Every headteacher will tell you that they never want to exclude a child. They will tell you that if it does happen, they feel responsible for failing that child. They will tell you it hurts to admit defeat.
Yet exclusion happens all too often. The rate of permanent exclusions rose in 2014-15 (the latest figures) after a decade of downward movement. Fixed-term inclusions were up markedly on 2012-13 and 2013-14. And experts predict a further increase.
We know that exclusion is not a remedy: it’s a last resort. Despite the very best efforts of the alternative provision sector, so often overlooked for the excellent work it does, outcomes for excluded young people are often poor: one study found that 90 per cent of young men and 75 per cent of young women in prison had been excluded from school.
Even when exclusion is temporary, the effects can be lasting.
“The message you are sending to a young person is that they are not wanted,” says Julia Vincent, a headteacher and a former head of behaviour services. It is a feeling that is “often harboured and grows”.
Sometimes, however, schools have no option but to exclude and the law is very clear on when this can be done and what the process should be. Heads should know these rules intimately, but there is growing evidence that some school leaders are either not as clued up as they should be, or that they are openly flouting the law.
Several studies have highlighted the problem of illegal exclusions. A report from the children’s commissioner in 2013, for example, estimated that “several hundred” schools were using illegal exclusions, affecting “thousands” of children, calling it “a source of shame to the entire education system”.
And now teachers and school leaders are speaking up, calling out the practice in an effort to stem what they see as an increasing prevalence of illegal exclusions.
There are stories of children being put on reduced timetables without parental consent or the required stipulations in place and children being sent home to cool off with no supporting paperwork. Then there are the children being asked to leave a school and find a “fresh start” elsewhere.
These illegal exclusions are “a lot more prevalent than many would expect”, according to Jarlath O’Brien, head of a special school in Surrey. Either schools don’t know the law and are negligent or, more worryingly, they do and are abusing it.
The reasons for the latter are hard to determine but many cite accountability pressures. Children who do not reach the threshold for exclusion but are disruptive or whose poor attainment affects a school average are off-rolled, a practice that Ofsted has highlighted as a concern.
Another reason is that schools claim they are increasingly unable to meet the needs of children with SEND owing to a lack of resources and expertise. Just over half of all permanent and fixed-term exclusions involve such vulnerable young people and they are also common victims of illegal exclusions, too.
Whatever the reason, the Department for Education needs to act. When asked, it did not clarify whether it collects data on illegal exclusions – or whether it was even looking at the issue. That needs to change. We need an open discussion and investigation into illegal exclusions. The DfE needs to find out how widespread the practice has become and why schools are resorting to it.
That’s going to be difficult, but it is not impossible: teachers are already coming forward to report incidents and more should be encouraged to follow their lead. More information on exclusion law should be given to parents – every child should have a transparent journey through the school system.
Exclusion is a necessary tool and keeps teachers and other students protected, but it needs to be done lawfully and for the right reasons. It needs to be a true last resort.