What to do with our excluded children?

Written by: HTU | Published:

Pupil exclusion is a messy business with enormous implications for a child’s long-term prospects. Suzanne O’Connell looks at what the government is proposing for our most challenging children

The stakes are getting higher as “satisfactory” becomes “requires improvement” and academic results can seem to count for everything. Schools might be forgiven for feeling less inclined to keep up the struggle and contain the behaviour of a small minority.

Children with behavioural needs, perhaps more than any, drain resources and tire staff. In some cases these children are able, but their pattern of attendance and the effect they have on the rest of the class depress results. Exclusion can seem the only alternative where standards are an issue and strategies are not working well.

The Schools Exclusions Inquiry

The schools exclusions inquiry, They Never Give Up On You, made the headlines and laid open the challenge – it claimed that schools do not always do what is in the best interests of children. The inquiry examined:

• The detail of the processes in place for excluding children from state-funded schools.

• The factors which influence schools’ decisions to exclude a child.

The report, based upon the inquiry, was written by Dr Maggie Atkinson, the children’s commissioner for England. It suggests that the current system of exclusions is not compliant with the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child as it often places the needs of the school above that of the child.

In some cases, what schools are doing is illegal. For example, they found children being sent home unofficially to “cool off”, parents being encouraged to move their children on under threat of exclusion, and being asked to keep their child at home for parts of the year to avoid official exclusion.

Exclusion is not evenly administered. The report highlights the level of over-representation of some groups in exclusion statistics. Pupils with SEN, children on low incomes, boys and Black Caribbean children are far more likely to find themselves out of school than other groups.

The report is particularly critical of practice in academies. It claims that they have been attempting to avoid scrutiny of their exclusions by Independent Appeal Panels and refusing to hear appeals from parents. In some cases this has meant them breaking the law and the inquiry asks for further investigation into their behaviour.

The report’s recommendations have a particularly stern message for primary schools. It advocates that there should be “a presumption against permanent exclusions from primary schools” and that this should be reflected in revised statutory guidance. It proposes that every permanent exclusion of a primary school-aged child should be reviewed independently whether it is requested by the parent or not, and that no primary school should permanently exclude a child in reception or key stage 1.

Exclusion guidance

The findings of the report may have captured attention but they are nothing new. Headteachers have always known which schools in the locality are more likely to exclude than others. They receive enquiries from parents of children who are quietly being “moved” and are aware which schools are more likely to reject requests for admission.

It is common knowledge and the government must have some idea of this too. They have within their circle of advisors at least two ex-headteachers. They presumably have experience of the lengths that some schools will go to in order to manage their intakes and ward off challenging pupils.

But the government is caught in a difficult place. They have promoted their reputation as the supporters of school discipline with a commitment to improving behaviour. They cannot be seen to go soft on naughty children. Directly reducing heads’ powers in relation to exclusions has not been an option. One of the government’s first announcements was that independent appeals panels would be renamed and no longer be able to order a governing body to re-instate an excluded pupil.

Exclusion from Schools and Pupil Referral Units in England (a draft document) describes how, in future, the new independent review panel will consider the decision made by the governing body and then take one of three options:

• Uphold an exclusion.

• Recommend that the governing body reconsiders its decision.

• Direct the governing body to reconsider the exclusion.

They can only direct that governors reconsider, not re-instate. However, there is a sting in the tail. If the governing body is directed to reconsider the exclusion and then does not re-instate, the school can be required to make a financial re-adjustment of £4,000 towards the cost of the pupil’s provision from the school budget.

An interesting tactic. On the one hand they are re-affirming the school’s right to exclude but on the other are waving a financial incentive not to. However, the £4,000 penalty is unlikely to deter many schools who recognise the much greater financial impact that catering for a disruptive pupil can have on their budget. The government confirmed this decision earlier last month with the new arrangements coming into effect in September this year.

Schools minister Nick Gibb said: “When headteachers decide that they have no choice but to expel a persistently disruptive or uncooperative pupil, that decision must not be undermined by an appeal process which can result in the pupil returning to the school against the wishes of the school and its leadership.“These new rules preserve the right to have a decision to expel a child reviewed by an independent panel but take away the power to force the return of the pupil to the school.”

They Never Give Up On You is not optimistic about the power and influence that this independent review panel will have. It is more optimistic about the newly announced pilot that will hold schools accountable for those they exclude.

Excluded pupils – the pilot

The government likes the idea that schools can still exclude but remain accountable for excluded pupils. With this approach schools may not be so eager to move children on and if they do, the reasoning goes, they will also ensure that what they move them on to is good quality provision and not just “out of sight, out of mind”.

A new exclusions pilot will run between autumn 2011 and July 2014. At this stage it includes approximately 300 secondary schools in seven local authorities. These schools will replace the local authority in being responsible for placing excluded pupils in an alternative setting from the sixth day. Schools participating can use additional money delegated from the Dedicated Schools Grant both to buy-in alternative provision but also to develop additional means of helping prevent pupils reaching the point of exclusion in the first place.

This approach suites several of the government’s preferred methods of working:

• It takes more responsibility away from the local authority, which may be reduced to a quality assurance role.

• It promotes competition and the market place.

• It opens the door further for private providers of alternative provision.

Some counties have already been running schemes which place more responsibility on the excluding school. For example, after extensive consultation, Cambridgeshire agreed to distribute the money allocated for excluded pupils and provision back to schools. This was a leap of faith that left the local authority with little reserve to draw on, the PRU in a state of flux but made secondary schools in the authority responsible between them for intervening early and securing provision.

Prior to this, exclusion rates in the authority had been high with 650 pupils placed in their four PRUs. Something needed to be done and a system which made schools more accountable but also gave them additional financial power has had positive repercussions. Schools have been creative in the strategies they have used, they have collaborated and developed partnerships as they have had to find somewhere for children to go.

There have been difficulties. There are dangers in allocating money to schools with a minimum of quality assurance in place and it has been difficult to preserve a form of PRU provision when numbers are so uncertain and erratic. The number of PRUs in Cambridgeshire has been reduced from four to one. The remaining site has found itself subject to several periods of restructuring and it is difficult, if not impossible, to base a school budget on vague projections of possible pupil numbers.

The value of the local authority-supported PRU has been that the service has some financial stability and built-in longevity. Relying on market forces and changing needs presents a very unstable platform from which to plan a service and maintain the morale of staff.

The future for PRUS…

…looks uncertain. In some areas they are already being earmarked for closure. In Wiltshire, one of the pilot authorities, the Young People’s Support Service (YPSS) currently works with permanently excluded pupils and those under threat of exclusion. The authority has already applied to education minister Michael Gove to close this provision, recognising its vulnerability as schools begin to commission their own. The local authority will still retain some responsibility for quality assurance but will have a much reduced role overall.

This pattern is likely to emerge in other authorities too. So will there be a role for PRU-type provision at all in the future? Charlie Taylor, the government’s behaviour tsar, seems to think so but only in an independent capacity. His report, Improving Alternative Provision, includes 28 recommendations for PRUs and other alternative providers. They include:

• That schools rather than local authorities should be responsible for commissioning AP (alternative provision) and PRU services.

• That more money should be channelled into schools, building up their capacity to manage pupils’ behaviour.

• That the Department for Education commissions a payment-by-results trial for AP.

• That teacher training should allow work-based training, teaching practice, the acquisition of qualified teacher status and the NQT year to take place in PRUs and AP academies.

• That PRUs and AP academies should be encouraged to apply to become Teaching Schools.

Most strongly emphasised is that PRUs should come out of local authority control: “Recommendation 27: That PRUs are removed from local authority control, by becoming academies where possible and closure where it is not. By 2018, the only PRUs remaining would be those where maintenance by the local authority added value to the operation of the PRU. To achieve this, the secretary of state may need to intervene to oblige PRUs to enter into academy arrangements in cases where the PRU is not failing, but is not delivering expected outcomes.”

For some it may just be a change of status. The government is not ruling out the use of PRUs and schools may choose to buy into them as well as create their own. However, without the protection of the local authority, they will be driven increasingly by the local context and market force demands – a fluctuating environment that may require a new model of staff deployment.

The future for schools

Charlie Taylor is hopeful that there will be less need for PRUs in the long term as schools get better at managing behaviour themselves: “As standards of behaviour and the expertise of staff in managing it improve, there may be fewer children who need to go to full-time AP or PRUs and there may be few providers. Schools leaders will increase the belief and capacity of their staff to manage more difficult children. Permanent exclusion will become less frequent because schools will put support in place before behaviour deteriorates to the degree that there is no other option.”

This seems an optimistic view that underestimates the terrific pressures that schools are under. An increasing emphasis on outcomes, results and standards does not always leave schools with the capacity and the energy to focus on behaviour management.

Where schools do work together sharing out their excluded pupils, it requires a degree of trust and a high level of co-operation. A trust that might be difficult to uphold if expectations on the outcomes for schools continues to rise.

The pressure on schools to look to their own performance to the exclusion of others may even outweigh the financial incentives that delegated money offers. The exclusions inquiry was right to strip down the rhetoric and reveal the less-than desirable practices that take place behind it. We may question whether the government’s plans fully reflect the complexity of the problem or schools’ capacity to deal with it independently.


Exclusion from Schools and Pupil Referral Units in England: A Guide for those with legal responsibilities in relation to exclusion (draft) 2011.

They Never Give Up On You: Office of the Children’s Commissioner School Exclusions Inquiry.

Improving Alternative Provision (Charlie Taylor, 2012).

• Suzanne O’Connell is a former primary school headteacher.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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