Statistics show that the number of exclusions is on the increase and is particularly worrying in relation to pupils with SEN. The publication of revised government guidance means schools should review their practice. Suzanne O’Connell outlines some of the main changes.
- More children are being excluded and many of these have SEN.
- New government guidance clarifies the role of the governing board.
- Fixedterm exclusions are cumulative when it comes to arranging alternative provision.
The number of exclusions is reported to be on the rise. Not surprisingly, a large proportion of these are experienced by students with SEN. Statistics published by the DfE indicate that a third more pupils with autistic spectrum disorders were permanently excluded over a 12month period. They were permanently excluded on 150 occasions which is an increase of 36.4% on the previous year’s total of 110.
Once excluded, pupils find their life choices seriously narrowed. For some, it’s the beginning of a downward spiral that can end in them becoming a UK prisoner statistic. The Institute for Public Policy Research found that half of expelled pupils have mental health problems, compared with just 1 in 50 of all school children. They also reported that 60% of UK prisoners had been excluded from school.
It’s devastating for those involved, but it is also easy to understand why schools take that decision. Having a disruptive pupil in class, whether there is a diagnosis or not, makes teaching harder. When teachers and schools are only rewarded for the exam statistics they clock up, it is understandable that tolerance towards those who disrupt the classroom is low.
Exclusion is detrimental to the individual and, ultimately, to society. The government is not unaware of this and in the DfE’s new guidance, there seems to be an attempt to find the right balance between supporting the headteacher’s authority and recognising that their decision must not be arbitrary.
The new guidance
The new guidance came into force in September 2017. Exclusions from maintained schools, academies and pupil referral units in England: Statutory guidance for those with legal responsibilities in relation to exclusion is not that much different to its predecessor in many respects. However, there are some key differences that schools should note.
The governing board
The change of name should be noted. Throughout the guidance, the DfE refers to the governing body as ‘governing board’. This change in wording makes it clear that it applies not only to maintained schools but to academies too. The governing board might refer to the governing body of a maintained school, the management committee of a pupil referral unit or the academy trust of an academy.
The guidance highlights an increased role for the governing board. There have been occasions in schools when governors have perhaps given the nod to the headteacher’s decision when it comes to exclusion. Governors might consider that this is where the headteacher should have the deciding voice.
The DfE is trying to ensure that governors are not just passive recipients of this decision. As with other areas of school life, they should be holding the headteacher to account and checking the procedures behind the exclusion and the justification for it.
The governing board is required officially to review the headteacher’s decision when it comes to exclusions. In some cases, this has been a token meeting with governors who are usually keen to uphold discipline in the school and who see a number of exclusions as evidence of this.
As it is the governing board who must address the independent review panel (IRP) if an appeal is made, it is important that they are clear about the reasons for the exclusion and subscribe to it. Governors must approach the review meeting with a sharper sense of ensuring that the exclusion is appropriate and fair and that they can justify it too.
The new guidance emphasises that a fixedterm exclusion can’t just be turned into a permanent one or even extended. This can only happen if new evidence comes to light and the current fixedterm exclusion finishes and a new exclusion begins. In effect, it has to be treated as a new exclusion decision.
In the past, schools might have been tempted to apply a number of short, fixedterm exclusions rather than a longer one in order to avoid the requirement to organise alternative education.
The new guidance stipulates that fixedterm exclusion days are cumulative and so the governing board is responsible for organising alternative education from the sixth school day, whether it is as a result of one fixed period or more.
Although some of the guidance would seem to put the breaks on choosing exclusion as an option, others provide support for those considering it. There is clarification of what is considered to be the ‘civil standard of proof’ that headteachers might use when making an exclusion decision. Civil standard of proof means that ‘on the balance of probabilities’, it is more likely that something is true than it isn’t true. This is an important distinction in comparison to the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ level of proof.
There are also a number of small changes to guidance on the independent review panel. These include that:
- the venue has to be accessible to all parties
- the panel can still make the recommendation that a governing body reinstates a pupil, even when the parents do not want this
- panel members must understand the legislation that is relevant to exclusions and the legal principles
- more guidance is given on the process of considering reinstatement.
It is the governing body who is now responsible for making the decision to remove a permanentlyexcluded student’s name from the school’s register. Before this decision is taken, any recommended reconsideration must have taken place.
Some of the changes might seem small, but the tightening up on responsibility and clarification of fixedterm exclusions does have important implications for schools that need to be shared and understood. Ultimately, an exclusion decision is one that will completely change the course of a pupil’s life. As such, a school has a moral responsibility to ensure that it is not taken lightly.
- Exclusions from maintained schools, academies and pupil referral units in England: Statutory guidance for those with legal responsibilities in relation to exclusion, DfE, September 2017: http://bit.ly/2yx6Tm3
About the author
Dr Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance writer specialising in education. Prior to this she taught for 23 years and was a headteacher of a junior school in Nuneaton for 11 years.