YOUNG PEOPLE WITH ADDITIONAL NEEDS have told how they are unfairly excluded from mainstream schools in England – identifying everything from racism to a lack of understanding from professionals as key reasons.

The findings by The Children’s Society’s Disrupting Exploitation programme come after figures showed pupils with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) were three times more likely to be excluded than children without additional needs if they had an Education Health and Care Plan – and five times more likely to be excluded without a plan.

The Children’s Society’s new report, Youth Voice: SEND and School Exclusions, says these children are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and being groomed into crime. Staff from the charity’s Disrupting Exploitation team spoke to pupils from two North London schools – one for children with special educational needs, the other an alternative provision school – to understand why so many were being excluded from mainstream schools

Children told how exclusions were stressful, harmed their relationships with their families, and led to them missing learning and struggling to transition into new schools.

Pupils told of a culture of prejudice, supporting previous research which found evidence of racism in UK schools. They said consequences for poor behaviour escalated more quickly and led to harsher sanctions for children from certain ethnic groups. Young people said teachers did not acknowledge racism as a form of abuse or take complaints of racism seriously.

One said: “someone got in trouble innit and then they pick – ah we need to pick some boys like, to see if they know anything innit and I was like ‘oh they all – they only picked the black boys names’, never picked no other people, it’s only black boys and then if you say ‘yeah there’s no involvement yeah’, they’ll automatically think you’re lying.”

Young people said staff in mainstream schools had unrealistic expectations of their maturity and ability to communicate needs, and lacked awareness of how additional needs affected behaviour. Pupils often did not get help to address their behaviour and understand its likely consequences.

Some complained of staff being too busy, that they were not listened to, including when they were in trouble, and that teachers refused to explain decisions. One said that if teachers had listened to him, this may have prevented incidents triggered by his additional needs.

Young people said they felt reputations arising from past behaviour stuck, and they were not offered a fresh start, which contributed to exclusions. Some felt suspensions could help students reflect and learn. But most thought permanent exclusions were often unfair and unsupported by evidence. Pupils were not always forewarned of the sometimes rapid escalation of sanctions to the point of exclusion and said other sanctions were often disproportionate. They said isolation units were overcrowded, making them feel trapped, and were being used by teachers who did not know what else to do.

Students said their behaviour improved in their new setting with smaller classes and support from mentors or staff who listened, treated them like young adults and offered praise.

The report calls for alternative provision and mainstream schools to share best practice so pupils are better supported. It warns that exclusions often fail to address issues affecting children’s behaviour outside the classroom and merely transfer risks into the community.

Claire Alldis, National Manager of The Children’s Society’s Disrupting Exploitation programme, said: “School exclusions should be a last resort for any child, and it’s a real concern that vulnerable children with additional needs are disproportionately likely to be excluded.

“What children told us was worrying. They spoke of experiences of racism, of staff being too quick to exclude children, not listening and failing to take their additional needs into account or understand the root causes of their behaviour. The vast majority of school staff have the best interests of pupils at heart, but there are systemic issues here which we hope our recommendations will help to address. Children with SEND should not have to be excluded to get the support they need.”

Other recommendations for schools include:

  • Training staff in SEND awareness, the impact of trauma, racism and exclusions.
  • Working with social care and other agencies to improve early identification of SEND.
  • Consulting with students from diverse backgrounds on a SEND-friendly behaviour policy which addresses racism.
  • Giving all pupils at risk of exclusion or suspension access to independent advocates to promote their interests and help ensure the exclusions appeal system is accessible.
  • Ensuring staff are from diverse backgrounds and representative of the local community.

The Children’s Society also wants better national oversight of decisions to exclude pupils, including requirement that risks of exploitation are always first considered, and that children’s needs are assessed by schools and social care. The charity wants councils to monitor the frequency of exclusions, and work with schools to reduce them by identifying issues affecting children’s behaviour and offering them support. It is urging the Government to invest more in early support for SEND young people and in alternative provision.

Latest figures show nearly 1.5 million pupils were identified as having special educational needs or disabilities in England in 2021/22: almost 77,000 more than in the previous year. Of these, around 355,000 children have an Education, Health and Care Plan. The percentage of pupils with additional needs, but no plan, has increased to 12.6 per cent.

The Children’s Society’s Disrupting Exploitation Programme works with organisations including councils, police, schools, businesses, transport operators and community groups in London, Birmingham and Greater Manchester. It helps them identify and respond to child exploitation, and change policies and systems which perpetuate harm to children. The programme also supports children at risk and who are being exploited in all three areas.

* Read: Youth Voice: SEND and School Exclusions here.

* Source: The Children’s Society