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Another look at exclusions and SEND

September 12, 2020

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

Roughly speaking, those who wish to obstruct or prevent permanent exclusions argue that the situation looks like this.

I argued that there were two problems with this picture.

  1. The labelling of students with SEND is not a precise process of diagnosis which identifies a meaningful difference between SEND and non-SEND students. It covers a fairly arbitrary category of students, pretty much anyone who needs extra help for any reason. The one exception to this is those whose difficulties are due to not speaking English as a first language, which is considered to be distinct from all other difficulties and given a different category.
  2. If a child is badly behaved, and particularly if they are at risk of exclusion, there are lots of incentives to look for SEND and to label them SEND, including types of SEND that are identified mainly from bad behaviour.

Taking this into account the process looks more like this:

When I wrote that previous post I argued mainly from

  • experience;
  • reports into the SEND system;
  • the rules regarding identifying SEND,
  • and the rules regarding exclusions.

As a whole, these generally seemed to indicate that it was easy for a school to classify a child as SEND if they want to, and that there are incentives to label badly behaved children as having SEND. However, while this seems plausible, and plenty of teachers confirmed this was their experience, I didn’t indicate whether this was supported by the data. I am now able to do this.

My first claim above was about how arbitrary the category of SEND is, and in particular, the extent to which, if you look for SEND in a student, you will find it. The New Labour years saw an expansion of the SEN bureaucracy and teachers can tell you just how much paperwork they saw produced on students which identified trivial problems, or made amateur diagnoses of fashionable problems, and recommended interventions that were impractical and not evidence based. FFT Education Datalab looked at the SEN data and, in a blogpost entitled More pupils have special educational needs than you might think, they confirmed the scale of the phenomenon. Looking at the cohort of students who were in year 11 in 2016/17 they found that “44% of the cohort had ever been classified as having SEN by the time they reached the end of Year 11”. As most permanent exclusions involve boys, I asked on Twitter what was the percentage of boys who were classified as SEN at some point was, and was told:

So it would appear, that for some cohorts it was possible to identify a majority of boys as having special needs at some point, which is a curious definition of “special” in itself. I think this is good evidence for my first point: when you look hard enough for SEND in a child, you will find it.

My second point was the extent to which it’s the case that badly behaved students would be identified as having SEND, rather than it being the case that students who have SEND would be likely to be badly behaved. We know that excluded students are likely to have SEND. If it is bad behaviour that results in students being labelled SEND, we would expect the categories of SEND that are most linked to exclusion to be those which are likely to be diagnosed from bad behaviour. We would also expect those students with an EHC Plan, or statement of SEN, i.e. those for whom more evidence of genuine need has been identified, to have a lower risk of exclusion than those just labelled by schools. We would also expect non-specific SEND labels, where a school has decided a child has SEN, but has not even identified enough evidence to say what the SEN is, to be well represented among the excluded. If, however, SEND causes bad behaviour, or permanent exclusions discriminate against those with SEND, we would expect a wide variety of SEND categories to be represented among the permanently excluded and we would expect those with more evidence of genuine SEND (i.e. those with an EHC Plan or statement of SEN) and those with more clearly identified SEND, to be more likely to be excluded.

Fortunately the Timpson report, looked at whether SEND was a risk factor for exclusion after controlling for other factors.

This chart shows the risk of a student without SEND being excluded as a horizontal line, and those categories of SEND that depart significantly from this level of risk are in dark blue. Those categories of SEND with no statistically significant difference in risk from those with no SEND are in light blue.

As you can see, the data shows that having an EHC plan, or statement of SEN, for anything other than “Behavioural emotional and social difficulties” and “social, emotional and mental health”, the two categories most likely to be diagnosed from extreme poor behaviour, actually lowers the risk of exclusion. For those who are identified by schools as having SEND, but without an EHCP/statement, the very high odds of exclusion are found in those same two categories and the miscellaneous category of “SEN type not recorded”. Although there is a statistically significant higher risk for some other categories of SEN, they are not much higher, given the incentives for diagnosis. This is all far more consistent with the “bad behaviour leads to being labelled SEND” hypothesis than the “having SEND leads to exclusion” hypothesis. For those involved in the debate around this issue, where children who are excluded unfairly for behaviour related to their autism feature prominently in the rhetoric, it is particularly noticeable that children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder do not have a high risk of being permanently excluded. If they have a EHC plan or a statement of SEN, they have less chance of being excluded (everything else being equal) than a student without SEND.

This will not stop the debate. Those who believe that permanent exclusions are never justified, will argue that even the most extreme behaviour is a result of “unmet needs” regardless of the data. It’s impossible to exaggerate the tenuous nature of the reasoning used to portray excluded children as helpless victims, and school leaders as villains. A report on exclusions from the think tank IPPR, followed up the claim that SEND is a causal factor in exclusions with the following argument for believing it likely that all excluded students have mental health problems:

In 2015/16, one in fifty children in the general population was recognised as having a social, emotional and mental health need (SEMH). In schools for excluded pupils this rose to one in two. Yet the incidence of mental ill health among excluded pupils is likely to be much higher than these figures suggest. Only half of children with clinically diagnosed conduct disorders and a third of children with similarly diagnosed emotional disorders are recognised in their schools as having special educational needs. This means the proportion of excluded children with mental health problems is likely closer to 100 per cent.

The errors of reasoning in this are incredible. SEMH is not synonymous with “mental health problems”; it’s a category that can include those whose difficulty is that they are badly behaved. “Schools for excluded pupils” here appears to be Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) which, while they are often attended by excluded pupils, are actually institutions for any students who are unable to attend school, including those who are unable to attend due to SEMH. Therefore, their SEMH figures tell us nothing about the rate of SEMH among excluded children. It is, of course, possible to find out the actual proportion of excluded students with a label of SEMH that year by looking at the figures. In 2015/2016 the number of excluded children labelled as having SEMH was 1 860 out of 6 685 or 27.8% (which is surprisingly low given that poor behaviour is a common reason to label a child with SEMH). The “clinically diagnosed conduct disorders” and “similarly diagnosed emotional disorders” were diagnosed from survey data (collected from parents, teachers and children themselves) by a method that found 6% of young people to have a conduct disorder and 4% to have an emotional disorder and not from direct assessments by clinicians. While the survey did find that a large minority of the former category, and almost two thirds of the latter category, did not have officially recognised Special Educational Needs at that time, this was not referring specifically to either permanently excluded children or children in PRUs which may be wildly different. Any one of these errors (assuming this is just an extremely unlikely series of mistakes, rather than a deliberate intention to deceive) would invalidate the argument; so many errors in one paragraph suggests the IPPR was not too bothered about factual accuracy.

Does it matter that such dodgy data is being used? Well the IPPR is a well-established and supposedly reputable think tank. The author of this report went on to set up The Difference, a very influential charity that has done a lot to oppose schools’ right to exclude. The one in two figure was quoted as fact, sometimes alongside the 100% figure, by The BBC, Schools Week, The Huffington Post, the Guardian and even referred to by a report of the House Of Commons Education Committee. Invented and contrived statistics about exclusions can be widely circulated by the media, politicians, charities and think tanks. However the fact that excluded children often have the label of SEND is not evidence that innocent children with SEND are being unfairly excluded, only evidence that we label the children likely to be excluded as having SEND, and it’s time the public debate reflected this truth, rather than the horror stories of the anti-exclusion lobby.

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