policy. “When we’re talking about poor behaviour, we do it privately and calmly. We don’t do public humiliation.”

Kidderminster, which is part of the NCG Group, realised it had to be “fleet of foot” in responding to “young people coming in via different routes, not just the traditional school pathway, who might not respond to authority in a positive way”. 

In partnership with Activate Learning, Kidderminster has also stepped-up mental health training and is embarking on a new gamified approach to tackling mental health. 

Marin explained how students will play a game through their mobiles to help them build “resilience and soft skills”, while also being part of a “randomised control trial of epic proportions”. The colleges are aiming for 8,000 students to take part. 

Middlesbrough College

What’s causing behaviour issues?

As well as social media, NAMSS members put the sources of disaffection being felt by college students down to the cost-of-living crisis (73 per cent), family breakdown (68 per cent), the Covid legacy (55 per cent), global issues (32 per cent) and political disillusionment (13 per cent).

The spread of Andrew Tate-style online misogyny is thought to be influencing some poor behaviour. Three-quarters of respondents to AoC’s safeguarding conference survey said their students’ conduct was being “affected by misogyny”. One NAMSS member explained how they were tackling poor behaviour by introducing a “consent week” and “staff awareness session on sexual harassment/violence”.

And mental health problems, which have become particularly acute among college-aged students, are driving challenging behaviour on campuses.

Robinson believes that “a lot of the young people coming into colleges now don’t have the resilience, communication and tolerance skills sets they might have picked up from school”.

Almost a quarter (23.3 per cent) of 17 to 19 year olds surveyed by the NHS in 2023 had a probable mental health disorder, compared to 21.7 per cent of 20 to 25 year olds and 20.3 per cent of eight to 16 year olds. 

And 95 per cent of colleges reported an increase of disclosed mental health difficulties among 16 to 18-year-olds, AoC research found last year. 82 per cent of colleges were encountering a significant number of students experiencing mental health difficulties without a formal disclosure.

Reflecting the increase in pressure on college mental health services, last month the AoC launched a new mental health charter, updating a previous version published five years ago.

Meanwhile, Humphries concludes that disruptive behaviour is mainly down to “a generation of young people who aren’t sure where they belong”.

“We need to talk about what we’ve done to our young people that makes them operate in this way. We all need to take collective responsibility here. And how do we fix it?”

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One comment

  1. Jim white

    This is a legacy of Covid and Gove’s and Gibb’s rigour, rigour, rigour approach. We are seeing learners totally turned off education as they have been told they are not up to standard since year 1 (5/6 years old). Emerging was the sad turn of phrased used to describe these children.

    Additionally, Qualification reform will decimate any choice left for these young learners as the hit FE. Colleges will be limited to T levels and academic options only. It is vital that the reforms are stopped in their tracks to help these young people reconnect with education through vocational learning.

    There is an iceberg of NEETs coming, because of the reforms and everything this article has mentioned. This will be disastrous for our long term goals in levelling up and social mobility, and needs to be addressed very quickly by whom ever is in power come 2025