Creating and promoting a climate of inclusion

Written by: Jackie Ward | Published:
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Pupils who are labelled as naughty children almost always have underlying complex needs ranging from Attachment difficulties to undiagnosed conditions such as autism or ADHD. Exclusion is the last thing that these children need, but what can we do to avoid taking this step? Jackie Ward advises

The exclusion statistics for England (2017 to 2018) have been published and make interesting reading (DfE, July 2019). The report concludes that the rate of permanent exclusions of 0.1 per cent has stayed relatively stable across all settings, albeit still showing a slight upward trend. The rate of fixed-term exclusions has increased by eight per cent, mainly driven by secondary schools.

By far the highest rate of both fixed term and permanent exclusions occurs in boys aged 12 to 14, with girls also having a high spike in those years. However, as a SENCO and former EYFS and key stage 1 teacher, I am particularly concerned that 37 children aged four and under were permanently excluded, while more than 3,000 fixed period exclusions were also given to pupils of this age. Furthermore, the number of permanently excluded five to seven-year-olds is around 450, and fixed term exclusions of children aged seven and under have reached nearly 30,000.

The DfE figures show that fixed period exclusions have risen due to repeated exclusion for some children, so a significant number of children are losing chunks of their education, often for persistent disruptive behaviour. This needs further unpicking if we are to look for preventative solutions.

An old-fashioned view

When I was deputy head and SENCO at a primary PRU I was very concerned that the children who were being permanently excluded were viewed by their schools as “naughty”, when in reality they all had underlying complex needs, whether it be Attachment difficulties or undiagnosed conditions such as autism or ADHD.

Many had poor mental health and were self- harming – scratching, picking at their skin, head-banging – and all struggled to make appropriate social relationships with their peers and adults as they found it difficult to emotionally self-regulate and had low self-esteem.

The exclusion data shows that for pupils with SEN the highest number of both permanent and fixed period exclusions at primary level are for those on SEN Support and the lowest number is for those with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs). At secondary, the highest exclusions are for those classed as having “no SEN”.

I find this staggering. In my experience, this should really be classified as “no diagnosed SEN” (it is important to remember that social, emotional and mental health is a SEN category in the SEND Code of Practice 2015).

We must ask ourselves what lies behind this perception that there is a category of child who is just “naughty” and solely in need of pure behaviour management to curb disruption to their own learning and that of others (and that if this does not work they must be kicked out)?

Undiagnosed SEN?

I am now working back in mainstream primary and secondary schools as a SENCO and SEN and behaviour consultant and I find that schools need help to probe beneath the surface of “behavioural difficulties” and find out what underlying needs are there.

Training and experience mean that I can see fairly quickly what should be checked out and I am proactive in referring on to community paediatrics, speech and language services, school nurses, early help services for families and other professionals.

It is vital that early support is in place as soon as a possible need has been identified and the number of primary exclusions of children with SEN Support shows that speed is of the essence in doing this.

Of course behaviour management is key, but this should be to give structure to reasonable adjustments that need to be made for a child rather than used as punitive sanctions for those whose needs are not recognised or understood.

For example, a child with severe ADHD will not respond to isolated behaviour management techniques – often they will make things worse. However, a child on appropriate medication, for example, is more able to calmly access rules and boundaries (and indeed actually needs these to thrive). Indeed, many children with ADHD/autism respond poorly to change and need a predictable structure to be in place.

There is often a misconception that when adjustments are made we are “giving in” to the child, but actually as long as clear and fair support is in place and understandable to others then we are appropriately meeting needs – as we would do for any child. The role of leaders and senior managers is to consciously create an inclusive environment which balances the needs of all stakeholders.

When behaviour is an issue, I am often asked: “But what about the other 29 children in the class?” However, if reasonable adjustments are in place, then this can lessen the detrimental impact a distressed child may have on their peers while their underlying needs are being investigated.

Communication and support

In the school where I am SENCO, the headteacher and I work very closely to model good practice to staff teams and ensure that everyone is clear about their responsibilities and get any help they need.

I am very visible in classrooms to liaise with staff and pupils and the learning mentor and I talk extensively to children and parents to ensure their views are representative of what is happening in school. We also consult regularly with community paediatricians, speech and language therapists, school nurses, early help and support teams so that no-one feels left on their own.

Since coming back into the mainstream sector, I have noticed a number of practices that make some schools more inclusive than others. These include:

  • The leadership and management have embedded inclusive policies and practices.
  • There is a good understanding of SEN issues and how to make appropriate provision.
  • Pupils with behavioural issues are identified at an early stage and possible underlying medical needs are investigated.
  • Appropriate support, tailored to a child’s needs, is put in place at an early stage. For example, a child displaying signs of autism may benefit from visual resources, such as a pictorial daily timetable, so that they are not anxious about what will happen in class (which can lead to outbursts in class).
  • Staff embrace differences and recognise when support is needed. They look at the needs of individual children and plan how to best meet those needs
  • The leadership deploys monetary resources to the best of its ability. This might be large outlays for things like staffing or much smaller things like ear defenders or weighted blankets to support sensory issues and avoid “meltdowns” due to sensory overload (yes, children have been permanently excluded for these).
  • The SENCO is proactive and able to initiate correct support procedures. They have access to outside advice and support to enable this – for example, specialist teachers, professional support services, SEN professionals from the local authority and a range of medical and mental health services (they also need the time to do it).
  • Parents and carers are fully included in monitoring and managing their child’s needs.
  • Professional support is accessed at an early stage – for example a referral to a family doctor, paediatrician, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists or CAMHS.
  • High quality teaching is a feature of classroom practice with co-ordinated adult support as appropriate/possible. For example, a teaching assistant or learning mentor working closely with the teacher in planning and carrying out next steps to support learners.
  • Correct SEN procedures are in place when applying for an EHCP, and paperwork and evidencing is tight.

Having proper funding is an on-going issue, but throwing money at the problem does not always produce results. However increased knowledge and solution-focused proactivity can, for many children, be enough to change their school experiences for the better.


Of course there is no magic wand, and some children will be at risk of exclusion for a host of reasons which may be outside the remit of school. Relationships are key and building trust is vital. One of the saddest things I hear from heads is “the relationship has broken down” between school and families. Often there will be misunderstandings, a feeling of isolation on the part of parents, schools that feel it is a “parenting issue” and so on.

Since leaving the PRU, I have become more convinced than ever that we need to be challenging the status quo and banishing “learned helplessness” in our schools. Together, we can make a difference, but it needs to be built into our ethos and values.

  • Jackie Ward was a primary school teacher for 25 years – and a deputy head and SENCO at a primary pupil referral unit (PRU) for eight years. She is now an independent behaviour and SEND consultant and is the author of On the Fringes, published by Crown House Publishing.

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