The law reform group Justice has called for a radical overhaul of exclusions amid concerns that too many schools do not fully understand their legal duties and that the appeal process available to parents wishing to challenge an exclusion is inadequate.
According to Justice, there are “serious weaknesses” in a system that excludes, sometimes unlawfully, a disproportionate numbers of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) and those from a minority background.
One of the problems, its report said, is that schools often do not understand their duties under the Equality Act 2010 which require them to make reasonable adjustments to school policies – including zero tolerance behaviour policies – that may put Send children at a disadvantage.
Justice called for mandatory training on the law related to exclusions for school leaders and recommended the establishment of a new independent reviewer with powers to investigate individual exclusions. It also wants dissatisfied parents to have the option of appealing to a judge-led tribunal.
The report comes as concern mounts about the number of permanent exclusions in England which has been rising year-on-year since 2012 and far outstrips Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
According to the latest available figures, there were 7,905 permanent exclusions in England in 2017-18, with estimates of thousands more informally excluded either through managed moves to alternative schools or “off-rolled”, often into home education.
The Challenging School Exclusions report highlighted how a permanent exclusion can have a devastating impact on a pupil’s life, in some cases more than a criminal conviction, yet the process for challenging an exclusion is less robust than that in the youth justice system.
Under the current system the school’s governing body will review a decision by the headteacher to permanently exclude. But, according to Justice, governors lack independence and too often simply rubber-stamp those decisions.
Parents can then take the matter to an independent review panel, but its powers are limited. If it finds in favour of the child the panel can direct a school to reconsider the exclusion, but it does not have the power to force a school to take the child back. If a school refuses to reinstate a child it is required to pay £4,000, but the pupil remains excluded.
Prof Richard de Friend, who chaired the Justice working party that looked into exclusions, said: “Exclusion can have such a devastating impact on a child’s future that it is vital that exclusion decisions meet all the required statutory standards. We have concluded that at present we cannot be confident that they do because of the weaknesses we have identified in the current procedures.”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said Justice was right to highlight inconsistencies in the way that permanent exclusions operate, but said the proposals failed to address the bigger issue of how to prevent so many young people being removed from school rolls.
“To make a real impact on the serious issue of school exclusions, early intervention is more important than tinkering with procedures,” he said, and called for better resourcing of staff working at an earlier stage with pupils at risk of being excluded.
Barton said schools needed more flexibility in the curriculum and qualifications to ensure that more young people remain motivated by learning. He called for more funding for joined-up working between schools, social care, police and mental health agencies in recognition of the complex needs of many vulnerable young people.