The school exclusion rate for pupils with special educational needs and disability is alarmingly high. It accounts for seven out of every 10 permanent exclusions.
It might initially feel like a relief when a pupil who is perceived as difficult and stressful is excluded from school. But exclusion can also leave many teachers with a sense of failure as they struggle with the unsettling question: “Could I have done more?”
It is not difficult to see why so many exclusions occur. Schools find themselves trapped within what feel like competing government agendas: the mandate to include children and young people with SEND in mainstream; the ranking of schools according to pupil attainment; and the need to be seen to be strong on discipline and control.
It is no surprise then that rumours abound of “problem pupils” being hidden from Ofsted's gaze and of exclusion being used as a quick-fix solution to deal with them. With all the pressure of governmental scrutiny, it can feel easier to position the child and their family as the problem rather than addressing barriers to learning and wellbeing within the school itself.
'The experience of exlcusion can be devastating'
But research from the Centre of Education and Inclusion Research at Sheffield Hallam University suggests that regular and positive communication with pupils and parents about how these pupils are experiencing school will help to improve understanding and make schools less likely to resort to permanent exclusion.
It sounds like an obvious step, but simply talking with pupils and parents more often really can help teachers to recognise when pupils are struggling academically or socially and to come to understand non-compliance or task avoidance as the result of the misfit between teaching and learning abilities and styles rather than unwarranted challenges to authority.
The experience of exclusion can be devastating for children and young people, and may lead to lifelong disadvantage. It also carries heavy emotional and practical costs for families of children with SEND; an additional burden on those who might already be struggling to cope. These are impacts that teachers may never become aware of once the “problem” has been removed from the school.
Exclusion affects everyone – pupils, parents and teachers. We need to ask ourselves if this course of action is really the best option for all involved and whether a little talk could avoid a lot of pain.
Claire Wolstenholme is a research fellow in the Centre for Education and Inclusion Research, Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University
Nick Hodge is professor of inclusive practice at The Autism Centre, Sheffield Hallam University