Are Exclusions Fair? Part 1: SEND

October 21, 2018

I have written a couple of posts recently about permanent exclusions and the movement against them.

I also wrote about the ideology behind some of this.

I also wrote about what happens when schools don’t permanently exclude:

There have been a few recurring arguments that exclusions, as they currently happen, are unfair. I wish to address this in my next few posts.

The first argument used is that a disproportionate number of excluded pupils have SEND (Special educational needs and disability). This is a favourite fact of those who believe that children are not responsible for their bad behaviour. The impression is given that a child will only behave badly because they have SEND, then schools cruelly exclude them rather than supporting them with their SEND. Some get so carried away with the idea that they will talk about badly behaved children and the disabled as if they were interchangeable. One Australian article on exclusions actually illustrated the connection between SEND and exclusions with a picture of a young person in a wheel chair, as if those with physical disabilities were likely to be excluded.

A lot of this is designed to fool politicians, or parents, who may have no idea how the SEND system works. They may imagine a precise, objective system of identifying a coherent category of genuine needs and disabilities in a small minority on the basis of scientific evidence in order to assist them in ways that have been shown to work. Having made this mistake it would be easy to assume that there is no reason why students with SEND would be disproportionately represented in the exclusion figures, unless they were the victims of prejudice or their bad behaviour resulted from their SEND in a way that suggests it was not their fault. This then allows the anti-exclusion lobby to claim that exclusions are a form of discrimination against the disabled, an issue of social justice, and very probably illegal.

As any teacher can tell you, SEN (without even including disabilities) is actually a broad and incoherent category, At one level it covers almost any child in need of help:

A pupil has SEN where their learning difficulty or disability calls for special educational provision, namely provision different from or additional to that normally available to pupils of the same age.

On another level there are loads of exceptions, where children may still need help but be said not to have SEN, such as those who need help because English is not their first language, or those learning difficulties resulting from “events that can lead to learning difficulties, or wider mental health difficulties, such as bullying or bereavement”. Help can be put in place before SEN is identified. “Slow progress and low attainment do not necessarily mean that a child has SEN and should not automatically lead to a pupil being recorded as having SEN.”

In practice, the decision to label a student as having SEN can be based on the whims of parents and schools, although there may not be much disagreement about those young people with the most obvious needs. There are also formal diagnoses involving outside expertise. There have been a number of reports about the problems with the system and a number of reforms to the system. At times more than 1 in 5 students (including more than 1 in 4 boys) have been labelled as having SEN. While this number has been brought down in recent years, it remains a broad and poorly defined category and this needs to be kept in mind while considering claims that excluded students have SEN.

So why are excluded students more likely to have SEND? It is possible that some SEND causes poor behaviour, although the assumption that a child with SEND cannot behave is the worst kind of ignorant prejudice. It is not clear that such students should be kept in mainstream schools if that bad behaviour is so extreme as to result in exclusion, as most of the legislation about inclusion of students with SEND has exceptions where inclusion “would be incompatible with… the provision of efficient education for others, or… the efficient use of resources”. However, what is often not appreciated is how often bad behaviour leads to a child being labelled as having SEN. There are a number of reasons for this.

  1. “Difficult behaviour” can lead to a child being assessed for SEN. While it “does not necessarily mean that a child has SEN” the SEN Code of Practice suggests “where there are concerns, there should be an assessment to determine whether there are any causal factors such as an underlying learning or communication difficulty”. More assessment of SEN makes it more likely that a child will be labelled as having SEND.
  2. Poor behaviour can affect learning. Where a child is making less than expected progress (in any one of a number of ways) teachers are expected to intervene and “Where progress continues to be less than expected the class or subject teacher, working with the SENCO, should assess whether the child has SEN”. Again, labelling as SEND becomes more likely.
  3. One category of SEN is “Social, emotional and mental health difficulties”. These “manifest themselves in many ways [and] may include … displaying challenging, disruptive or disturbing
    behaviour”. Again, behaviour leads to a search for SEND.
  4. It may be the case that behaving really badly, or being dangerous to other people, leads situations that are detrimental to a child’s social and emotional development, or may even contribute to mental health difficulties. If so, this is behaviour leading to SEND, not SEND leading to behaviour.
  5. I mentioned earlier that many opponents of exclusions may be motivated by a belief that children will only behave badly if they have SEND, or at least are far more likely to behave badly if they have SEND. There’s every reason to believe some of those people work in schools, or work with schools in identifying SEND. If so, they will be more likely to identify a badly behaved child as having SEND.
  6. Some conditions, such as ODD are diagnosed at least partly from behaviour. This is often used to suggest that the behaviour is out of the control of the person with the condition, but this can be circular reasoning. The SEN diagnosis does not explain their behaviour, it merely describes it. If we call certain types of bad behaviour SEN, we once again only have a way in which behaviour leads to the SEN label, not how SEN causes bad behaviour.
  7. These days, human behaviour (not just bad behaviour) is often explained in medical terms, particularly where amateurs rather than doctors are trying to identify conditions. An explanation for bad behaviour that refers to disorders or illnesses will normally come under the label “SEND” no matter how ill founded or faddish.
  8. The guidelines for excluding from schools claims that “Disruptive behaviour can be an indication of unmet needs” and demands that “Where a school has concerns about a pupil’s behaviour, it should try to identify whether there are any causal factors and intervene early in order to reduce the need for a subsequent exclusion.” Any school seeking to exclude will need to have looked for SEND, again making an SEND label more likely.
  9. The same guidelines also give parents asking for a review of an exclusion decision the right to the input of an “SEN expert” and this right is “regardless of whether the school recognises that their child has SEN”. Any parents wanting to contest their child’s exclusion therefore have every reason to claim their child might have SEND, which again makes the label more likely.
  10. The guidelines say that the SEN expert can consider whether the school’s SEN policies or the application of those policies are “lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair”. Where the school does not identify the pupil as having SEN, they can judge whether “they believe the school acted in a legal, reasonable and procedurally fair way with respect to the identification of any SEN that the pupil may potentially have”. Because the former situation relies more on whether the school has the right paperwork and followed it, schools may be happier to go to a review panel accepting any claims that a child has SEN (however dubious) and arguing that they followed their policy, rather than argue over whether a child should be identified as having SEN. This creates an incentive for schools to accept claims of SEN for any child who looks likely to end up being excluded.

For all these reasons, I am amazed that any child gets excluded without at least being on the SEN register. Children are not excluded for having SEN. They are excluded for one of the main reasons they end up being given the SEN label, their behaviour.



  1. […] issued in the first place, higher rates of exclusion are no surprise. As blogger Old Andrew has suggested, given the way the system works, it’s surprising any child is ever excluded without […]

  2. […] Are Exclusions Fair? Part 1: SEND […]

  3. […] Are Exclusions Fair? Part 1: SEND […]

  4. […] Are Exclusions Fair? Part 1: SEND […]

  5. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  6. […] Are Exclusions Fair? Part 1: SEND […]

  7. […] couple of years ago I looked at the rhetoric around permanent exclusions and SEND in this blogpost. As I explained, it is argued […]

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