Thousands of disabled children are being illegally excluded from school every year, or refused participation in activities and trips, because schools don’t have the resources to cope with them, a new report claims.
The study, from the charity Contact a Family, found that excluding disabled youngsters had a devastating impact on their education and mental health.
The organisation, which surveyed more than 400 families of children with disabilities or additional needs in England and Wales, found that more than half of parents had been asked to collect their children during the school day because of a lack of staff to support them, and 56 per cent were declined an opportunity to take part in a class activity or trip because it was deemed “unsuitable”.
Almost a quarter – 22 per cent – were illegally excluded every week and 15 per cent every day.
Victoria McIntosh, an education lawyer at Browne Jacobson, said: “The current statutory guidance on exclusions states that the use of informal exclusions, such as sending a pupil home ‘to cool off’, is unlawful even when parents agree to the action. All exclusions, even for short periods, must be formally recorded.
“Arguably, this rigid approach removes the headteacher’s discretion to address behavioural issues without the child receiving the stigma of a formal exclusion.
“However, with both the Department for Education and the Children’s Commissioner keen to crack down on such practice, schools are likely to face legal challenges and criticism from Ofsted if they do not follow proper exclusion procedures.”
Schools excluding pupils in this way usually do not report this type of exclusion to the local authority, meaning it is not subject to review or external monitoring, the report, Falling through the Net, found.
More than six out of 10 illegal exclusions were said to be because the child needed to “cool off” after an incident, and in 70 per cent of cases the school suggested it was for the child’s “own good” or that they had been having a bad day.
The effect on pupils was that
53 per cent were falling behind with school work, 43 per cent said it was causing depression, and
67 per cent of parents said their child became upset.
More than half of parents said their children were suffering socially because they felt left out of friendship groups.
Srabani Sen, chief executive of Contact a Family, said: “Illegal exclusions undermine the government’s intentions set out in the Children and Families Bill of disabled children of achieving their full potential. Children with additional needs up and down the country are missing out on a good education and the opportunity to form friendships because of illegal exclusions.
“If non-disabled pupils were sent home because there was not enough school staff, there would be uproar. We have to ask why is it happening so regularly when it comes to disabled children and what can be done to tackle it?”
The charity said illegal exclusions were putting families under pressure and left children languishing at home with very limited education or none at all.
It is also feared that cuts to local authority funding could see increasing numbers of disabled children being illegally excluded from school, as school budgets are stretched and there is less support for them.
Nearly half of parents responding to the study said they were unable to work, and third of those who did work said they had to regularly take time off. More than six out of 10 said exclusions created conflict with teachers.
Two third of parents and carers said they had challenged the school regarding an illegal exclusion, often resulting in no action, excuses and denials by the schools of any wrong-doing. Changing schools was often the final outcome.
Contact a Family said schools needed to follow statutory procedures to ensure their actions were lawful, reasonable and fair; should put in place interventions and strategies to tackle the causes of poor behaviour; and work together more closely with parents to understand a child’s condition or disability.
The charity also wants to see Ofsted identifying unlawful practice in the course of an inspection, and a judgement of “inadequate” should be considered if schools continue to illegally exclude children with a disability, SEN or additional need.
Ms Sen added: “Parents of disabled children often don’t realise this type of exclusion is unlawful. We fear that this is just the tip of the iceberg and many more children with a disability or additional needs are falling through the education net.”
Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, said the findings reflected her School Exclusions Inquiry, which discovered disabled children were disproportionately more likely to be excluded than children without disabilities.
“It is vital that disabled children are not discriminated against in the education system,” she said.