Very few primary school children are permanently excluded from school (0.02%), or given fixed-term exclusions (just over 1%). Rates of primary school exclusions have remained relatively stable since 2006/7 when figures were first collected. However, since 2013, secondary school exclusions have been rising. Boys are more likely to be excluded than girls.
Some children have been historically more likely to be excluded including children receiving SEND support, children eligible for free school meals or from economically disadvantaged areas and young black boys.
Children at risk of exclusion
A child at risk of exclusion at this early stage of their life is highly likely to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of conditions such as conduct disorder or ADHD. Long-term studies show that such behavioural problems are a significant risk factor for later poor mental health and for multiple poor life chances. Any child at risk of exclusion should therefore be considered a child in need, requiring early help.
If exclusion occurs, before help is offered, it can further multiply risks faced by children [link to risk and protective factors intro] and increase the likelihood of poor mental health and life chances. It’s also important to note that exclusion is often ineffective in changing pupil behaviour, particularly if it doesn’t address underlying problems.
Schools are often highly reluctant to exclude children until a range of options have been exhausted. Behaviour policies, for example, usually set out the importance of alternatives to exclusion wherever possible, but there can be significant variations in rates of exclusions from area to area.
Protective factors: what schools can do
- Central government guidance says that if there are concerns about the behaviour, or risk of exclusion, of a child with additional needs, a pupil with SEND needs or a looked after child, a school should, in partnership with others, consider what additional support or alternative placement may be needed. This guidance also states that early intervention to address underlying causes of disruptive behaviour should include an assessment of whether appropriate provision is in place to support any SEND needs that a pupil may have.
- A supportive and caring school environment where school staff build positive and supportive relationships with children is an important bedrock for improving attendance. So is cultivating a sense of belonging to the school.
- Interventions to address persistent poor behaviour before it becomes entrenched are often not used enough. It is essential to take a preventive and early intervention approach to exclusion.
- Teaching children good social and emotional skills, right from early years onwards (e.g. about relationships, fostering empathy, understanding feelings and seeking help, valuing themselves, conflict management etc.). See, for example:
- In schools with higher levels of aggression and difficulty with behaviour, staff should consider using whole-school programmes such as the Good Behaviour Game which are known to improve behaviour and prevent later poor mental health.
- Some targeted, small group work, such as introducing nurture groups for children who are struggling, also have a good record of producing improvements.
- Good parent/carer engagement is essential to prevent and reduce exclusion. Communicate a willingness to discuss problems with parents/carers and regularly share key messages about the importance of addressing problems early and de-escalating risk.
- Parents or carers of pupils returning from a fixed-term exclusion could attend the school to discuss how their child might best re-engage and succeed.
- Behaviour is a significant communication by children. Seek to understand reasons for distress and to engage with other services to tackle issues. Reasons underpinning each child’s behaviour can vary but there is good evidence (see, for example, this clinical guideline from NICE) about what makes a difference to these children and how to help them settle their behaviour. If behavioural problems are emerging, consider using tools such as the strengths and difficulties questionnaire to understand better underlying difficulties. Any child at risk of being excluded should be screened to understand any hidden difficulties, disabilities or SEND needs.
- Where drivers for behaviour are linked to challenges in the child’s life or to mental health difficulties, help children get extra support through counselling, mentoring or to the broader landscape of support, or specialist CAMHS. In the main, parenting strategies are most effective in helping children make progress when they stuck in patterns of challenging behaviour. As part of the solution, schools sometimes have opportunities to help parents to link up with support programmes which can help parents develop strategies to help their children calm themselves (e.g. Triple P, FAST and Incredible Years).
- Where drivers are linked to school issues, work with families and children to think laterally about what might shift the cycle of behaviour and to problem-solve ways forward.
- Where drivers are linked to family pressures, work non-judgementally with parents/carers to focus on family strengths and explore local parenting support. See, for example, the parenting programmes outlined in our challenging behaviour section. Where difficulties are pronounced multi-agency action is important. This is not something that schools can do on their own. Risk of school disengagement is an important focus of national initiatives to support families with multiple needs. These teams can work in partnership with schools to help resolve the range of difficulties facing children and families.
- An environment where staff demonstrate effective conflict management, and use restorative approaches when conflict arises, can help children avoid repeating challenging patterns of behaviour. See, for example, this case study on restorative approaches in a primary school in Hull.
- Where a child is struggling with school interest and engagement, think about more creative and interactive strategies for maintaining a child’s interest. For example:
- Using regular brain breaks.
- Introducing short circle time exercises to break up learning.
- Using drama, role play and interactive learning methods.
- View each child as a unique individual and try and understand what will help the child to feel engaged and interested
- The less children attend school, the more out of step with learning and socially isolated they can feel. This can become a vicious circle. Consider whether having a buddy system in place may help children re-engage and develop their sense of school belonging.
- Adopt school policies which give equal weight to positive reinforcement as well as to sanctions.
- Build in regular SLT (senior leadership team) sessions to monitor and critically analyse exclusion data and take decisive action when there are any sudden changes in trends or where there is evidence of exclusions affecting particular groups of children from specific sections of the community.
- For young black boys at risk of exclusion, work collaboratively with local community leaders and with families to problem-solve early intervention strategies. Consider peer mentoring by male community members to support school re-engagement, aspiration, self-belief and progress. See models such as Up My Street in this publication.
- Where applicable, consider sharing good practice and effective strategies across clusters to reduce exclusions.