Children's minister Nadhim Zahawi has vowed to crack down on schools that are unofficially excluding pupils – a practice known as "off-rolling".
There has been growing concern about the scale of exclusions among certain groups of children – such as those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), who account for almost half of all permanent and fixed term exclusions – and what happens to children after they are excluded.
Speaking at a meeting of the Commons Education Select Committee today, Mr Zahawi said that, while in some areas headteachers worked together to ensure no child was excluded, in other cases this did not happen.
Instead, some areas had a “magnet school” that was seen to support children with SEND. This led to “perverse behaviour” from other nearby schools that “brush away those kids and push them towards that particular school” – whether by design or otherwise, Mr Zahawi said.
“I want to intervene to stop that behaviour,” Mr Zahawi said, adding that he was talking about the issue with Ofsted, schools, and virtual school heads who are responsible for looked-after children.
He added: “Much of this can also be driven by leadership and the narrative we deliver. It’s unacceptable.
"I want that message to go out from this hearing – it is unacceptable to off-roll. It’s illegal to unofficially exclude, even if parents are somehow cajoled into accepting it.
"It’s illegal and it mustn’t happen, and in terms of exclusions, schools should work together in an area to determine that there are no exclusions.”
'Huge spike' in exclusions
Lucy Powell, Labour MP for Manchester Central, said the strong message was supported but the committee wanted to see action. “We are seeing this huge spike in unofficial and official exclusions,” she added.
Ms Powell continued: “What more can we actually do, in terms of that stick, not just a carrot, to require schools and groups of schools to ensure that they are inclusive and children are not excluded and left nowhere?
“It feels to us like no one has the job and powers to ensure the child is given that appropriate education. If a school opts out or a group of schools opt out there’s nothing that can be done.”
Mr Zahawi said that a review of exclusions, led by former education minister Edward Timpson, was underway and was due to come up with recommendations on what could be done.
The hearing comes after data experts at FFT Education Datalab published evidence that some schools may be off-rolling pupils. This included persuading parents that it was better to move or home educate their child, rather than risk them being officially excluded.
And Ofsted recently identified 300 schools where the number of pupils leaving between Year 10 and Year 11 was unusually high.