As the debate on school exclusions becomes increasingly polarised, we brought together two people with opposing views to see where there might be common ground. Mark Lehain, director of campaigning group Parents and Teachers for Excellence, chatted with Jules Daulby, director of education for literacy charity Driver Youth Trust.

Qu: Are there too many or too few exclusions?

Mark Lehain: I don’t think we know whether we’re making too many or too few exclusions. There is so much noise around the data – we could do with more standardised recording of information across the country.

Jules Daulby: I agree on transparency – I don’t think we know enough. But the data will show a massive increase in exclusions. We have a lot of illegal exclusions, off-rolling, and a rise in home education.

ML: Headteachers only ever exclude as a very last resort. Blaming schools for their exclusion rate is like blaming hospitals for their admission rate on a Saturday night. They’re dealing with societal and family issues, and we should support them in that, but I think exclusions are the symptom and not the cause.

Blaming schools for their exclusion rate is like blaming hospitals for their admission rate

JD: The analogy to A&E is a very poor one. A&E is a reactive response unit – schools are preventative, and they can do something in terms of providing wrap-around family care.

We should have so few pupil referral units and/or exclusions that we wouldn’t even have to debate this. We currently have 42 permanent exclusions and 2010 fixed-term exclusions per day, and we’re creating a culture that thinks that’s ok. If we argue for more exclusions, it’s like arguing that if we had more people in prison we’d have a better society.

ML: I think schools have a moral obligation do everything possible to keep children in their school. But where it is clearly not working – they are a danger to themselves, or to other children or staff, or they are too disruptive to the running of that organisation – you have to be able to remove the child. I think there’s a whole discussion about what you can do before that point, and to support the families, but there does need to be a terminal point. I don’t think Jules would argue that we should never have permanent or fixed-term exclusions – probably what we’re arguing about is the rate and where the red lines are.

JD: There are schools getting away with practices that mean they are not educating children in need. Yet the schools I see being truly inclusive, going above and beyond for those who are disadvantaged, are often not rewarded.

Local authorities have been decimated, meaning there’s no support for students with behaviour issues, so exclusions is all that’s left. The paucity of provision for children with SEND means they end up getting excluded because they can’t cope with the Ebacc and the high-stakes testing.

Qu: Do you really think schools are excluding children over results?

JD: I don’t think I need to say that! I think Ofsted and Education Datalab and the select committee are all saying that.

ML: I don’t think they are saying that. They’re saying there are questions to be asked. I think it’s very poor form when people have taken a very nuanced statement by Ofsted and immediately judged those 300 schools with high rates of pupils leaving after year 10, when the only reason Ofsted came out with that data was to enable them to go in and form a professional judgement.

JD: Why would they bring it up, if they didn’t think it was a problem?

ML: I think you look at the data and try and form some hypotheses, then you go and test it. It sounds to me like you’re jumping to a conclusion.

JD: It’s not just Ofsted. It’s also Education Datalab finding 7,000 children missing between years 10 and 11. I think we’re seeing lots of different studies raising concerns about off-rolling, and guesting, where children are told to get educated at home and coming in for exams as guests. I think it would be naive to think there is not something happening in some schools.

Qu: Another of the committee’s recommendations was that independent review panels should be able to direct a school to reinstate a pupil. Do you agree?

ML: That used to happen pre-2012 and it was a terrible shadow for school communities to live under. What a wonderful way to completely destroy the headteacher’s credibility and authority .

JD: I actually agree with that recommendation. Mark is saying, anecdotally, that every headteacher he knows takes exclusions very seriously – and if they have, they should be able to defend their decision.

ML: I think that sometimes, even if a mistake has been made, we have to recognise that the consequences of sending that child back in are too horrific to even consider. What used to happen is that they would walk round a school saying “I’m untouchable”. I know I’m referring to anecdote, but I have too many friends who pre-2012 faced that situation in their schools.

The child’s future is on the line

JD: A school shouldn’t lose face, but they should be accountable for their mistakes. I think it’s a weak argument to say we can’t get a child back because we’ve made a mistake – the child’s future is on the line.

ML: If an independent review panel finds against you, that’s already pretty embarrassing. It can lead to a big financial penalty, as you lose all the money attached to that child.

JD: Children with SEND are seven times more likely to be excluded. If you’ve got children from families who are struggling, they’re not even going to go through that complex process. And this is where I agree with the select committee, that as soon as you’ve had five non-consecutive days of exclusions, you get an independent advocate.

ML: I think I can agree with that. Why would anyone have a problem with parents getting an advocate?

I won’t budge on schools taking back pupils. But whether schools should wash their hands of them, or retain legal responsibility for their education and/or results is absolutely up for debate.

I really like what was in the 2015 white paper, Education Excellence Everywhere, that a school should keep hold of a pupil’s results even after they’ve permanently excluded them.

JD: I can agree with that one!