Punished for being born with a difficulty, common practice

The latest annual DfE statistical release on exclusions, which reported an increase for the second consecutive year, divided opinion. Whilst many were alarmed by the rise from 5,795 permanent exclusions in 2014/15 to 6,685 in 2015/16, others felt that, at thirty-five pupils a day, there should be no real cause for concern. “Equivalent to a third of a pupil per school annually. Not really that shocking,” observed executive director of Teach First, Sam Freedman. Without exclusion “system freezes” reassured DfE behaviour tzar, Tom Bennett.

As you were then.

Unless, that is, your thing is equality of opportunity for pupils with special needs. Jarlath O-Brien, special school headteacher and author of ‘Don’t Send Him In Tomorrow’  reminds us in this piece for the Guardian that the system is failing children with special needs – freezing them out, if you like. Year on year, SEN pupils are permanently excluded at seven times the rate of their peers, substantially deepening the disadvantage they were born with.

The inarguable point about institutional discrimination is made every year. To no avail. From policy makers to commentators, the complacency around SEND outcomes refuses to be shaken. It’s as steadfast as that around exclusion itself. (A vanishingly rare practice on the continent, by the way). It seems we should expect to see pupils with SEND over-represented in the data because, when their difficulties impact on behaviour, well then they are obviously going to be exclusion-prone.

Let’s just forget about the principle of reasonable adjustment and discount completely the 2010 Equality Act then, shall we?

If you watched Channel 4’s affecting Excluded at Seven last week, you will have shared my utter dismay that children should be punished for their difficulties. An exclusion is a punishment, let’s remember. It’s not an intervention. What is happening in our schools that children with neuro-developmental difficulties such as ADHD and autism should be punished for these, with the biggest, most devastating sanction in the arsenal? If behavioural difficulties are such that mainstream school isn’t the right place,  then surely there’s a process – a statutory assessment process – not a casting out.

So I cannot be relaxed about the fact that children with special needs are permanently excluded, ostracised, at a rate seven times higher than the convenient majority.

And, actually, I can’t be sanguine about the overall rate of thirty-five pupils a day either. Partly because outcomes, both emotional and academic, are appalling for excluded pupils and I still believe that every child matters. But more because the official exclusion figures are actually just the tip of the iceberg.

The Labour government of the 90s rightly framed exclusion as a social justice issue and the subsequent focus on reducing them brought the official number down from 12,300 in 1997/98 to 5,740 in 2009/10. A quite extraordinary achievement. Except that during the same period, the number of pupils being educated in Pupil Referral Units actually doubled.

To this day, the DfE collects no data on the reasons why pupils are sent to PRUs, or the number of pupils on part-time timetables. We cannot know how many poor quality pupils are asked to leave or otherwise managed out of what is after all now an educational marketplace. The practice in some LAs of rescinding exclusions once a pupil has been removed from roll also muddies the waters.

We cannot know the real scale of the problem, then. (Those of us who see this as a problem.) What we do know is that alternative provision is education’s growth industry. Reform that seriously aims to close the gap, or even ‘diminish the difference’, would surely seek to reverse this trend towards exclusivity and segregation as a first priority. For as long as influencers and decision makers are complacent on the exclusions issue, though; for as long as the rising numbers are dismissed, nothing will change for those disadvantaged children that today’s system is patently failing.




Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

3 thoughts on “Punished for being born with a difficulty, common practice

  1. A good read. For someone that has worked on both mainstream schools and in a PRU myself I can see the way in which SEN students are marginalised and not supported adequately.


  2. Thanks for writing this incisive post, Mary. Any permanent exclusion is a tragedy for the individual, but the complacency in the system is a disgrace. Your link to the Michael Rosen post is very apt and highlights some of the thinking that leads to discrimination against children and young people who are often in crisis, and certainly in need of greater support.


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