By David Wilson and Mark Greaves.
In a new blow to the government’s education policy, academies were accused yesterday in an article for Sky News of a widespread pattern of illegal exclusions of pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN) in pursuit of better results.
According to the most recent statistics from the Department for Education, exclusion rates per school are over five times higher at Academies than government maintained schools. In the period 2013-14, there were 2430 permanent exclusions from the 3513 Academies nationwide; this was under 100 less than all of the permanent exclusions (2520) from the 17,644 Government maintained schools.
Some caution is needed given the fact that the majority of academies are secondary schools which have higher rates of exclusion. Nevertheless, the differing rates are concerning, particularly so given the figures for successful challenges to exclusions. One in every three exclusions from academies was not upheld by an independent review panel (IRP) – 6% more than at government-maintained schools.
Deun German, director of the educational charity Communities Empowerment Network believes that the demands of a results-driven education system exacerbates exclusions and is partly responsible for this higher rate of illegal exclusions at academies: “Academies definitely have got to perform. They’ve got to be shown to be performing, and that’s how they maintain their academy status and get to open other branches in their chain. Unfortunately, in order to do that, they are choosing to exclude some of the more vulnerable pupils – pupils with special education needs or behavioural problems.”
However, although the problem of discriminatory exclusions highlighted by Mr Gorman may be slightly worse at Academies, it is a significant problem throughout the education system. Pupils with Special Education Needs (SEN) account for 7 in 10 permanent exclusions, despite the fact that that they make up only 20% of the student body.
These are shocking statistics that have been heavily criticised. In 2013 the Children’s Commissioner published a report entitled “Always Someone Else’s Problem” which alleged that “an unacceptably large proportion of schools” were engaged in illegal exclusions, and that many of those affected “come from the groups suffering inequality, coming from particular ethnic backgrounds, or having special educational, behavioural or other needs. They are among our most vulnerable, and being made more so.”
In 2014 a new statutory guidance, the SEND Code of Practice, was released to “underpin a major reform programme” and try and reduce the appalling levels of discrimination within exclusions. However, our experience of exclusion hearings at the School Exclusion Project is that all too often Head Teachers and Governors simply do have due regard for this, despite the fact that this is an express requirement in the Exclusion Guidance (paragraph 11).
Reformed School Exclusion Guidance, with stronger protection for the most vulnerable students is clearly needed; however the DfE went completely the other way in introducing guidance, successfully challenged as discriminatory, back in February 2015. The DfE has made no announcements on when the new Guidance will be reissued following reconsideration, but clearly it needs to happen soon and it needs to get it right this time. If it does not then headlines, such as those in yesterday’s Sky News, will continue to appear all too frequently.