Sam Bates* was excluded from school for the first time when he was five years old. After moving into year 1, he struggled to sit still, became frustrated with staff and pushed chairs over. He was sent home for one day and was then allowed back for only two hours a day, separated from his classmates, with a teaching assistant. From there, things unravelled.
“That went on for seven months, the two hours a day,” says Amanda Bates*, his mother, based in the east of England. “It really didn’t work.” She asked if Sam could go back but repeat a year, as he was young for his year group, but this was refused. Instead the school applied for the local authority’s “specialist resource space”, an alternative to mainstream school. “But there was a huge waiting list and they wouldn’t take him,” says Bates.
In desperation, Bates moved Sam to a new school. But he was anxious about leaving the house. “I was being told by everyone, ‘you must get him into school’,” she says. To this end, she rang social services and a social worker came to help. “She picked him up by his arms to get him into the car. I said, ‘please, stop, he’s too distressed’.” Eventually, says Bates, the new headteacher said: “The only way I can help this boy is if I permanently exclude him.”
The headteacher was trying to help, Bates recognises, because an exclusion would trigger more support, but it was devastating. “I think it’s shameful that it takes a permanent exclusion for children to be supported,” she says.
The number of permanent exclusions from primary schools in England has been rising steadily, from 610 a year in 2010 to 1,067 by 2018-19 (the last year of reliable figures).
In the autumn term of 2019, just before the Covid crisis, data recently published shows that permanent exclusions from primary schools rose by 20% to 455 compared with the same term the previous year. The rise in secondary schools in the same period was 3%. The most common reason given by primary schools for excluding a pupil was “physical assault against an adult”, accounting for 41% of cases, followed by “persistent disruptive behaviour” (30%) and assaulting another pupil (10%).
Sam has now started the new school year at a special educational needs school, which his mother believes is right for him. “A lot of mainstream schools really don’t know how to support these children and don’t have the funding,” she says. “While you’re waiting months to see an education psychologist, you have no support.” She says: “It made me feel really dreadful. I cried myself to sleep at night.”
A shortage of educational psychologists and a lack of school funds to buy in their services could be contributing to the problem. Research commissioned by the Department for Education in 2019 revealed more than two-thirds of councils could not fill educational psychologist (EP) vacancies. Two years on, many problems remain. David Collingwood, the president of the Association of Educational Psychologists, says: “There’s been a big increase in parents trying to access education health and care plans [EHCPs], so the more time we spend assessing for those, the less time we have for early intervention.” And not all schools can afford educational psychologists. “Pre-austerity, every local authority would have had an educational psychologist as a free service to all schools. But then different funding models came in, and most schools now buy in their time. So some schools have less time with a psychologist, or no time at all.”
Not all parents think their child has a special need. Soraya Murphy*, from the West Midlands, says her eight-year-old daughter’s school has told her the next time there is a disciplinary issue her daughter will be permanently excluded and sent to a special school. “How can they say that when she hasn’t got a diagnosis for anything?” Her daughter was first suspended in year 3 for kicking a wall and then pushing away a teacher, says Murphy. “I said to them, if she’s having a meltdown, please just leave her, please don’t touch her. But they didn’t listen.” At a reintegration meeting, “the headteacher’s words were ‘we’ve never had a child like this and we don’t know what to do’.”
The school has told Murphy to go on a parenting course, although she has attended one already. She says the problem is not to do with parenting: her other child, a boy, has no behaviour issues. “It’s not me that needs help, it’s my child. It feels like the school is passing the buck,” she says. “The impact on my daughter is not good. She keeps putting herself down, saying ‘I’m not good enough to go to school, people laugh at me’. She’s gone from happy and bubbly to nothing.”
The increasing numbers of primary exclusions have prompted several providers to plan expansions to offer new alternative schools for younger children.
Caron Johnson, executive headteacher at The Rowans AP secondary school in Medway, Kent, has got the go-ahead from government to open a primary centre in 2023 to meet rising demand. Since March, she says there’s been “a massive rise in cases from primary” at her local schools support group, a panel of experts that helps schools and aims to avoid exclusions. “Traditionally, about a third of them would be primary pupils, and two-thirds secondary. That’s flipped around now, it’s two-thirds primary.”
The answer is not to blame primary schools, she says. “What the government needs to do is get real experts into schools offering support.”
Astrid Schon, the headteacher at London East Alternative Provision, says primary teachers need more help to spot children with additional needs early on. Schon is a partner headteacher with The Difference, a social enterprise that trains teachers to specialise in helping vulnerable children.
There has also been a shift in recent years to stricter behaviour policies in schools, she says. “Small infringements which 10 years ago were not a big deal, are now a big deal. We are seeing children where we ask, why are they here?”
One solution could be a local independent panel to oversee exclusions, says Emma Balchin, a director at the National Governance Association (NGA). The NGA warned in 2018 that governors can feel pressured to endorse the head’s decision to exclude a child. “The problem with primary exclusions is that as a governor you probably only ever deal with one or two cases, so there’s no chance of being an expert,” says Balchin. “An independent panel could provide that expertise and challenge.”
Within the government, meanwhile, ministers continue to delay publication of a long-awaited special educational needs review, with three of its own deadlines already missed. A “behaviour hubs” programme is being rolled out, led by ministers’ behaviour adviser, Tom Bennett.
A Facebook parent group called Not Fine In School has more than 17,500 members and, according to Fran Morgan, the founder of another parent group called Square Peg, people are joining at the rate of about 800 a month. She says mainstream schooling needs to be much more flexible.
For Jane Harvey* in Essex, whose son was excluded twice from primary schools, she says it’s too late for him ever to return to mainstream education. “If you can’t resolve an issue at primary, it will be much harder at secondary,” she says.
“My son was finally diagnosed with autism halfway through year 6, but from reception he was just the naughty boy. He was constantly punished, kept in every break, on a behaviour chart every day. It created three years of hell. He was coming out in tears, angry and upset, three or four times a week. It wasn’t until a professional pointed out he might need an assessment that we got any help. But our son won’t go back into an education setting now.
“It just takes too long to get any support. Families like mine are being driven to the brink.”
* Parents’ and children’s names have been changed to avoid identification.