Children are disappearing. One minute they’re cluttering up your classroom, keeping you on your toes, making sure you’re thinking about them every hour of the day. The next, poof! They’re gone.
It’s a particular type of child that is going missing. Take James: he was a funny little chap, one of those whom teachers discuss among themselves, seeking answers, advice. There was definitely something different about James. He’d been causing trouble in class, then one day his chair was empty.
Ordinary schools and teachers are under too much pressure to produce acceptable results – and too afraid of appearing to lack control or ability – to engage hard-to-reach students. So exclusion is a fate that befalls many of our most vulnerable children: those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and, in particular, those who don’t have a diagnosis – those children on the margins who have no statement of special educational needs nor education, health and care plan (EHCP). Thousands of children like this are forced from mainstream schools every year. And if the latest figures are anything to go by, the numbers are on the rise.
Teachers have no time to dwell on these disappearances. Once excluded children are gone from our classes, we’re too busy getting on with the job to spare a thought for them, although we do feel a sense of relief that we no longer have to deal with them. But, increasingly, we will be forced to ask ourselves a difficult question about the way we run our schools and treat our children: do we have a system that’s fit for only a privileged few?
Clear but largely unnoticed in the government’s statistics for exclusion (see page 23) is a sad and telling fact: children with SEND are being forced out of classrooms at an alarming rate.
In 2012-13 and 2013-14, pupils with SEND (with and without statements) accounted for two-thirds of permanent exclusions in England. That’s more than 3,000 children with SEND permanently excluded each year. That’s a lot. And if you look specifically at students with SEND but without statements, 2,830 were permanently excluded in 2012-13 and 2,910 the year after. That’s a hell of a lot.
Fixed-term exclusions make just as worrying reading. In 2012-13, more than 25,000 primary-aged children with SEND but without statements were given fixed-term exclusions; in 2013-14, the number broke the 30,000 mark. The story in secondary schools appears to be more positive: there’s been a drop. But the numbers are still huge. In 2012-13, more than 106,000 children with SEND but without statements were given fixed-term exclusions. Twelve months later, this had fallen to just under 97,000.
The situation is worsening. This year, large numbers of children fell off the SEND register: 15.4 per cent of pupils in England now have identified SEND – that’s 1,301,445 children – but this is down from 21.1 per cent in 2010. In the past year alone, the proportion has decreased by 2.5 percentage points (see bit.ly/SENStats).
SEND has not been magically eliminated among those lost numbers. But what has changed is the SEND categorisation, from “behavioural, emotional and social difficulties” to “social, emotional and mental health”. In theory, this means we will no longer have a child on the SEND register “for behaviour”, so we must look beyond the behaviour to what drives it. In reality, it means that those children who were previously labelled BESD are now called “disruptive”.
And “disruptive children” are top of the Department for Education’s hit list, as exclusions guidance published in February this year demonstrates. Although the guidance was quickly withdrawn after concerns were raised about the process that led to it (see panels, right), the department’s rhetoric still focuses on getting disruptive children out of the way of other students, not on helping them (see the DfE’s response, right).
So, rather than working with children who have SEND, identifying problems and forming solutions, we exclude them. And if I were a betting woman, I’d put money on next year’s statistics for “SEND without statement” exclusions being very high indeed.
A complex web of needs
The “disruptive” label isn’t applied by schools on purpose. SEND is a tricky area. We’d love it to be simple – a quick blood test at birth and we know everything there is to know – but it isn’t. It’s full of shades of grey, spiky profiles and contradictions. Early diagnosis and support for SEND is the published ideal, but it doesn’t often happen that way. Sometimes it can take a while for a learning disability to show itself: the average age of diagnosis for Asperger’s syndrome is 11-12, right in the hot zone for exclusion.
Then there is the lack of widespread education and training about SEND. For example, many teachers are unaware of the concept of co-morbidity – that is, of dual diagnoses. It’s not uncommon for children with Down’s syndrome to also have a diagnosis of autism and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and 60 per cent of children with autism also have ADHD traits. They can be impulsive, shouty, easily distracted and can find it hard to wait their turn.
ADHD itself is another cause of challenging behaviour, and one that is often shrouded in controversy. It’s not just the Ritalin but also poor parenting that is whispered about in staffrooms. This is despite the fact that children who have ADHD are just as much of a challenge to their parents at home – and in the park and at the shops – as they are to their teachers.
And what about children with attachment issues? “It’s the elephant in the room,” says Mike Armiger, head of emotional and behavioural difficulties and inclusion across a primary multi-academy trust in Somerset. “We have to ask the right questions,” he adds.
Often, children’s challenging behaviour hides a mental health need – and what they need may simply be a change in approach from teachers. “They need a teacher to take an alternative view, one that won’t give up on them and tells them that they are worth bothering about,” Armiger says.
Of course, children with SEND are extraordinarily good at hiding it. What if they don’t want to showcase how difficult they find writing a story? They’ll kick off in class and slam the door on their way out. The greater their sense of shame, failure, anxiety and confusion, the greater the display of fireworks. We get upset; they get angry.
Teachers pulled in all directions
Teaching is such a busy job. Every moment of every day is filled with decisions to make, problems to solve, questions to ask and answer. If you’re going to be a success, you need to be reflective, but time for reflection – especially in the area of SEND – is something we don’t have.
It’s easier to tread the same old paths to failure than it is to come up with a new solution. The system forces this. Schools are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea as the system places conflicting demands on them: on the one hand, it wants children’s test results to compete on an international stage; on the other, it wants to include children with complex SEND. Education is eating itself. Rather than serving the pupils in their classes, preparing them for adult life and all that it entails, teachers must serve the demands of data and exam results or performance-related pay.
Rebecca Andrews, a maths teacher from Oxfordshire, remembers a boy she taught in her first Year 7 class; his mother had died when he was at primary school and he struggled with rock-bottom self-worth. “He was in my form group all through his years at my school and I could see what was wrong,” she says. “But I never had the time to help because I had to keep him making progress – no matter what it took to do that.”
When the emergency priority on schools is results, laying the real foundations for learning – in the form of confidence, self-belief and self-control for vulnerable young people – falls by the wayside.
When ‘no excuses’ is an excuse
We don’t adapt to SEND children. We don’t stop and think about how we can help. Instead, we use a system and strategies that seem to work in the short term, but actually ensure that the most vulnerable are abandoned, pushed out when they become “too difficult to handle” – as soon as they start to grow up.
Schools often fall into the trap of “managing” behaviour with a one-on-one teaching assistant or by reducing playtimes. But teaching a child to manage their impulses won’t be helped by withdrawing them from the very opportunities that might teach them how. Being sent out of class to do a jigsaw with a friendly adult the moment things get tough is no solution – not in the long term.
Part-time timetables and restricting access to school trips are popular measures, despite the questionable legalities, but it does no one any favours when children get bigger and are suddenly expected to govern themselves, without the support they have come to rely on at school.
The lure of “no excuses” policies is strong: you can’t have children going around swearing at teachers and storming off, no matter how much you want to help them. No one wants to be spat at or have their hair pulled, the furniture tipped over or the door slammed in their face. Consequences are necessary – and the DfE agrees.
“A tiny minority of disruptive children can absorb almost all of a teacher’s time and attention, and have an enormously negative impact on the education of other pupils,” said schools minister Nick Gibb on release of the exclusions data in July.
But the danger is that the records we keep of behavioural incidents aren’t used to help us find out what’s really going on, to draw a picture that leads to a diagnosis and help. Instead, they could become a kind of rap sheet, leading to “disruptive children” being shown the door even faster.
“In fairness, heads don’t like to exclude and schools struggle to get educational psychology support because of shortages of staff and high workloads owing to EHCP conversions,” says Julie Dixon, a teacher at a primary pupil referral unit in Yorkshire. “However, unmet needs mean we are creating an underclass of children stuffed like sardines into pupil referral units.”
If we’re not very careful, we will recreate a system that serves only some children and fails the rest. Inclusion will be a missed opportunity. By concentrating resources on breaking the glass ceiling, we are reinforcing the glass floor – the invisible barrier that prevents vulnerable children from accessing the education on offer. Is that really what we want?
Progress, not attainment
There is hope. Schools, particularly mainstream secondaries, aren’t set up to deal with challenging behaviour, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be. “I am constantly called on to give advice to heads and SEND coordinators,” Dixon says. “Where it is taken on board and strategies are used effectively, schools become much more self-supporting and exclusions are reduced.”
Getting specialist and alternative provision working with mainstream schools is one of the key recommendations made in a report published by the Inclusion Trust, The Alternative Should Not be Inferior: what now for “pushed out” learners? “Small changes could lead to great results by bringing people together,” says Sam Baars, one of the report’s authors. Challenging the stigma attached to alternative provision and special schools, and encouraging more talented teachers and leaders to work in them, is key.
“Nurture groups are having considerable success, as are schools that are looking to tackle children’s basic needs, like clean uniform and a good breakfast,” Baars says. Schools need to “look beyond the behaviour to the undiagnosed need that is driving it”, he adds. Tweaks to timetabling, such as a later start or a longer playtime, are another of the report’s recommendations.
One way of making sure schools can’t wash their hands of the children they exclude is getting the sectors to work together. “We have the opportunity to create a new system, where accountability is already moving towards looking at progress rather than attainment,” Baars says. If children on the edges of the mainstream are not forgotten and responsibility is shared, then we stand a chance of creating a better future – a truly inclusive one, in which children who have SEND are understood and helped, not shown the door.
It can be done, and teachers know this from experience. We’ve turned kids around countless times before: we’ve gone off the timetable, we’ve listened to them. We know what to do, we just need someone to give us permission – and time.
Nancy Gedge is a primary teacher in Gloucester and the 2015 TES teacher blogger of the year (notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com). Children’s names have been changed and some stories are composites
Government guidance: where do schools stand?
In January, the Department for Education published guidance that aimed to tackle “disruptive” behaviour, saying “it is crucial that headteachers are able to exclude disruptive pupils so that others do not lose out on their education”. After concerns were raised about the process that led to the guidance, it was withdrawn, with no date announced (at the time of going to press) for when updated guidelines would be published.
Asked to comment on the arguments laid out on these pages, a DfE spokesperson said the government was “determined to create a school system where every child feels safe and is able to work and study hard without disruption”, and that the DfE was clear that provision for children with SEND in mainstream schools should be consistently good.
The spokesperson cited reforms to the SEND system that enable support to be focused on needs and aspirations, so that “all pupils can realise their full potential”.
“This includes funding degree-level specialist training for SEND teachers and support staff,” they added.
The DfE said the government was providing support for implementation, including £70 million to local authorities in 2014-15 to help them plan and deliver the reforms, and £77 million in 2014-16 to pay for additional starting costs.
The spokesperson stressed that any exclusion had to be lawful, reasonable and fair. But they said schools must balance their responsibilities for SEND children with their responsibility to ensure that all children are able to experience good-quality teaching and learning, without disruption in the classroom.
They said that existing exclusions guidance (from 2012, which the 2015 guidance was to replace) reinforces the importance of early intervention to identify the underlying causes of poor behaviour, including unmet SEND. The department highlighted that schools should, as far as possible, avoid excluding pupils with a statement of SEND or with an education, health and care plan (see bit.ly/SENExclusion).
Finally, the DfE pointed out that it has created 2,200 more special school places through the free-schools programme. It has improved school choice by including non-maintained special schools, independent special schools and independent specialist colleges among the sorts of provision for which parents may express a preference on their child’s education, health and care plan.
The ‘unmet needs’ leading to exclusions
Just for Kids Law is an organisation that helps pupils to contest exclusions. It was central to protests that led to the withdrawal of Department for Education exclusions guidance in February.
Rachel Knowles, senior education and community care solicitor at Just for Kids Law, says: “The government acknowledges in its own guidance that disruptive behaviour can be an indication of unmet needs. Despite this, nearly every excluded child we support has SEND.
“The exclusion process does not sufficiently take account of these needs and there is often a limited understanding of SEND.
“The availability of suitable provision, either in a mainstream school or in alternative provision, is insufficient.
“The result is the exclusion of a large group of vulnerable children with SEND,” Knowles adds. “Unfortunately, research shows that permanent exclusion increases their risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system.
“Given the huge impact permanent exclusion can have on a child’s life, we believe that it should be used as a last resort only. This is in line with the government’s own guidance, but so often this is not the case.”
Top 5 reasons for exclusion*
Primary schools, 2013-14
Persistent disruptive behaviour: 31.8 per cent of exclusions
Physical assault against an adult: 27.5 per cent
Physical assault against a pupil: 17.3 per cent
Verbal abuse/threatening behaviour against an adult: 10 per cent
Verbal abuse/threatening behaviour against a pupil: 4.4 per cent
Secondary schools, 2013-14
Persistent disruptive behaviour: 33 per cent
Physical assault against a pupil: 14.1 per cent
Drug and alcohol related: 10.3 per cent
Verbal abuse/threatening behaviour against an adult: 8.8 per cent
Physical assault against an adult: 7.3 per cent
A major report by education and youth thinktank LKMco, commissioned by the Driver Youth Trust charity, will argue that widespread changes to the education system over the past five years have often had a bigger impact on young people than SEND reforms.
Joining the Dots, which will be launched in Parliament on 14 October, finds that the reformed system has helped pockets of excellence to flourish, but that many young people and their families are getting lost in a fragmented system.
The report calls on school leaders to view progress by SEND pupils as a whole-school priority, rather than merely the domain of specialist staff.