Inspectors will investigate whether schools in some parts of England are misusing exclusions, after it emerged that secondary schools in two areas suspended more than one in 10 of their pupils last year.
Ofsted has ordered its staff to look at high rates of fixed-period exclusions in the north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber. Inspectors will also “look very carefully” at whether schools are improving their results by ridding themselves of “troublesome” pupils.
The region is home to six of the 10 worst-offending areas in terms of the proportion of secondary school pupils who faced suspension in 2016-17.
In Middlesborough, which tops the list, 12.75 per cent of pupils were suspended at least once. In Barnsley, 11.23 per cent of pupils faced at least one suspension. Doncaster (8.66 per cent), Redcar and Cleveland (8.08 per cent), North East Lincolnshire (7.6 per cent) and Sheffield (7.51 per cent) also make the list.
High exclusion rates in the region have prompted Cathy Kirby, Ofsted’s regional director, to write to secondary headteachers about the problem. She will also ask inspectors to look at a school’s use of exclusion when making judgements about leadership, management and pupil behaviour.
Under the current Ofsted inspection framework, schools are already required to show inspectors their records and analysis of exclusions, pupils taken off roll and incidents of poor behaviour.
But the watchdog will now look “even more closely” for signs that pupils are being off-rolled in an attempt to boost a school’s performance, as well as reports of children with poor behaviour being sent home on inspection days, Kirby said.
A fixed-period exclusion prevents a pupil from going to school for a set amount of time, ranging from part of a school day up to a maximum of 45 days within a single academic year. Pupils can be excluded for more than one fixed period every year.
Kirby said it was “difficult to understand” why certain areas found fixed-period exclusion “so much more necessary”, and reiterated that the exclusions should only be used as a “last resort”.
“If not properly applied, being removed from school can disrupt a child’s education and affect their future life chances,” she said.
“I am asking inspectors to look very carefully at the use of exclusions in areas with high rates compared with national and regional figures. We want to be certain that pupils are being removed for the right reasons.”
However, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Paul Whiteman, insisted school leaders need the “autonomy” to exclude pupils if necessary, and said the decision to do so “is never taken lightly and always as a last resort.”
He said measures to ensure adequate support for pupils most at risk of exclusion are “under threat” due to cuts in areas including school budgets, high needs funding for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities and local authority services such as behaviour support teams, as well as delays in providing mental health support and a fall in speech and language therapists.
Whiteman added: ““Schools can’t do it on their own. To avoid exclusions, they need support from the other local services around them. The issues that underpin exclusions reach far beyond the school gates, so schools need access to expert resources to help them identify at an early stage those students who need more help.”
Schools are facing increasing political scrutiny of their decisions to exclude pupils, particularly in the face of claims about “off-rolling” of more troublesome children.
Earlier this month Robert Halfon, the chair of the education select committee, said excluded school children should be protected by a “bill of rights” and have access to a “clear appeal system” so they can challenge the decision.
Also in February, the education think-tank LKMCo called for the government to give money usually reserved for alternative provision to mainstream schools to establish an “avoiding exclusion” fund of up to £10,000 per pupil and help keep challenging children in schools.
Experts also warned MPs that “shaming” school behaviour policies are leading to an increase in exclusions. And in October, the DfE said it would launch an external review into the links between pupil ethnicity and exclusions due to “disproportionate” exclusion rates among some groups including those with Irish traveller and Roma/gypsy or black Caribbean backgrounds.
Figures released in July last year showed a rise in the rate of both permanent and fixed-period exclusions.