Should it be easier to exclude pupils?

28th August 2009 at 01:00
In the latest of our series, an MP and the Director for RNID take sides

Some headteachers have expelled unruly students only to see them reinstated by appeals panels. In the final part of our summer debate series, a Conservative school spokesman calls for the panels to be abolished, while the head of a government inquiry into special educational needs argues that greater safeguards should exist to prevent exclusions, as SEN pupils are affected disproportionately

In the latest of our series, an MP and the Director for RNID take sides.

  • Have your say and cast a vote in the poll on the right
    • Nick Gibb, Shadow schools minister and Conservative MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, says "Yes, concerned parents see their children held back by the indiscipline of others"

      I visit schools most weeks and I hear the same message time and again. Teachers, parents and pupils tell me their number one educational worry is poor behaviour.

      Whether the problem is widespread and persistent disruption, or actual violence and intimidation, poor behaviour has the capacity to affect every aspect of a school's work.

      For children, it undermines educational achievement and creates the conditions in which bullying can thrive. For teachers, it makes every day a laborious struggle, with too much time spent on behaviour management rather than teaching and inspiring. For parents, it can be a source of great frustration and concern as they see their children being held back by the indiscipline of others.

      A growing body of evidence supports the popular perception that the problem of poor behaviour has become extensive. Last year, figures for 25 out of 39 English police forces showed that officers were called to schools to deal with violent crime more than 7,000 times. A March 2008 survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that almost a third of teachers had been physically threatened by a pupil and almost one in 10 had suffered actual physical harm. Not surprisingly, the survey discovered that poor behaviour was a major cause of teacher stress, prompting 65 per cent of teachers to consider leaving the profession.

      This is not to suggest the problem is universal. There are many schools where behaviour is outstanding. But in very many others poor discipline is serious and widespread, and so tackling it lies at the heart of Conservative education policy. How are we to retain the best teachers, raise standards and ensure that education is a ladder out of poverty if we cannot first create an ordered school environment where every child can flourish?

      Only teachers can shape the ethos of a school and maintain good behaviour in the classroom, but central government does have a part to play in ensuring that teachers have all the tools they need to maintain order.

      As a first step, we need to give teachers the authority to deal with poor behaviour before it deteriorates further. That is why we have proposed altering the law so that teachers have unequivocal powers to maintain discipline, including the ability to confiscate items such as mobile phones.

      Currently, the law on what teachers can search for is so prescriptive that it even prevents the searching of children suspected of carrying pornographic material. It is easy to see how teachers' authority can be compromised in these circumstances. To tackle the problem of poor behaviour, the vast array of regulations that accompany so many decisions about maintaining discipline must be reduced and teachers given much greater freedom to deal with behavioural issues as they see fit.

      We also believe that the signing of a home-school contract should be a requirement for admission to a school and repeated or serious breaches grounds for exclusion.

      But beyond this we have to reform the policy on exclusions. Last year 17,870 pupils were temporarily excluded for physically attacking an adult, but just 950 were permanently excluded for the same reason. In some instances fixed-term exclusions may have been warranted, but these statistics highlight how hard it now is for schools to exclude pupils permanently. A number of bureaucratic obstacles constrain the ability of schools to exclude, but the most serious is the independent appeals panel.

      These panels overrule the decisions of head teachers to exclude permanently pupils in a quarter of the cases they hear. There can be few more eloquent ways of diminishing a headteacher's standing than reinstating a pupil they had previously decided to expel. The panels act as a powerful disincentive to exclusion. They force heads to give more weight to the bureaucratic obstacles and costs of the appeals process than to what is in the best interests of their school or the child in question.

      That is why we would abolish the independent appeals panels and replace them with a right of appeal to the governing body. The aim of this policy is not to increase or decrease the number of exclusions but to ensure head teachers are able to take these decisions without any artificial barriers curtailing their options. We want schools to have the final say on the exclusion of disruptive pupils.

      Poor behaviour in schools is a major problem, but it is not intractable. A comprehensive and determined effort to enhance the authority of teachers, extend their powers and reduce the burden of regulation will make a difference.

      Brian Lamb, Director, Royal National Institute for Deaf People, currently leading an inquiry into parental confidence in the SEN system, says "No, too many schools are using exclusions to manage behavioural difficulties"

      Before we consider whether excluding pupils should be made easier, we need to ask: who is excluded and why? There has been a consistent pattern over the past 10 years, noted by Ofsted, the Audit Commission and government statistics, that students with special educational needs are massively overrepresented among those excluded.

      The figures for 20078 show pupils with SEN are more than eight times more likely to experience permanent exclusion than those without. Out of every 10,000 children with statements of SEN, 33 will be excluded; so will 38 out of every 10,000 who have SEN but have not been statemented. For those without, the figure is just four in every 10,000.

      Similarly, pupils with SEN are disproportionately likely to be suspended. In 20078, the rate of fixed-period exclusion for secondary school pupils with statements was 30.8 per cent; the rate for those with SEN without statements was 28.9 per cent. This compares to 5.1 per cent for those pupils without. While overall exclusions dropped by 6.4 per cent last year the proportion of permanent exclusions for SEN has not dropped.

      The question should really be, why are there so many exclusions for students with SEN? Exclusions are being used in too many schools to manage behavioural difficulties that can and should be addressed by other means. This is despite the strong imperative in the Government's statutory guidance to prevent this approach. And let's not forget that informal exclusions are not even shown in the figures. This may be unlawful, but it is sadly all too common across the country.

      This is damaging to the individuals, time consuming for teachers and makes no sense as an educational strategy for the nation. It delivers a class of under-supported and excluded young adults more at risk of failure, dependency and likelihood of ending up in the criminal justice system. The costs of the failure through benefit dependency and in an increased clientele for the criminal justice system are immensely more than the cost to get support right in the first place.

      Excluding a child is a drastic solution, and expensive in the long run. Better to identify the needs of the child, ask how far behaviour problems are rooted in learning difficulty and look for solutions. The fact that a quarter of exclusion-panel appeals are upheld should give pause for thought about the rigour of the process leading to exclusion. We need a robust and fair system of appeals because exclusion is supposed to be a last resort.

      This is not to recognise that sometimes exclusions are necessary. Teachers and pupils need protecting from disruptive and violent students who damage the learning environment and personal safety of all students, including those with SEN. This may involve exclusion, temporary or permanent, and for some the best provision may be specialist and not easily located in a mainstream classroom setting. But differential treatment has to stop.

      Ofsted has already called for greater consistency in dealing with SEN issues. The Steer Review concluded that schools need to intervene earlier. This requires better identification and a greater focus on outcomes for children with SEN and disability so they do not become frustrated and disaffected. Developing potential is key for pupils with SEN. The new guidelines from the Department for Children, Schools and Families will be crucial in focusing good practice.

      In addition to concentrating on learning needs, many schools have achieved great improvements by developing behaviour-management and awareness programmes for teachers. The results have been excellent at reducing conflict, helping those with communication challenges understand what is being expected and allowing teachers to manage communication better.

      The problem is not inevitable or intractable. What the averages hide is that some excellent schools have exclusion rates hardly different for SEN than the rest of the population. But while we have these dramatic differential rates of exclusion, the last thing we need to do is make it easier to give up on the most vulnerable. We need to tackle their underlying problems, address their needs and ensure they have the chance to fulfil their capabilities. Getting excluded should not be the route to triggering additional support, nor the means of managing the delivery of that support.

      When exclusion rates for students with SEN start to match those of other students, let's look again at the system. Until then we need to ensure that what the best are doing today the rest can do, and will do, tomorrow.

      Back story.

      • Figures published this summer show that 8,130 pupils were permanently excluded from primary, secondary and special schools in 20078. The most common reason was persistent disruptive behaviour (30.9 per cent).
      • The Conservatives have pledged to scrap the independent exclusion appeals panels. David Cameron, party leader, told the Birmingham Post: "Twenty-five per cent of cases that go to appeal are overturned and in half of these cases the kid is put back in the school."
      • Of the 8,130 pupils excluded, 780 appealed, 203 were successful and 71 were reinstated. So 0.87 per cent of all permanently excluded pupils were returned to their schools.
      • In the final report from his inquiry into behaviour this year, former headteacher Sir Alan Steer wrote: "I believe it vital that independent appeals panels are retained, in the interests of natural justice."
        • Have your say and cast a vote in the poll on the right

          Responses to the TES web poll on last week's debate: "Are academies really doing something new?"

          • YES: 53%
          • NO: 47%

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