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Exclusions in schools – Why what’s happening to students with SEND is a scandal

Cartoon of girl reading a book, representing exclusions in schools

Dave Clements highlights how post-pandemic behaviour, insufficient resources and academic pressures are affecting children with SEND

Dave Clements
by Dave Clements
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When it comes to exclusions in schools, why are schools throwing out so many children with SEND?

The latest school returns show that schools are more than three times to suspend these children compared to others. They’re four times as likely to permanently exclude them.

Unless they have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) that is, and all the support that should come with it. In this case they’re only twice as likely to be shown out the school gates, never to return.

Typically, schools exclude these students for persistent disruptive behaviour. But like the suspension and exclusion letters sent home that their parents could paper their walls with, this doesn’t begin to describe what’s really going on.

Exclusions in schools – unfair treatment?

There are other groups of children who are also disproportionately likely to face suspensions or exclusions in schools. Such sanctions are applied far more often to boys than to girls, for instance. The same goes for poorer kids in receipt of free school meals.

The difference for young people with SEND, of course, is that their disadvantage isn’t material in origin. Nor is it related to any sex-based behaviours or expectations. Instead, it’s a consequence of living with a learning disability, autism, ADHD or one or more of a variety of other conditions that can impact upon their behaviour or abilities to cope with the school day.

Children with autism, for instance, are prone to meltdowns. These are uncontrolled outbursts which, to the untrained eye, amount to a violent lashing out at whoever or whatever gets in their way. Only they’re not being naughty.

These children can suffer with anxiety and be ‘triggered’ by the slightest disruption to the school routine. Or they might become overstimulated or overwhelmed by the everyday features of a typical school environment.

Why should these children – who already face difficulties with everyday experiences their peers are able to manage – be dealt with so harshly? I think most of us would agree this is extremely unfair. Punishing children for something they can’t help is fundamentally wrong and needlessly cruel.

They have as much right to an education – and a good education, at that – as any other child. Many will be just as academically capable, perhaps even more so, when compared to their peers.

Choosing to settle

And yet, as a parent to a child with SEND and as a school governor, I’m also keenly aware of the significant demands their requirements can place on schools. Some schools will try hard to cater to their students’ special educational needs.

Others will genuinely struggle to manage the impact their presence can have on other children’s learning. Others still may turn hostile by proceeding to blame the parents and variously refer them to social services, insist they attend parenting courses or ‘off-roll’ their children.

As a consequence, some parents may feel they have no choice but to settle for a less academic ‘nurturing’ school over a successful ‘exam factory’. This is in the hope that their child will at least get through a normal school day without incident.

On the other hand, they may have to search far and wide for a special or specialist school – you soon learn that there’s a difference – which will finally meet their child’s particular needs.

It’s not unusual for parents to start off by refusing to accept that their child has SEND. However, such are the challenges involved, they soon enough end up hoping for a conclusive diagnosis and all the support this would open up. They end up battling with their school and LA to respond accordingly.

I believe that this is at least part of the reason why the number of children in England with EHCPs, and thereby getting more funding for in-school support, has doubled over the past eight years to half a million.

A loss of belief

Besides this, there’s much else going on both in and outside of classrooms. An explosion of mental health problems; growing misbehaviour issues; a worrying rise in anxious school-refusers – all long-standing issues made worse by closures during the pandemic.

That suggests to me that what we’re looking at isn’t ‘just’ a special educational needs problem. Nearly 1 in 4 pupils are persistently absent, missing 10% or more of their class time. According to Lee Elliot Major and Andy Eyles at the London School of Economics, “Some families appear to have lost their belief that attending school regularly is necessary for their children.”

If your child also has a special educational need, and if the school isn’t able to support them effectively, then you may be even more sceptical of the benefits to the education they’re unable to access anyway. In these cases, it’s all too easy for parents and schools to arrive at what seems, given the circumstances, to be a mutually beneficial agreement – keeping the child at home.

These are the sorts of compromises that parents of children with special educational needs frequently have to make. All because the system as it stands simply isn’t working.

Alphabet soup

I can’t be the only parent who doubts the utility of the alphabet soup surrounding special educational needs. PDA (pathological demand avoidance) and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), for instance, both describe behaviours that might have once caused a child to be considered ‘prone to getting into trouble’, and therefore in need of adult guidance.

This may well have led to unfair outcomes on occasion. However, by instead regarding them as psychologically troubled and in need of support, are we equally failing to address needs that directly result from a lack of discipline or effective socialisation?

A BBC Panorama investigation into private assessments for ADHD raised doubts around the validity of diagnoses. A number of firms exposed in the programme were found to have had a remarkably high ‘success’ rate.

At the same time, however, we’ve seen girls with autism often underdiagnosed – or wrongly diagnosed with an eating disorder. This is because of their tendency to ‘mask’ their condition, rather than acting out as boys might do. Could it be that we’re both over-diagnosing and under-diagnosing for conditions associated with special educational needs?

Exclusions in schools highlight mismatch

There are no easy answers here. But the increasingly therapeutic approaches that schools are adopting, and the mental health support they’re now encouraged to provide, don’t seem to be helping children with special educational needs all that much.

By effectively putting every child ‘on the couch’, these tendencies could end up redefining what might be better understood as disciplinary issues. Simultaneously, this diverts much-needed resources away from those most in need of them.

Despite something of a collapse in adult authority across broader society, schools are in many ways much stricter than they used to be. Consequently, they are less accommodating environments for – and less tolerant of behaviours associated with – children with special educational needs.

We must ask important questions about the support available for these children, both in and outside school. And about whether the type of school provision they’re in is even right for them in the first place.

The figures on suspensions and exclusions in schools would appear to suggest that there’s a considerable mismatch between these children’s needs and what they’re currently getting. The reasons for that are as likely to be cultural and social as they are practical. But we can’t allow it to go on.

We’re damaging the education of these children and the wider school community by failing to give them the support they need. This deserves to be a scandal.

Dave Clements is a local government policy advisor and associate of the Education Forum at the Academy of Ideas

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