The government has been forced into an embarrassing climbdown on school exclusions just weeks after introducing new guidelines to headteachers aimed at toughening up discipline in schools.
Lawyers, who defend pupils appealing against permanent exclusions, argued that more children would be expelled from school under the new guidance, which came into force at the beginning of the year. They threatened legal action against the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, claiming the changes were introduced without consultation or warning.
On Monday the schools reform minister, Nick Gibb, was forced to withdraw the revised guidance following the complaints. The Department for Education (DfE) said updated guidance would be issued in due course.
The decision was welcomed by Just for Kids Law, which represents children in exclusion appeals, but the organisation warned the new guidelines may already have adversely affected some pupils.
The families of nine children who have been permanently excluded since the guidance took effect on 5 January have been in touch with the organisation, and the fear is that many more may be affected nationwide.
“We call on the DfE to clarify as a matter of urgency what happens to children in this situation, so their education is not disrupted any more than necessary,” a spokeswoman for the families said.
Under the previous 2012 guidance, headteachers were warned that permanent exclusion should be a matter of last resort, but this was omitted from the revised guidance. And while the 2012 version said a child should only be permanently excluded if allowing them to remain would seriously harm the education or welfare of others, the revised 2015 document lowered this threshold from seriously harmful to detrimental.
About 3,900 children were permanently excluded from secondary schools in England in 2012/13, the most recent year for which figures are available. The number of expulsions has been falling over the past decade but there is concern among those working with excluded children and their families about the disproportionate impact on ethnic minority children and those with special educational needs (SEN).
Rachel Knowles, education solicitor for Just for Kids Law, said: “We are pleased and relieved that the government has now withdrawn these changes, which would have been highly damaging to many vulnerable young people.”
Just for Kids Law was supported in its challenge by the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN), a charity that supports parents whose children have been excluded from school. Welcoming the government U-turn, a CEN spokesman said: “Given the level of disproportionality in the exclusions system with certain ethnic minority groups and SEN pupils being more likely to be excluded from school, there can be no legitimate reason for revised guidance being published without consultation.
“From our experience of working at the grassroots on these matters those pupils who have been excluded or who are risk of exclusion need help, not hindrance.”
The DfE said: “Parents tell us that school discipline is one of their main concerns and it is crucial that headteachers are able to exclude disruptive pupils so that others do not lose out on their education.
“Continuing to improve behaviour in schools is a key policy objective of the government. As part of that policy, we are considering our guidance on exclusion to ensure headteachers have the support and confidence to maintain discipline in their schools.
“The schools reform minister, Nick Gibb, has removed the current guidance to address some issues with process and we will be issuing updated guidance in due course.
“We are unapologetic in our stance that giving teachers the powers to properly discipline disruptive pupils and exclude the worst behaved pupils benefits all by deterring poor behaviour and ensuring young people spend their time in school learning.
“Our plan for education has transformed discipline in schools – 30,000 fewer pupils are being bullied today than a decade ago, fewer pupils are skipping lessons than ever before, and more teachers tell us that behaviour in their schools is good.”
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