National statistics show that pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are nine times more likely to be excluded from school than their peers, and account for 70 per cent of all permanent exclusions.
This seems very unfair. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect schools to make allowances for the fact that these children are often less able to control their behaviour?
Of course, many schools do that. But even the most inclusive ones struggle to reconcile the conflicting demands placed on them – to include an ever-increasing number of children with SEND on a shrinking budget, whilst driving up attainment and tackling bad behaviour at the same time.
Behind every exclusion, there’s a back story. There may be a child whose additional needs went unidentified and unmet for far too long, but also classmates who had their learning disrupted, teachers who feel out of their depth and unsupported, and parents who are struggling to hold down a job because they keep getting called into school to take their child home.
Exclusion rates of pupils with SEND vary enormously between local authorities, and even between neighbouring schools – because they all have slightly different behaviour policies. In Sheffield, pupils in special schools are much less likely to be excluded than pupils with SEND in mainstream schools.
Types of exclusions
There are two types of formal exclusions: suspensions (fixed-term exclusions), where a pupil is not allowed in school for a specific period of time, and permanent exclusions (expulsions), where a pupil is removed from the school roll and has to be educated elsewhere, usually in a Pupil Referral Unit. Only the head teacher has the power to exclude a pupil. Any exclusion, even for a short period of time, must be formally recorded and follow the correct procedure.
“Informal” or “unofficial” exclusions, such as sending pupils home to “cool off” after an incident, are unlawful, regardless of whether they occur with the agreement of parents. If you believe that your child has been unlawfully excluded, you may want to make a complaint to the school’s governing body.
The use of part-time timetables is not illegal, but should only be used as a temporary measure in exceptional circumstances to meet a pupil’s needs (i.e. NOT as a disciplinary measure, or because the school doesn’t have enough support staff). There should be an action plan with timescales for supporting the pupil back into full-time education.
“Internal exclusions”, where a pupil is removed from class for disciplinary reasons and sent to an alternative location on the school site (e.g. another classroom or a “removal room”), do not count as formal exclusions, and the legislation and guidance on exclusions do not apply. Schools don’t have to report these exclusions to the local authority, so they don’t appear in the statistics, and there is little external scrutiny. If your child is given frequent internal exclusions, it may be advisable to meet with the SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) to review the support your child is getting in the classroom.
What the law says
The Government has published guidance on exclusions which all maintained schools and pupil referral units must follow, unless there are exceptional reasons not to do so. Academies must also have regard to this guidance and should not depart from it without good reason.
The Equality Act 2010 requires schools to make reasonable adjustments for pupils with disabilities. This might mean disregarding behaviour that is a direct consequence of a pupil’s disability, making reasonable adjustments to manage such behaviour, or considering alternative, more appropriate punishments. For example, if a child only understands a punishment if it immediately follows the behaviour, then an exclusion would not be an effective sanction.
Schools should not be applying their behaviour policy rigidly to ALL pupils. Excluding a disabled pupil for behaviour arising from their disability may amount to disability discrimination. This applies even if the behaviour is classed as “physical agression”.
What happens when a pupil is excluded?
If it’s a suspension, your child’s school remains responsible for educating them. The school should set and mark work for the first five days, to make sure your child doesn’t fall behind. If the exclusion is longer than five school days, the school must arrange suitable full-time education from the sixth day, e.g. at a pupil referral unit. You must make sure that your child is not present in a public place during school hours for the first five days of the exclusion, or you could be fined. At the end of the exclusion, the school and family have a reintegration meeting and a plan is discussed to support the pupil in being successfully reintegrated back into school. This could involve many of the options listed below.
If the exclusion is permanent, the school remains responsible for the child’s education for the first five days after they’ve been excluded. On the sixth day, the responsibility passes to the local authority and a place will be offered at the Sheffield Inclusion Centre (Pupil Referral Unit).
Government guidance states that, if a school has concerns about the behaviour, or risk of exclusion, of a child with additional needs, then it should consider what additional support or alternative placement may be required. This could mean:
- Involving a specialist, e.g. requesting help from the Autism Team, from a special school or from an Educational Psychologist;
- Completing a MyPlan, or requesting a statutory assessment for an EHC Plan (see information on the Local Offer website);
- Involving the Community Youth Teams;
- Involving the Multi-Agency Support Teams (MAST);
- Making a referral to the relevant Inclusion Panel; this panel is made up of headteacher representatives from the seven Sheffield localities, MAST, Social Care, Community Youth Team, Educational Psychology Service and LA senior colleagues. The school must have permission from the parents to make a referral. After the panel meeting, an action plan is sent to the school, which always includes some outreach work from the most appropriate key service, along with a letter from the panel which can be given to parents detailing the outcomes from the meeting;
- If the pupil has a statement or an EHC Plan, requesting an early annual review or interim/emergency review;
- Educating the pupil off-site to help improve their behaviour, e.g. by spending one day per week with a specialist provider. In such cases parents must be given clear information about the placement (why, when, where and how it will be reviewed). Reviews must allow all parties to establish if the placement is achieving its objectives and the pupil is benefiting from it;
- A “managed move”, where the pupil makes a fresh start at another school with the agreement of all parties.
In all of this, good home-school communication is essential. Parents have a key role to play in helping school staff understand why a particular behaviour occurs. When it comes to managing behaviour, consistency is key; everyone needs to apply the same strategies.
Challenging an exclusion
To be legitimate, an exclusion must be lawful, rational, reasonable, fair and proportionate. If the exclusion is permanent, it must also be in response to a serious breach, or persistent breaches, of the school’s behaviour policy; or a situation where keeping the child in school would seriously harm their own education or welfare, or that of other pupils. Government guidance states that head teachers should, as far as possible, avoid excluding permanently any pupil with a statement of SEN or Education Health and Care (EHC) plan.
If you think that your child’s exclusion is unfair, you may want to challenge the decision. If it’s a suspension, you should talk to the head teacher in the first instance. If that doesn’t help, you can ask the school’s governing body to “reinstate” your child. You can also do this after the exclusion has happened, to get a note added to your child’s school record indicating that the exclusion was not justified. If it’s a permanent exclusion, there is a formal process that must be followed.
If you believe that the exclusion (suspension or permanent exclulsion) has occurred as a result of disability discrimination, you can make a claim to the First-tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability). This must be done within six months of the exclusion.
Information, advice and support
Exclusions are stressful and upsetting, so get all the help and support you can. Some good places to go for help are:
SENDIAS (formerly Parent Partnership) provides impartial and confidential information, advice and support to parents/carers of children and young people with SEND: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0114 273 6009.
The National Autistic Society have lots of useful resources, including template letters.
The Down’s Syndrome Association has an Inclusion Worker who can advise you; email email@example.com or call 0333 1212 300.
IPSEA have lots of useful advice on challenging an exclusion. You can book a 30-minute telephone advice session with one of their trained volunteers on their website.
The School Exclusion Project provides free advice and free representation to challenge permanent exclusion.
The Coram Children’s Legal Centre is a charity that specialises in law and policy affecting children and young people: call them on 08088 020 008.
Ambitious About Autism have published a useful resource pack about “inofficial” (unlawful) exclusions, which includes template letters you can use to challenge this practice.
These resources or challenging permanent exclusions of pupils with SEND have been developed for SENDIAS staff, but could also be useful for parents.
The local authority’s Exclusions Team provides support around permanent exclusions; contact Genine Nuttall, Exclusion and Reintegration Officer, on 0114 2736197 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Sarah Kelly, Complex Case Worker, on 0114 2735750 or Sarah.email@example.com
A parent’s perspective
“My daughter does not have a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, but it has become clear over the years that sensory issues are really important; loud concerts, busy corridors, being touched on her head or shoulder all can cause a meltdown. Ball sports have always been a challenge for fear of being hit by a flying ball; so a volleyball lesson in an echoing gym was a kaleidoscope of noise and touch.
My daughter said she did not want to play volleyball and became upset and refused to join in. She was encouraged by her teaching assistant and teacher to join in, so she ran for the door. A member of staff tried to stop her leaving, and so she kicked them on the shin. As a consequence of her hurting a member of staff she received a formal exclusion from school.
Hindsight is easy, but I wish they had listened to her in the first place, kicking was her last resort. I wish they had understood how painful sensory overload is. I wish her teaching assistant had just gone out of the room with her to calm down. The exclusion from school made her distraught, maybe she learnt from it but I suspect a similar incident in a special school would have been handled differently. This is a difficult area for mainstream schools, but as well as training to avoid situations like this, we need to be talking about appropriate sanctions.”
– Sheffield parent of a young person with a disability