Special needs remains key characteristic of pupils excluded from English schools

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Pupils with identified special educational needs (SEN) accounted for around half of all permanent exclusions (46.7 per cent) and fixed period exclusions (44.9 per cent) in 2016/17, according to the Government’s latest statistics.

Those with SEN support had the highest permanent exclusion rate at 0.35 per cent. This was six times higher than the rate for pupils with no SEN (0.06 per cent). Pupils with an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan or with a statement of SEN had the highest fixed period exclusion rate at 15.93 per cent — over five times higher than pupils with no SEN (3.06 per cent).

SEN pupils were among a growing number permanently excluded from English schools in 2016/17. The number of permanent exclusions across all state-funded primary, secondary and special schools increased by over a thousand from 6,685 in 2015/16 to 7,720.

Permanent exclusions have now risen every year since 2012/13. The 2016/17 figure corresponds to around 40.6 permanent exclusions per day, up from an average of 35.2 per day in 2015/16. Eighty-three per cent of permanent exclusions occurred in secondary schools. The rate of permanent exclusions also increased in primary schools but decreased in special schools.

The number of fixed period exclusions across all state-funded schools also increased, from 339,360 in 2015/16 to 381,865 in 2016/17. A pupil may receive more than one fixed period exclusion, so pupils with repeat exclusions can inflate fixed period exclusion rates. Fixed period exclusion rose in all three categories of school including special schools. The average length of fixed period exclusions across state-funded primary, secondary and special schools in 2016/17 was 2.1 days, slightly shorter than in 2015/16.

Persistent disruptive behaviour is the most common reason for both permanent and fixed period exclusions. It accounted for 35.7 per cent of permanent exclusions and 28.4 per cent of fixed period exclusions in 2016/17. However, in special schools alone, the most common reason for exclusion was physical assault against and adult, which made up 37.8 per cent of all permanent exclusions and 28.1 per cent of all fixed period exclusions.

The characteristics of excluded pupils remain the same as in previous years. Alongside having an identified SEN they are overwhelmingly older (Year 9 and above), boys and eligible for and claiming free school meals. They are also disproportionately from Black Caribbean families. Black Caribbean pupils had a permanent exclusion rate nearly three times higher (0.28 per cent) than the school population as a whole (0.10 per cent).

School leaders blamed cuts to school budgets for the increases. Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

The decision to exclude a student is never taken lightly and always as a last resort. School leaders need the autonomy to decide when and how to exclude students to protect the health, safety, education or well-being of other pupils and staff in the school.

This is an area where prevention is better than cure, but school budgets are at breaking point, so many of the measures that schools take to ensure good behaviour and adequate support for pupils are under threat. 

We’ve seen cuts in local authority services, such as behaviour support teams, combined with reductions in pastoral care. Speech and language therapists for pupils with additional needs are disappearing. In addition, there are frequently delays in providing mental health support for pupils who need it.

Schools have also seen big cuts to high needs funding for pupils with identified special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

 Schools can’t do it on their own. To avoid exclusions, they need support from the other local services around them. Exclusion must not be thought of as getting a child “out of the way” but of finding a better place to serve that child. The issues that underpin exclusions reach far beyond the school gates, so schools need access to expert resources to help them support at an early stage those students who need more help.

The National Association of Special Educational Needs (nasen) said the data prompted many questions, including why so many pupils with SEND are being excluded and whether sponsored academies are using more ‘zero tolerance’ approaches, resulting in higher levels of exclusion.

It added that it was awaiting the outcome of the exclusions review being carried out by former schools minister Edward Timpson, which is due to report later this year: ‘It is to be hoped that this will address these questions amongst others, and provide some recommendations for implementation.’

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Special World, from Inclusive Technology, is a free website linking 125,000 special education teachers, speech therapists and occupational therapists in 150 countries. Special World readers and contributors work with children who have additional needs or special educational needs including those with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties and disabilities.

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