This guest blog is written by Samira Sadeghi, Head of Academies Governance at Academies Enterprise Trust.
Over the past year, we have started to rethink what ‘normal’ means, particularly in education. Reflecting back on many years advising schools on exclusions, I am struck by how ‘normal’ it was for exclusions to be completely haphazard, where decisions were more the product of happenstance (or emotion) than warrant. A child in one school might be permanently excluded for an incident that in another school would result in a 5-day exclusion. Governors at one school might readily ‘uphold’ a decision that at another school would leave governors aghast. This level of arbitrariness is unacceptable, especially given the undeniable impact exclusions have on a child’s education and future.
The statutory guidance is vague and open to interpretation. Exclusions can only be ‘in response to a serious breach or persistent breaches of the school’s behaviour policy’. What do we mean by ‘serious breach’? If persistent, what’s the tipping point and can it be explained? The decision to exclude is only appropriate ‘where allowing the pupil to remain in school would seriously harm the education or welfare of the pupil or others in the school.’ What does it mean to ‘seriously harm’?
Only by clearly answering these questions for themselves can schools remove arbitrariness and introduce standards, processes and non-negotiables to ensure that each exclusion decision fulfils the natural principles of justice. Headteachers and governors must first define their own principles, set them out in clear policies and ensure they are well-communicated and appropriately applied (with reasonable adjustments where necessary). Other processes should include:
First, a fair and appropriate decision: Schools should introduce a pre-exclusion checklist, based upon their principles, requiring headteachers to answer key questions about the pupil and incident. If properly designed, it will ensure close examination of every aspect of the case, including mitigating circumstances such as SEND, LAC, safeguarding, vulnerability and age, as well as the school’s responsibilities with regard to the behaviour policy, interventions and considering alternatives to exclusion to ensure it is used as a last resort. It will prod headteachers on the thoroughness of the investigation and the solidity of the evidence. Most importantly, it will prompt the headteacher to meet with the family before making the decision to exclude, as this often uncovers a whole host of mitigating circumstances previously unknown to the school.
Second, sense-checking the decision with others: While headteachers are solely responsible for the ultimate decision to exclude, they should consult with others. This might be members of their own staff who know the child and family best (HoYs and SENCos), leaders within their Trust or other headteachers. The aim is to remove emotion from the decision, introduce objectivity and perspective and ensure parity of decision-making.
Third, a well-evidenced decision: To ensure nothing is missed, schools should retain an exclusions process document detailing every step following a decision to exclude and assigning staff responsibility for each step. This should include all required communications, evidence gathering and a content and quality checklist for the evidence bundle to be submitted to governors.
Fourth, accessibility for parents/carers at every level: This starts with the headteacher’s meeting with the family, to explain the situation to them in person and include them in the process from the start. Exclusion template letters should be (as far as possible) written in such a way as to make them more readily understandable. EAL headers in key languages should be included to encourage parents to seek assistance if they cannot read English. Clerks should be advised to communicate thoughtfully with parents in advance of review meetings, ensuring they understand the process and will be able to represent themselves properly at the review meeting. Similarly, decision letters should be written in plain English rather than intimidating legalese.
Finally, a robust review by governors: In truth, if all processes leading up to the review are conducted properly, governors’ review itself takes on less significance. However, governors do act as a final ‘challenge’ and should be provided with a list of suggested questions to ensure all areas of enquiry are covered. They should receive the completed pre-exclusion checklist to assure themselves that the headteacher has considered all aspects before deciding to exclude. Governors should also receive a deliberations checklist, and if any question on the list does not receive an affirmative, governors should consider reinstatement. Governors should be clear that they are not there to ‘support’ the headteacher in their decision, and that by reinstating a pupil, they are instead supporting lawful processes and the maintenance of fairness.
Unfortunately, exclusions will likely remain a feature of ‘normal’ school life. It should be our collective mission, however, to remove arbitrariness from the process and ensure that the ‘new normal’ only includes fair, rational, reasonable and proportionate sanctions for our pupils.