Concern over high ratio of SEND and BAME students excluded from schools
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An investigation into increasing numbers of children being permanently excluded from Suffolk schools has found disproportionate numbers of SEND and BAME youngsters being ousted.
Suffolk County Council commissioned a “deep dive” in June 2020 after data indicated that the numbers of youngsters permanently excluded had more than doubled – 132 in 2019/20 compared to 56 the year before.
The council says those numbers are now back down in line with the 2018/19 levels, but the investigation found that youngsters with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were disproportionate.
According to the investigation, half of the exclusions were youngsters with an identified SEND need, despite only around 18% of the school age population having a SEND requirement.
In addition, a quarter of excluded pupils were from BAME backgrounds compared to only 16.6% of the school population being considered BAME.
The most common reason given was “persistent disruptive behaviour”, while most exclusions happened in secondary schools. Three-quarters of permanent exclusions were boys.
The council, while not being directly responsible for exclusions as they are taken at an individual school level, says early intervention measures have been put in place since September to try and address concerns over pupils before they get to the point of exclusion.
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Rachel Hood, Conservative cabinet member for education, said: “When we recognised the significant increase in the number of exclusions, we took immediate action to understand the reasons behind this and are now working through a very thorough action plan with school leaders to address these issues.
“Decisions regarding school exclusions are taken solely by education leaders, but it is right that we work with them to ensure that permanent exclusions are the absolute last resort for students. I have confidence in the plans we have in place, but I will continue to monitor the situation closely.”
Findings in the report said there was “too much variation in the quality of the content of both exclusions policies (if these even exist) and behaviour policies,” while school leaders “too readily justified having to PEX [permanently exclude] a pupil in the interest of the majority”.
It recognised that schools often did not have the facilities to meet the need of increasing numbers of youngsters with SEND or social, emotional and mental health needs.
The report continued that school leaders “hold on to pupils for too long” because there was a perception that there was a “lack of high-quality alternative provision”.
The council has set up a helpline for every single school night so that school heads can outline the situation and discuss with the council when they want to exclude a child, while book-in inclusion support meetings are also now available for schools to discuss options with the authority around a pupil who is of concern.
An inclusion quality mark is also being established for schools to work towards so that they are aware of inclusion measures needed that will prevent a child getting to the point of exclusion.
Maria Hough from the whole school inclusion team said: “Every single child that is excluded – even a fixed term exclusion – it puts them in a different group in their peers. It is really important that we tackle this and support schools to find other ways to enable a child to access education.
“We have got better sight on it now and we have got better processes as a result of taking a good hard look at ourselves. We have got better processes and communication to actually follow up with schools around the context of a permanent exclusion and what support mechanisms are already in place with those schools.”
Other recommendations from the report suggested a clear policy and guidance on part-time timetable use, clarified pathways to alternate provision and continued investment in the council’s SEND places programme – more than 800 new places over three years – to alleviate pressure.
While the Covid-19 pandemic and associated home-learning situation for pupils has helped prevent exclusions, the authority has said it will continue to monitor the numbers.
However, Jack Abbott, a former Labour councillor who continues to campaign on education issues, has expressed frustration.
“After years of inaction, families will have been hoping that this report would have acted as a watershed moment, but they will have been left incredibly frustrated and disappointed by what has finally been produced,” he said.
“This review was promised to be an urgent, detailed ‘deep-dive’, yet it has taken more than a year and barely scratches the surface. There is little to no analysis as to why the exclusion of children from poorer families or some ethnic minority backgrounds are disproportionately high.
“The proposed solutions to tackling the SEND exclusion crisis are simply a collection of superficial buzzwords. And the single idea put forward to bring down Suffolk’s primary school fixed-term exclusion rate – the highest in the country – is to ask schools to share data more often.”
Councillor Elizabeth Johnson, education spokeswoman for the Labour group at the council, said: “The disproportionate number of exclusions among BAME and SEND pupils is extremely disappointing, and Suffolk County Council ought to be open and honest about discrimination around exclusions.
“Addressing this issue head on with schools and reminding them that there may be unconscious bias exhibiting in some of their exclusion decisions would be a good additional measure.
“In terms of the disproportionately high exclusions for SEND pupils, this is the inevitable result of a cut back policy of provision.
“Although not all SEND pupils need to be placed in specialist schools, the demand outstrips the available places and results in SEND kids being placed unsuitably in mainstream schools, who then struggle to provide the support they require for their individual needs.”
Caroline Topping, opposition Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group education spokeswoman, said the rigid curriculum structure and demands on teachers meant adapting lessons to various abilities and ways of working was difficult.
“This is exacerbated by larger and larger class sizes meaning teachers are over-stretched and forced to pitch their lessons to the majority of the class,” she said. “How can they possibly deliver to the various abilities and ways a child learns?
“On top of this we are currently seeing a shortage of local authority governors, and I am concerned that the communication between schools, parents and our youth and children’s services, much like our children, is going on in silos resulting in limited effective exchange of information between the groups to provide positive outcomes for all.”