Updated exclusions and behaviour guidance and how a thoughtful school culture can avoid discriminating against learners with SEND

It feels like decades since “hopeful beginnings” for a new school year was a reality, even before the actual fabric of school buildings threatened to fall. For parents of vulnerable children and young people, new school years are often a stressful continuation of the previous one.

Familiar territory for many is the clunkily titled ‘Suspension and Permanent Exclusion from maintained schools, academies and pupil referral units in England, including pupil movement’ (May 2023). The update from May came into effect on September 1 2023, intended for headteachers, academy trusts, governing boards, independent review bodies and wider professionals. It’s detailed but relevant, as is ‘Behaviour in Schools’ (September 2022). There is also an exclusions guide for parents

So, what does the document say?

The document aims to ensure procedures are adopted appropriately. Here is a summary of key points.

TermWhat does it mean?
Fixed Term Exclusions- Also known as suspensions...a temporary removal from school.
- A suspension can include parts of a day (e.g lunch), up to a maximum of 45 days per academic year.
- Education must be provided, with reasonable adjustments.
- Does not ‘convert’ to a permanent exclusion.
- Reintegration planning must follow.
Permanent Exclusions- For serious breaches of behaviour policy, for example.
- Only to be taken if remaining would seriously harm the education or welfare of pupils or others.
- Education continues for the first five days if not attending alternative provision.
- Headteachers can cancel exclusions before presentation to Governors.
Part Time Timetables- NOT to be used to manage behaviour.
- Only in use for the shortest necessary periods.
Off-Rolling- Illegal.
- Removal from school for disciplinary reasons is a suspension.
- Sending children home to ‘cool off’ is not permitted.
- No influencing or pressuring parents to remove their child or home educate, with threats of exclusion.
- No attempts at off-rolling. 
Managed Moves Alternative Provision Off Site Direction- Considered “preventative measures”. Using another setting temporarily as a planned intervention or moving a pupil permanently to a placement that is better matched.
Roles and Responsibilities- The role of the Headteacher, Governors, independent review boards etc is covered.
- Only a headteacher can permanently suspend or exclude pupil.
- Headteachers have the power to suspend if a pupil’s behaviour outside of school is grounds is problematic.
- Headteachers should always notify parents, social workers (where relevant) and the local authority ‘without delay’ regardless of the length of suspension.
- Pupil views should be considered.

Key messages from the Department for Education

Safeguarding of children and young people is central, and action taken by schools should not put them at risk. As stated above, an exclusion should always be considered a last resort and decisions should be made, as far as possible, in the child’s best interests. Their views should be considered, their parents/carers informed, any referrals that may be needed should be made, and everyone involved should be included in dialogue from the earliest opportunity.

Headteachers must balance the needs of the many with the individual needs of the child/young person concerned. Headteachers must apply the civil standard of proof. ‘On the balance of probabilities’, that the incident likely happened.

A school’s culture is set by its leadership and headteachers have a legal duty under the Education and Inspections Act (2006) to create school cultures so values, attitudes, beliefs, and general compliance to social norms are achieved. In doing this, alongside clearly communicated behaviour policies, suspensions and exclusions may be avoided. No argument from me here. As Rishi says, maths is important, but the one adult to 30 children ratio won’t unless most learners adhere to their school’s agenda, endeavouring to meet expectations, routines, and rules to enable the school to function. But it is not always possible.

Principles are clear, ‘Good behaviour is essential to ensure that all pupils benefit’ from education and school opportunities. No argument, although niggles persist. Thankfully, ‘Behaviour in Schools’ explores how schools can be ‘clear’ about ‘good’, which behaviours are permitted and prohibited. It includes information about values, attitudes, and beliefs promoted and the social norms and routines that should be encouraged throughout the school community. Another niggle around social norms from a neurodivergent point of view, but we can come back to that. There is also a section on behaviour and SEND in this document that was last updated in September 2022. It includes that the law “requires schools to balance a number of duties which will have bearing on their behaviour policy and practice, particularly where a pupil has SEND that at times affects their behaviour.”

The government considers the above as ‘essential behaviour management tools.’ A ‘necessary part of a functioning system’, to assist schools in establishing safe, respectful, and orderly school communities.

But besides official exclusions guidance, what else do we know?

Learners with SEND far outnumber others in exclusions data. Vulnerable in multi-dimensional ways, they outnumber children without SEND in data around separated parents, generational trauma, poverty, ableism, racism, and a raft of other adverse experiences.

We know poor behaviour is linked to unmet needs and poor mental health. A Behaviour and Mental Health Inquiry (2022) surveyed 111 young people and found 50% believed schools did not take SEND into account in the context of behaviour policies, often negatively impacting on pupils with SEND. Sanctioning the symptom of unmet needs with an exclusion, while ignoring root causes, is detrimental for all. We know this.

We also know that guidance and the law are distinct. Guidance determines what we should and could do, the law states what we must do. Exclusions and suspensions guidance remain underpinned by law. Reasonable adjustments required under the Equality Act 2010 are a requirement in everything, including behaviour policies and exclusions and suspensions procedures, practices, beliefs, and approaches. Schools must hold themselves accountable to the law when all else falls around them (literally).

A behaviour policy that’s fair to learners with SEND

That being said, aggressive, violent, or criminal behaviour must be addressed somehow, which means that an exclusion may be necessary. Headteachers must determine whether poor behaviour is related to a child’s SEND or not. This means it can be tricky to decide if it’s appropriate and lawful to exclude or suspend the pupil.

Additional needs, some of which show up behaviourally, are on the rise, but excessive wait times for diagnostics, unfilled staff vacancies, and insufficient specialist and health resources mean the current system is not fit for purpose in tackling the root causes. It puts already vulnerable children/young people at an increasing risk. The DfE would do well to reflect on safeguarding; data from BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 programme, evidences links between those excluded and increased risks to criminal exploitation, including becoming prey for grooming targets in England’s county lines drugs hotspots following exclusion (2021-2023).

Put simply, where schools step out, gangs step in, filling the void in a young person’s day, offering structure and community where our ‘functioning systems’ stop functioning.

How do we tackle the root causes?

In effect, exclusions and suspensions are outcomes of a failing system. We can’t keep waiting months or years for SEND diagnostic assessments. How else do we avoid potentially discriminatory actions? In the absence of support behind schools, what can be done? A few ideas include:

  • Uphold the law,
  • Make reasonable adjustments in as many creative ways as you can think of, critical if SEND is suspected.
  • Examine bias to traditional social norms, that force young people with SEND to comply in ways that are damaging to their mental health and unsustainable. In fairness to the DfE, NPQs to tackle school cultures around behaviour might help to nurture inclusive environments.
  • Fundamentally work on relationships, being curious and less fearful about the range of human emotions and behaviour within school communities.
  • Employing authentic co-production with children and young people and their parents is likely to craft more positive, less punitive experiences. These include encompassing the pupil voice and families in decisions can salvage damaged self-esteem, promoting certainty and autonomy.

Surely, we must examine our own attitudes, school behaviour policies, and our society as a whole when a sense of belonging and purpose for vulnerable young people comes from those whose sole aim is to criminally exploit them.

Of course, removing perverse incentives within school accountability measures that promote exclusion would also help, but that plea seems to fall on deaf ears. Surely, we must examine our own attitudes, school behaviour policies, and our society as a whole when a sense of belonging and purpose for vulnerable young people comes from those whose sole aim is to criminally exploit them. Schools matter but can’t do all this alone. Everyone must step up, because for many children, being in school is the safest place they can be, despite the challenges of being there.

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Susan Lenihan

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