Is Excluded being Expelled? The DfE is sneaking in outdated language, hoping it’ll catch on

** Update**

As a result of the advocacy on this issue, the SEND Minister, Vicky Ford, has replied to the CDC letter (see below for this) to say that they are not changing their policy to the term "expulsions", which is good news. However, its use of "suspension" will remain.

However, having heard the concerns raised by the sector and key stakeholders like yourselves regarding the term ‘expulsion’, the department has concluded it will reinstate ‘permanent exclusion’ when referring to a permanent exclusion while continuing to use ‘suspension’ when referring to a fixed term exclusion.

Vicky Ford's response letter

It shows that advocacy does work and the DfE do (sometimes) listen

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Read the background to this in our article...

I recently noticed that the Department for Education has had a curious change in terminology. DfE missives have referred to school Expulsions instead of Exclusions and substituted "suspensions" in the place of temporary or fixed-term exclusions. Why is this?

Although I only spotted this a couple of months ago, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, also used the terminology in a September 2019 speech he gave telling teachers not to be afraid to "expel" pupils, as reported in a DfE blog.

"Any head teacher who makes the decision to either suspend or expel a pupil because they need to do it in order to be able to enforce proper and full discipline in their school, and making sure that they’re protecting the whole interests of the school, will always have my backing."

Gavin Williamson quote, DfE in the media blog

No one seems to have noticed or at least, made a fuss, and not long afterwards, the pandemic hit and talk of behaviour went out of the window along with everything else.

But now pupils (most of them) are back and Williamson is back on his behaviour hobby horse, alleging that “discipline and order” have dropped while children were at home during lockdown. This was roundly rejected by many schools, but Gav has carried on regardless with his plan for "Behaviour Hubs" led by "tsar", Tom Bennett.

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Behaviour is communication

The problem with "cracking down" on behaviour, is that for children with SEND, behaviour is also a communication that they can't learn the way they are being taught. Rather than teaching kids to (presumably) sit down and shut up, it might be a better idea for teachers to identify the cause of the behavioural issue and do something to ameliorate it.

The cause won't always be an unidentified additional need, but there will be a cause, or possibly more than one cause. Surely the job of school is turning out educated, well-rounded young people ready for adulthood. While parents must play their own part, some are simply not equipped to, which isn't the fault of the child. Punishing the child for their home circumstances seems counterproductive. Perhaps having social workers, more counsellors and more school nurses attached to schools might also be a better idea than just bouncing kids because they can't play nice.

They could also learn from schools like Springwell in Yorkshire (the same county Gav grew up in as the son of Labour voters) that "batters" its pupils with kindness and 'unconditional positive regard’. Although, perhaps this is altogether too warm and fuzzy an approach for the 'nasty' party.

What happened to the Exclusions Review?

Two years ago, former SEND Minister, Ed Timpson produced a government-commissioned review of exclusions. The government accepted in principle all 30 recommendations for system improvement. However, an analysis by IntegratED, a coalition whose mission is "Fewer exclusions, better alternative provision" has tracked the implementation of the recommendations. They have found only 20% have so far fully been put into practice.

And of course, if you're attempting to change the terminology from exclusion to expulsion by the back door, it's quite inconvenient to be acting on something called the Exclusions Review.

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Why the sneaky change?

But why the change in the first place? And if it is a real change, then why hasn't it been consulted upon?

Language matters. While everyone else is still using the term exclusion, why is the Department for Education slipping in outdated terminology? Is Gavin Williamson thinking that if he just changes the terminology unilaterally, everyone else will slip into line without question? Is it part of an attempt to make himself seem tough on poor behaviour? Is it something that's come from Tom Bennett? Could it be that calling something 'exclusion' smacks of the opposite to 'inclusion', of which the government is technically in favour (but in name only)?

It certainly appears to be a play to the party faithful harrumphing behind their copies of the Torygraph that "back in my day" kids would be caned or sent packing for infringements; those who think the world has changed and not in a good way. It fits in well with Boris Johnson's poor impression of Churchillian strong leader, despite the Prime Minister's own behaviour at school and since hardly being something to aspire to.

The SEND sector rejects the attempt to bring back expulsion

The change is something that has been raised by the Special Educational Consortium of SEND sector leaders, where SNJ, as part of SEND Community Alliance is a member. The SEC, Council for Disabled Children, and Jolanta Lasota of Ambitious About Autism, have written to Vicky Ford, the current SEND Minister, to ask for the reasoning behind this, and if it is a new policy. The letter is reprinted, with permission, below.

Dear Minister,

The Council for Disabled Children has been contacted by a number of respected partner organisations with expertise in education and SEN and disability. We are deeply concerned about the change in name from exclusions to ‘suspensions’ and ‘expulsions’. 

The word ‘expulsion’ conveys a more vigorous, or even aggressively physical approach to removing children from schools and, for some, the language provokes a visceral reaction. The language is dated and evokes an era that pre-dates the abolition of corporal punishment in schools. 

This language is at odds with the concern expressed in Edward Timpson’s Review of exclusions about the disproportionate impact of exclusions on particular groups of pupils, and the very poor outcomes for children who are excluded from our schools. It also seems to be at odds with the strong messages from the Prime Minister on ‘levelling up’ and the messages about ‘catch-up’ and ‘recovery’ in the post-pandemic return to school. 

Nor does it help to re-name fixed-term exclusions as ‘suspensions.’ ‘Suspension’ seems to trivialise the action of exclusion and suggest that this is not really an exclusion, yet, we know, not least from the outcome of Tribunal decisions in disability discrimination claims, that a number of fixed-term exclusions can combine to have a detrimental impact on outcomes for disabled pupils. 

We have rising exclusions, including the exclusion of very young children, alongside a range of other ways in which children are being removed from schools, or encouraged to leave. It is of great concern to us that entitlement to education for disabled children and children with SEN is being significantly compromised. Despite all the information, data and research on this, the DfE has not acted to address this inequality as it should have done. It is a reasonable expectation that, aware of what the research and data says, DfE would have identified objectives under the public sector equality duty and have taken positive action to address these inequalities. Yet, the first action to be taken by the DfE seems to encourage a more vigorous approach to removing pupils from school. It is particularly unfortunate that, without any real action on exclusions, the wider public may think that the DfE believes the change of name is part of a solution. 

It has been suggested that the origins of the change of name lie with the Timpson Review. Our reading of the Timpson Review is that it recommends nothing on this. It is, however, clearly in the Government response to the Timpson Review. The suggestion, from the DfE, of origins in the Timpson Review is somewhat misleading. 

Some of us have been working tirelessly over many years, and working with the DfE, to reduce exclusions of disabled pupils and pupils with SEN, and to limit the long-term damage to life-outcomes caused by exclusions. It seems unthinkable to us that the DfE would proceed with a change of this nature without consulting, even informally, some of those who have been involved.

The wider world is looking to the SEND Review to address the significant issues in identifying and meeting children’s special educational needs and securing better outcomes. If the first sign of action on SEN and disability is a change in name from exclusions to expulsions, this is setting up the Review for a negative response. We don’t think most people are yet aware of the change of name, but there is little doubt, once parents, the sector, professional bodies and others become aware of this change, there will be a deeply negative response. Our concern is that this may drown out anything constructive the SEND Review may herald.

We have not consulted widely but wanted to contact you quickly to warn you of the potential impact of these changes. Jolanta Lasota contacted us as CEO of Ambitious About Autism and in connection with her leadership role with the Autism Education Trust. Jolanta has worked tirelessly to highlight and address the disproportionate exclusions of autistic pupils. Kate Fallon is supporting this letter in her capacity as chair of the Special Educational Consortium; in her role as General Secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists, her instincts tell her that members, when they know about the changes, are likely to be very unhappy about them. 

For all the reasons we have set out in this letter, we would urge you to reconsider this name change. It trivialises a deeply serious issue affecting life outcomes for disabled pupils and pupils with SEN; it risks fuelling anger about the failure to reduce exclusions of disabled pupils, including some of our youngest children; and this, in turn, risks undermining any constructive proposals brought forward by the SEND Review. 

Yours sincerely,

Philippa Stobbs, Assistant Director, Education and Equalities, Council for Disabled Children 

Jolanta Lasota, CEO Ambitious About Autism

Kate Fallon, Chair, Special Educational Consortium

Download the letter as pdf here

As the SEND Review continues its very long deliberations, we would like to hear back from the DfE about this issue. We do not want to see it replicated in language that comes out of the Review, which would be very much a backwards step.

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Tania Tirraoro
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