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Don't let vulnerable pupils be excluded

The new guidance on exclusions has worrying implications for special-needs children. Lindy Hardcastle reports.

Children with special needs could lose out as the Government moves to harden up the rules on excluding pupils from school.

The current approach advises that exclusion should be used only as a last resort, where a pupil is deemed to be a serious risk to the education or welfare of others in school. In the new draft guidance, heads have discretion to respond to challenging behaviour with a range of strategies, including exclusion.

And it imposes a duty on governors and heads to promote good behaviour and discipline in an orderly and safe environment.

It is clearly a response to increasing discipline problems, but seems to have in mind the 15-year-old inner-city thug. It ignores the needs of the bewildered autistic eight-year-old in mainstream, lashing out in frustration because of his communication and social deficits, or in response to persistent, low-level taunting and bullying.

Significant items have disappeared in the draft. Governors sitting on disciplinary committees are no longer required to consider whether the head has tried sufficiently to improve a pupil's behaviour before using exclusion, and whether further strategies might be an alternative.

The idea of amending a pupil's statement rather than excluding statemented pupils has been removed, as has the requirement for committees to be satisfied that a child can continue his education elsewhere.

At present the exclusion report must state if the pupil is on the SEN register. The revised guidance retains this only in respect of statemented children (those with the most difficult needs) or those going through the statementing process.

This reduces the discipline committee's opportunity to consider if the child's behaviour results from the school's failure to meet his or her needs.

Pupils have a right to give their version of events before permanent or fixed-term exclusion, but this ignores the inequalities of communication skills that will hamper children with autism and other language difficulties.

All this is worrying organisations which support SEN children, who are already seven times more likely to be excluded than their peers.

The National Autistic Society has published research which suggests that one in five children with the disorder is excluded from school at some time. Autistic children cannot be held responsible for disruptive behaviour, and excluding them will serve no disciplinary function as they will not learn from the experience.

Governors have a duty to ensure discipline in school but also have responsibilities to SEN children. The exclusion of such children should always be seen as a failure by the school to meet their needs.

Even when the behaviour of SEN children is dangerous or distressing to others, exclusion is nothing more than a short-term tactic.

Special schools have a duty to work with their local education authority before the ratification of an exclusion by the discipline committee, to see if more support can be made available to help the child, or if a more appropriate school can be named.

The entitlement of parents to a mainstream placement for their SEN children, statemented or otherwise, requires that this duty should apply to all schools.

Children with autism, like other SEN children, are often subject to short-term and informal exclusions. They are excluded at lunchtimes and from activities like school trips and concerts, and find unstructured time and unusual activities particularly stressful.

If schools are to comply with the SEN and Disability Act 2001 - which requires schools not to treat children with disabilities less favourably than their peers - governors should be looking at the training needs of staff and the support needs of children before they take the easy option of exclusion.

Current research shows that 70 per cent of mainstream teachers have worked with autistic pupils but only 10 per cent have had any relevant training. By encouraging heads to exclude pupils guilty of actual or threatened violence without examining the drivers behind the violent behaviour, the guidance goes against the spirit of the SEN and Disability Act, which seeks to secure a mainstream school place for all children with SEN whose parents want it.

It is to be hoped that the representations made to the Department for Education and Skills on the draft proposals will result in a more positive attitude to children with SEN, and that governors will continue to support full inclusion.

Lindy Hardcastle is chair of governors of a Leicestershire primary school. Consultations on the draft guidance closed last month. National Autistic Society's advice line: 0800 3588667

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