North London head Joan McVittie has described the proposed changes as "a nightmare", and Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Brian Lightman argues that school finances could be thrown into chaos. But is the idea of making schools retain responsibility for pupils they exclude really such a bad idea?
Under proposals outlined in the Government's most recent white paper, when a school permanently excludes a pupil, it will be responsible for finding and funding alternative education. The future academic performance of the child might also count against a school's record, even after they have been excluded.
It is possible the changes will discourage schools from making "tactical exclusions". For example, a 2008 report by the Sutton Trust intimated that some academies exclude low-achieving pupils to protect their league-table standings. "These new proposals will certainly force schools to think long and hard before excluding a child, and that's a good thing," says Carl Parsons, professor of social inclusion studies at the University of Greenwich.
Heads may argue that it's unfair to be held accountable for the exam results of a pupil educated off-site, but a recent report by independent think-tank Civitas suggests this happens anyway. "Many schools effectively exclude pupils without doing so officially," says report author Tom Ogg. "They send them out to FE colleges or refer them to special units and are happy to remain responsible for their results even though they're educated off-site."
The biggest worry for schools is the potential cost of alternative provision. Educating an excluded child at a pupil referral unit typically costs an extra #163;15,000, while a transfer to a specialist residential unit can cost upwards of #163;50,000. "How would you budget for it?" asks one head. "At the start of the year, you have no idea what sort of problems might arise."
Mr Ogg points out there's a real danger schools will simply choose the cheapest option for an excluded pupil - rather than the most suitable. "It would be madness to have financial motives in play," he says. "In an exclusion situation, the focus should always be on the welfare of the child."
It is unclear how the proposals would be implemented, and the Department for Education is still considering possible pilot schemes. But Professor Parsons believes schools are unlikely to end up out of pocket. "The money for alternative provision is already there, in the hands of local authorities," he says. "That same pot of money will still be there - it will just be redistributed. No one should lose out."
He is hopeful that exclusions will eventually become a thing of the past. "It can be done," he says. "There are currently 17 local authorities that have zero exclusions. They achieve this by putting in place a collection of schools and education providers that work together to meet the needs of every pupil, however challenging. When the Government runs its pilots, it should look at how these authorities operate. They're the best model we have."
THE FUTURE OF EXCLUSIONS
- Schools will be free to exclude pupils permanently, but will be responsible for finding alternative provision.
- Schools will have to pay the cost of the excluded child's ongoing education. There may be exemptions to this rule or a cap on the amount schools might have to pay.
- An excluded child's exam results will still count in the league tables of the school that originally excluded them.
- The measures will be phased in with pilot schemes. Initially, responsibility for excluded pupils will be shared between schools and authorities before a final move to make schools solely responsible takes effect.