A study by charity Chance UK has revealed concerning insights into the long-term impacts of children being excluded or suspended in primary school, amid reports of rising exclusion rates across schools in England. 

The latest government data for the autumn term 2022-23, shows increases in permanent exclusions and suspensions within the UK, with persistent disruptive behaviour cited as a reason in 55% of all suspensions and 49% of all permanent exclusions.

At primary school level, there are concerning links between exclusions and SEND children, according to the findings of the Chance UK report, ‘Too Young to Leave Behind‘, which indicates that almost all pupils excluded at that age had a special education need or disability.

The study tracked a range of year groups across their school lives, featuring data from 3.2 million pupils in England. The findings showed that 97% of those excluded at primary school had a special educational need or disability, while also revealing that the majority of children excluded at this stage of their education (90%) do not pass their English and Maths GCSEs.

More than 22,000 children aged 6 years and under were excluded or suspended in primary schools in England in 2022. The latest data shows that suspension rates for primary school children are now at the highest level since 2006.

Chance UK, a London-based charity that supports children who have faced trauma in their childhood and struggle with behavioural and emotional difficulties, said the number of children being excluded from schools in England is at an almost 20 year high. The message of the charity is that early intervention works, with 80% of children mentored by Chance UK having improved their school attendance and a far higher number having improved behaviour at school and home. 

Post-Covid, there has been a major increase in the number of students in the UK who are absent from school, with children reporting higher levels of mental ill health than ever before. More than 140,000 pupils in the UK are absent from school more than 50% of the time — more than double the number from before the pandemic.

Chance UK’s chief executive Vanessa Longley said: “When you have a five year old excluded 17 times in a year then something clearly isn’t working… These are our most vulnerable children in the classroom who are often waiting months and years for a specialist diagnosis.”

Sir Michael Wilshaw, former head of Ofsted, has blamed the significant rise in the number of young children being excluded from school partly on the weakening of local authorities since academies and free schools were introduced.

Talking to the BBC for the Today programme, Sir Michael said: “It is entirely unacceptable that small children of five and six years of age who just come out of reception are excluded permanently and suspended from school.”

“Local authorities, who are responsible for monitoring in schools including academies and free schools, are not intervening as much as they should. Their power has been weakened over the years. They often have to face very powerful and highly paid chief executives of Multi Academy Trusts and are nervous about doing that.”

Academies and free schools now have more autonomy over finances, curriculum, staffing, and management structures compared to local authority-maintained schools, and with greater financial independence, they can allocate resources based on their own priorities.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, believes schools need far more support.

“Schools work hard to help children secure support when they face challenges in their lives which can impact their behaviour, wellbeing, and academic attainment, but they cannot resolve these complex issues alone.”

He believes the most significant issue schools face is government underfunding of vital services like social care, and children’s mental health support for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

“We need to see far more government investment in essential support services so that children get early help before problems spiral and become harder to solve.”

This includes access to mental health and other general health services and support.

The Big Ambition, a national survey which engaged nearly 367,000 children and young people found that 68% of children with SEND (and adults responding on their behalf), agreed with the statement that they can access good healthcare, compared to 84% for children without SEND.

According to the survey, by the Children’s Commissioners office, just one in five children in England believe their views are important to the adults who run the country, while only 10% of teenagers believe they have the power to influence the issues they care about.

The findings show this generation of children are engaged with the world around them, yet ultimately feel disempowered because their experiences are rarely reflected in policy making.

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Research shows strong links between exclusion and truancy and poor mental health, which perpetuates a vicious cycle.

To tackle this, school-based Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programmes, as well as sports-based programmes, could have a key role to play. These have shown to be successful in reducing both behavioural and emotional problems.

London’s Violence Reduction Unit is spending £4 million on a new programme that will better identify children with special educational needs and give them earlier support with communication skills.

Funding for the scheme is being rolled out across seven London boroughs.

New Violence Reduction Unit programme aims to prevent school exclusions

Benefits of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programmes include:

  • Skill development: SEL programs focus on teaching students a range of social and emotional skills, such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
  • Emotional regulation: By teaching students how to recognize and manage their emotions effectively, SEL programs can help reduce emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, and stress.
  • Positive behaviour: SEL programs promote positive behaviors such as empathy, cooperation, and conflict resolution, which can lead to a decrease in behavioral problems like aggression, bullying, and defiance.
  • Improved relationships: Developing social skills and empathy can enhance students’ relationships with peers and teachers, creating a more supportive and inclusive school environment

The benefits of sports-based programmes:

  • Physical activity: Regular participation in sports and physical activity has been linked to improved mental health and well-being, including reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Teamwork and leadership: Sports programs often emphasize teamwork, cooperation, and leadership skills, which can contribute to positive social development and reduce behavioral problems.
  • Stress reduction: Physical activity can help reduce stress and promote relaxation, leading to better emotional regulation and fewer emotional problems.
  • Sense of belonging: Involvement in sports teams can provide students with a sense of belonging and connectedness to their peers and school community, which can buffer against emotional difficulties.

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