Over the years Special Needs Jungle has frequently highlighted the unacceptable practice of illegally excluding children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) from school. You can see just how often we have flagged this issue here. Today we are addressing it once again as we think it is really important to not lose sight of the impact decisions such as these have on children and their families.
I have asked Zoe Elliott to share her story about how hard she has fought against her son's illegal exclusions, and just how little responsibility anyone with any power to help seems to have taken. Their story highlights just how little accountability there is for those willing to break the law and disadvantage SEND children, and just how the current system fails parents who are fighting for their child's right to an education.
Zoe is the mother of three children, including her oldest child Jack who is 15 and attends a mainstream secondary school. Jack's full story can be read here along with her campaign to get #JusticeForJack.
A parent asks: Is there meaningful accountability for illegal exclusions?
Like most people I had never heard of the term “illegal exclusion” until I was forced to uncover what this was when during 2016-2017 my eldest son Jack became subject to two separate illegal exclusions; one lasting for several months during his vital GCSE years.
Jack is 15 and has a diagnosis of Autism and attends a mainstream secondary school.
I must stress that neither of these exclusions arose because my son broke school rules, but occurred after members of the teaching staff had treated Jack very inappropriately and not in accordance to Jack’s needs as described in his ECHP. It appeared many members of staff did not have even a basic understanding of Autism.
When both myself and my child’s fellow classmates attempted to raise concerns with the head teacher he failed to take appropriate action and instead chose to try and cover up the school’s failings rather than deal with them. He then took it upon himself to try and force Jack out of the school. The actions of the head teacher were truly shocking and I have evidence to show that my son’s attendance register was falsified.
Many of the children subject to this treatment have additional needs. The report by Ambitious about Autism “when will we learn” ¹ found that 50% of the children surveyed had been subject to some form of illegal exclusion. Shockingly, the report also claims that autistic children are 4 times more likely to be permanently excluded compared to all other children.
However, there appears to be a huge lack of awareness of illegal exclusions within our local communities and on a national level. Yet far more concerning is how no statutory agency appears to be doing anything about them. This is despite the efforts of the Children’s Commissioner for England, Dr Maggie Atkinson who tried to highlight this illegal practice back in 2013.
An illegal exclusion occurs when a child is sent home from school or encouraged by the school to stay at home, this is regardless of whether they occur with the agreement of parents or carers. Therefore, any exclusion of a pupil must be formally recorded. This is to ensure fairness and provide a right of appeal to parents and carers if they wish to challenge an exclusion.
Thus, illegal exclusions are not recorded, and it is often impossible to recognise where and when such exclusions are happening. This practice is even harder to uncover if parents are not aware that such practice is illegal. Yet, on the rare occasion a parent such as myself does have significant evidence that their child has been subject to illegal exclusions; still then it appears either nobody wants to or can do anything about it. (please see link below to see the extensive steps I have taken to try and get action for this illegal practice).
The fact these are unrecorded prevents the family from accessing a right of appeal; to give them the opportunity of reinstating their child back to school sooner.
I have heard of cases whereby the school almost imply they are helping families by not officially excluding children, as to not have a ‘blemish’ on their school records.
From my experience, I have learnt that there is a total lack of healthy challenge and no form of punishment of head teachers who choose to “ILLEGALLY” exclude children. I highlight the word “illegally” as that is what this treatment of often vulnerable children is and yet there is no clear line of accountability for this behaviour…It begs the question why?
Surely if an act is illegal this should result in a meaningful punishment to prevent the offender (in this case a head teacher) from acting illegally again and deter other would be offenders from repeating this practice.
In 2013, The Children’s Commissioner report “always someone else’s problem” ² highlighted the issues over the lack of accountability and made recommendations to the Department for Education and Ofsted to act with more authority over such issues. The recommendation was for fines and prosecutions to be put in place if school had been found to illegal exclude children.
Sadly, the current climate appears to be the same as it was back in 2013 and I am left angry that nobody has tackled the issue and listened to Dr Atkinson’s recommendations and warnings about this practice. If they had maybe our family and several others would not have been dealing with the damaging consequences of such treatment.
Furthermore, this has allowed for this cruel behaviour of children to continue, denying children their right to education and in some cases, such as my own denies parents and carers their right to work; when they must leave their jobs to be at home with their children or face the prospect of leaving their children alone to be able to work. This is not acceptable.
As soon as I realised that what was happening to my child was illegal I approached several agencies to address the use of illegal exclusions at my son’s school. This included exhausting the school complaints procedure, complaining to the Local Authority, the Head of SEND, the Local Authority Designated Officer, Ofsted, my local MP and finally I made a referral to the National College of Teaching and leadership. During this time, I also attempted to take the school to the First-Tier Tribunal (SEND) which was a very surreal, awful experience and resulted in what I can only describe as an unfair hearing (please see link for in depth account).
The time it has taken to navigate such a complex system has been extensive and the processes for each stage is long and requires a great amount of determination to keep going. I am now at a stage whereby I may be able to take the issues we have faced to Judicial Review, yet funds are low as are my energy levels and again I have been left contemplating if I should give up or continue fighting for justice.
I am choosing to fight on as this is now far more than just getting justice for Jack, it’s about raising awareness and being a voice for the many people who are left broken and voiceless by the exhausting, complex SEND system. It’s about doing whatever I can to help protect the generations of children this will happen to if people like me give up or are being forced to stop fighting for real accountability due to lack of knowledge, resources and strength.
I cannot apportion all the blame upon the head teacher although I have no doubt he knew exactly what he was doing. However, this awful experience has shown me that this is systematic abuse of vulnerable children. The current status quo is creating an environment whereby nothing is deterring heads from acting in such a way. It’s educations dirty little secret and it appears that nobody wants to tackle this awful issue. Much more needs to be done to prevent children becoming collateral damage of this corrupt practice.
The long-term ramifications of exclusions illegal or otherwise are immense and almost impossible to reverse.
There is a clear lack of legal advice for families, phonelines are jammed for advice from organisations such as IPSEA, legal aid is not available for most people; and even if you are eligible it's near impossible to get pro-bono barristers to represent families due to the demand for this service thanks to legal aid cuts in recent years. The system is very complex and does not provide a level playing field.
Schools can get the best representation at the cost of the tax payer if parents can get a case to court, in our case they can even afford for the solicitor and a barrister to attend tribunal, when there is no obvious reason to do so other than to intimidate parents seeking justice.
How is this even allowed to happen? Especially as Mrs May claims there is no magic money tree.
Well it appears there is no expense is spared to cover up the illegal actions of head teachers. How about these schools save the country money by sticking to the law and meeting our children’s needs in the first place?
This will also prevent children and families paying the emotional, psychological and economic price of such experiences. The anxiety, stress, misery, isolation and lack of opportunity is the ultimate price we pay and these leave scars that may never heal.
Jack is due to sit his GCSEs this week, he has been encouraged by the school to drop some GCSEs. His predicted grades dropped significantly after the 4-month illegal exclusion, this amounted to 120 days of school being missed during these vital years.
My son will sit exams with content he has never been given the chance to learn. Jack has been referred for counselling due to the difficulties he has had to face over the last year. We have been left psychologically harmed and changed by this experience.
Those with the power to change things need to do so now. Our government needs to sit up and pay some real attention to this matter. This illegal practice cannot continue to be swept under the carpet with Local Authorities and agencies such as Ofsted and the Department for Education saying its wrong but doing nothing to change things and deter head teachers from practising in such ways.
The power that head teachers hold over individual children’s lives is immense and where there is such power this can be dangerous in the wrong hands. I believe that school leaders must be held accountable via a quick and accessible process for parents and carers, we have exclusion boards, so we should include illegal exclusions within this.
Nobody should be above the law, if evidence is found that exclusions are being used illegally, then head teachers must be held accountable to stop this abuse which is denying children of their right to education and causing untold damage to families.
If you want to know more about the steps Zoe has taken and are interested in supporting the campaign #Justice4Jack please follow this link: http://www.gofundme.com/justice-4-jack-unlawful-exclusions?lang=en-GB.
- ‘When Will We Learn’ (2016). Retrieved from Ambitious about Autism Website: https://www.ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk/whenwillwelearn-stats.
- ‘Always Someone Else’s Problem’ (2013). Retrieved from The Children’s Commissioner Office website: https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Always_Someone_Elses_Problem.pdf.