Preventing the exclusion of pupils with SEND


Recent figures have shown a close link between exclusions and pupils with special educational needs and disability (SEND). Tania Tirraoro looks in detail at why this might be and how it can be prevented.


  • The chances of being excluded are far higher for children with SEND than without.
  • Parents can feel that they are up against a discriminatory system when their child is at risk of exclusion.
  • Schools should do everything they can to ensure that exclusion does not happen.

If your child has a special educational need or disability (SEND), their chances of being excluded from school are far higher than children without.

The latest government figures show that 70% of children who are permanently excluded from school are on the SEN register. Pupils with statements of SEN (no figures as yet include the SEN reforms) are nine times more likely to receive a fixed period exclusion than pupils with no SEN.

This applies to official exclusions. Unofficial or informal exclusions are illegal but they still happen, with children being sent home to ‘cool off’. While this might be seen as helpful for the child and for everyone else in the class, it’s still against the law, even if the parents agree to take the child home.

The charity, Ambitious About Autism, reported in their 2014 #RuledOut campaign survey of 500 parents, that:

  • 4 in 10 children with autism have been excluded informally and therefore illegally during their time at school
  • 20% of children with autism had been formally excluded in the past 12 months
  • over half of parents of children with autism say they have kept their child out of school for fear that the school is unable to provide appropriate support.

One parent who has a son with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and a statement of SEN, says her son has spent most of his school days so far with either official or unofficial fixed-term exclusions. He has been in both a mainstream and an ASD specialist school.

She said:

‘When there were unofficial exclusions, the schools would demand we go and get our son and most times when we got there he would not be in an anxious state. Our experience has been very negative of the exclusions process including the integration back in to school with reduced timetables.’

Her son has spent the last 10 months out of school and she feels he has been discriminated against:

‘As parents, we felt the exclusions were discriminatory against his disability and did not seem to have any real impact on our son. They were all very negative experiences. To try and reduce the exclusions, my husband sat outside the school to be “on call”. When we mentioned we felt it was discriminatory, we were told it wasn’t discrimination as our son hadn’t followed school rules, hence the exclusion. Information was difficult to access and we weren’t really signposted.’

A discriminatory system?

If parents do consider that their child has experienced discrimination, they can make a claim to the First-tier SEND Tribunal for disability discrimination, or to a county court for other forms of discrimination. However, many parents either don’t realise this or all their energies are taken up dealing with the immediate situation.

Other parents report that they feel their child has been excluded by the back door, when they are told in a meeting that the school can no longer cater for the child’s needs. The parent, under pressure, then moves their child to another school, to be home educated, or to remain for months in limbo, while the local authority tries to find an alternative setting.

Another parent said this had happened to her adopted son not once, but three times:

‘Each time I’ve been told the school can’t meet my child’s needs. What I now know is that the support was never in place. When you have the stress of dealing with an extremely anxious child, fighting the system is secondary to the need to look after your child. The fighting bit came later. At the time I was desperately trying to get a diagnosis and find a school that could meet his needs. I also know that for the whole eight years that he was in the system, there wasn’t anyone other than a lovely nursery nurse at the beginning that had any training at all to meet his needs. I know my experience is not unique!’

The most recent guidance from the Department for Education on school exclusions means it is illegal to exclude a pupil:

  • if they have additional needs or a disability that the school feels it is unable to meet
  • if it is based upon the pupil’s academic attainment/ability
  • if it is due to actions of a pupil’s parents
  • if a pupil has failed to meet specific conditions before they are reinstated.

Schools’ statutory duty

Schools must also understand that whatever rules they have in place, they do not trump the Equality Act 2010 when a child has a disability. The latest guidance on inclusion, updated in February 2015, says the decision to exclude a pupil must be lawful, reasonable and fair. Schools have a statutory duty not to discriminate against pupils on the basis of protected characteristics, such as disability or race.

If it looks like a pupil may be heading towards an exclusion, the DfE guidance instructs schools that early intervention should be taken to address underlying causes of persistent disruptive behaviour.

Whether or not a child already has an identified SEN, an assessment should be carried out at an early stage, to determine whether appropriate provision is in place. This will likely include a multi-agency assessment, potentially leading to an educational, health and care plan (EHCP) if previously undiscovered SEND are found as a result. Exclusion procedures must have regard to the SEND code of practice.

Such an assessment may also pick up mental health or family problems that are leading to the pupil’s difficulties as this could change the entire picture and effective, sustained support can make an enormous difference. If a child already has an EHCP or statement, schools should consider assessing if it is actually meeting that pupil’s needs and whether it needs an early or emergency review.

After exclusion

All children have a right to an education, so being excluded doesn’t mean the child or young person just sits at home all day doing nothing. In fact, for a school planning to exclude, there are procedures that must be followed for an exclusion to be lawful. These are as follows:

  1. Reasonable steps should be taken to set and mark work for pupils during the first five school days of an exclusion, and alternative provision must be arranged from the sixth day.
  2. The headteacher must inform the parents or guardians in writing and without delay, of how long the exclusion will last and why it is happening. The parents or guardians have a right to make representations about the exclusion to the school’s governing body.
  3. If the exclusion is permanent or a fixed term that exceeds five days, or if it would mean the child would miss certain tests or exams, the governing body must also be informed by the headteacher.
  4. Within 15 days of notification, governors must consider reinstatement if the exclusion is permanent, if it means the pupil has been excluded for more than 15 days in one term, or if it means the child would miss public exams or national curriculum tests.

Avoiding exclusion – a case study

The guidance says that excluding children with a statement or an EHCP, or a looked-after child, must be avoided as far as possible. This may seem a tall order but one mainstream SENCo says that with determination, lots of patience and holistic support, tough situations can be turned around:

‘We had a boy who joined us late, having been out of school for a while. For the first couple of weeks he sat under a table in my lessons rather than at the table. He seemed to want to do everything he could to get excluded in the shortest possible time. His previous school experiences had been unsuccessful.

At the same time, his parents were dealing with their own issues of substance abuse, he fought with his brother constantly and a baby girl was on the way. We put a lot of time into understanding his anxieties, his need to control each situation and his communication skills.

I referred him to the senior paediatrician in the area, someone I have worked with for 25 years, who diagnosed ADHD, ODD and traits of Asperger’s Syndrome. We utilised multi-modal support – working with him in the classroom, out of the classroom and working with the family, plus monitoring his medication.

Even with all this, he came extremely close to permanent exclusion, but he is now predicted to get two “B” grades at GCSE this summer and is aiming to go to college in September.

He’s polite, responsible, healthy and focused, even when he’s among disruptive peers.’

An exclusion is always a sign that the school has failed to connect with a pupil, sometimes despite their best efforts. It should always be the very last resort rather than an attempt to move the problem elsewhere as quickly as possible.

Although the government has climbed down from its plan for blanket academisation of mainstream schools by 2022, parents of children with SEND are still concerned. They fear that if more mainstream schools are driven by their attainment data, exclusions will be seen ever more frequently as a vehicle to move pupils who are disruptive or who have hard-to-meet needs, off the school roll.


Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Tania Tirraoro is a journalist and the founder of the website. She has two teenage sons with Asperger syndrome.

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