Almost 270,000 children are excluded from England’s schools every year for a fixed period and almost 5,000 permanently. Worrying though these figures are, what they mask is a desperately sad statistic: almost two-thirds of these excluded children have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
Inclusion is, of course, an incredibly complex and emotive issue. Many teachers are fighting against the odds to try to keep these children in school. But this becomes a Herculean task when they are forced to prioritise results over personal relationships, because there is no room to give these children the attention they need over the long term.
Schools are caught between competing government policy agendas. On the one hand, there is a commitment to inclusion and improving teaching and learning for children with SEND in mainstream schools. On the other, there is the ranking and rewarding of schools according to pupil results.
There is also a lack of understanding in mainstream schools about SEND; it’s a tricky area, rarely black and white, sometimes disguised, often full of contradictions, and it is given scant attention in initial teacher training. SEND coordinators do a fantastic job of trying to bridge the gap, but many are stretched beyond capacity. School behaviour systems and pastoral care are often run as separate strands when they should be inextricably entwined. And last but not least, there is a lack of support from external agencies owing to budgetary constraints. Schools often can’t afford to engage specialist help until the outcome is all but inevitable.
And so these children vanish from the classroom. Teachers, however, have no time to dwell on these disappearances. “Once excluded children are gone from our classes, we’re too busy getting on with the job to spare a thought for them,” writes Nancy Gedge in this week's TES cover feature (to read it, subscribe to TES). “But, increasingly, we will be forced to ask ourselves a difficult question about the way we run our schools: do we have a system that’s fit for only a privileged few?”
There is no denying that some children with SEND are better served by special schools. But if we, as a society and an education system, are saying that mainstream education is the answer for most, then it is vital that schools are given the resources and support to make it work. If the government is serious about inclusion, then it has to give its backing to ensure success. Ofsted, too, can play a part by recognising and rewarding the schools performing well in this area. One expert has privately suggested that assessment without levels provides the inspectorate with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate this.
Unfortunately, children with SEND do not fit comfortably into the government’s rhetoric of raising standards in a no-excuses culture, or a “rigour revolution”, as education secretary Nicky Morgan put it this week. But it is imperative to find a way to do so. The Department for Education was forced to withdraw its published guidance on tackling “disruptive” behaviour earlier this year. It now has the opportunity not only to ensure that this vital area is resourced adequately but also to put its mouth where its money is and reaffirm unequivocally its commitment to supporting our most vulnerable children.