There are some ‘grey areas’ of exclusion and some unofficial, exclusion practices that take place in schools.
Informal or internal exclusion can make it hard for parents to fight for the rights of their child. In some cases, this may even be unlawful.
What are the 'grey areas' of exclusion?
The grey areas of exclusion include:
The legislation that governs the exclusion of pupils is set out in the Department for Education (DfE) guidance on exclusions. It clarifies the legal responsibilities for those involved. However, some schools deviate from this guidance and bend the rules.
Why do schools bend the rules?
Schools are becoming increasingly competitive, needing to attract parents and pupils. Most schools aim to receive an 'Outstanding' judgment from Ofsted. Faced with a violent and angry meltdown from an autistic pupil, head teachers are faced with the decision of whether or not to exclude.
Head teachers may fear the prospect of an Ofsted inspection finding that behaviour is impacting on the achievement of pupils. However, they may also consider that high levels of exclusion indicate underlying weaknesses in the school.
Head teachers need to be aware that they should not discriminate against pupils with disabilities. Schools are required to report exclusions. As a consequence, some schools use covert methods of excluding pupils in order to conceal this important information.
These methods are rarely in the best interests of the child and can have a lasting impact on their progress and wellbeing.
Occasionally, a school may ask parents to take a pupil home "to cool off", or to keep the pupil at home without officially excluding them. This gives parents the impression that the school is being compassionate by not adding an exclusion to the pupil's school record.
However, this practice can result in pupils losing out on their education. It can also lead to parents losing their rights to make representations in writing to the governors, or attending a meeting to consider the head teacher's decision to exclude.
Any exclusion of a pupil, even for short periods of time, must be formally recorded and follow the correct procedure. Informal exclusions (including those lasting for an indefinite period) are unlawful, regardless of whether or not parents have agreed to them.
The School Exclusions Inquiry by the Children's Commissioner described unlawful exclusions as a "source of shame to the education system", and suggested that the practice of unlawful exclusions in schools should lead to an "inadequate" Ofsted grading. However, the NAS School Exclusions Service is still receiving reports from parents of children on the autism spectrum who are being informally excluded.
Internal exclusions are used when the objective is to remove the pupil from class, but not from the school site, for disciplinary reasons. It may be a formal process, but it’s not legally an exclusion, so exclusions legislation and the DfE's guidance on exclusion don’t apply.
The primary function of internal exclusion is a sanction to accommodate pupils who have been removed from a lesson at very short notice for disruptive behaviour. If internal exclusion is one of the disciplinary measures used by a school, this should be reflected in the school's behaviour policy.
All children of compulsory school age should receive full-time education, in line with section 7 of the Education Act 1996.
Despite this, our exclusion service has received reports about schools which place autistic pupils on a reduced, part-time timetable. Some of these pupils have been in reception classes. The schools often justify this by saying that the child isn’t yet of compulsory school age and is not ready for school.
But it is often the school that is not ready for the child. The duty of schools to make reasonable adjustments is owed to disabled pupils generally, and therefore schools need to think in advance about what disabled pupils might require and what adjustments might need to be made for them.
Parents may be able to argue (under the Equality Act 2010) that their child has been denied what might be offered to their peers, for a reason related to his or her disability.
It is not just young children who are being placed on part-time timetables. We have also heard reports from parents of primary and secondary schools placing autistic pupils on a reduced, part-time timetable. These are not unlawful, but they should be used sparingly and in exceptional circumstances to meet the needs of an individual child and not because a school can’t cope or lacks resources. They are a short-term solution and should have clearly specified time limits.
When it comes to exclusion, a twilight zone still exists. To become more transparent in the way that they operate, schools need to become authentically inclusive, removing or overcoming barriers to allow every pupil to enjoy and experience all aspects of school life and creating a caring, understanding and accepting ethos to ensure that everyone is valued.” – Andy Cutting, National Autistic Society Exclusions Adviser
Sometimes parents and schools may agree that a fresh start in a different school would benefit a child who is at risk of exclusion. This is known as a "managed move". However, the DfE exclusions guidance states: "the threat of exclusion must never be used to influence parents to remove their child from the school."
School trips and after school clubs
Autistic pupils who have been have been deliberately excluded from a trip can find this very upsetting.
Exclusion can generate feelings of inferiority, injustice and anger. If schools work with autistic pupils and their parents, as well as talk to other schools, every student can benefit from a trip or activity.
If pupils are excluded from trips and clubs, intentionally or otherwise, parents may have rights to make a claim against disability discrimination.
Further help from our charity
NAS School Exclusions Service (England only)
Our Education Rights Service (UK-wide)
Last reviewed: 17 March 2017.