Here, we look at what an exclusion is and the exclusion process.  We also talk about when and why a head teacher can exclude and informal exclusions.

What is an exclusion?

Exclusion is the most extreme option that is available to a head teacher when responding to unacceptable behaviour. It involves a pupil being kept away from the school for either a fixed period or permanently.

An exclusion must be made on disciplinary grounds and can only be made by:

  • the head teacher of a maintained school
  • the teacher in charge of a pupil referral unit (PRU)
  • a person acting in either of the above roles. 

A pupil may be excluded for one or more fixed periods (up to a maximum of 45 school days in a single academic year), or permanently (the child is removed from the school roll). 

A fixed period exclusion doesn’t have to be for a continuous period. This might apply where the child attends off-site provision for part of the week, or where a child has been excluded for lunchtimes only.

When and why can a head teacher exclude a pupil?

The head teacher’s decision to exclude a pupil can be for: 

  • persistent breaches of the school’s behaviour policy, when other strategies or sanctions have been exhausted or deemed inappropriate in the circumstances
  • a more serious one-off incident.   

Schools vary in the types of behaviour that they feel warrant an exclusion. However, in general, incidents will fall into one of the following categories:

  • physical assault against a pupil or adult
  • verbal abuse/threatening behaviour against a pupil or adult
  • bullying
  • racist abuse
  • sexual misconduct
  • drug and alcohol related
  • damage
  • theft
  • persistent disruptive behaviour. 

The behaviour of pupils outside school can be a reason for exclusion. This includes online activity such as inappropriate use of emails, images or other material on social media. 

Schools are required by law to have a behaviour policy. Parents who are sceptical about a decision to exclude their child should check that school are complying with it. They should also be aware of equality legislation and that schools have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to policies for autistic pupils. This means that a school can be flexible with their behaviour policy if it is thought that the child’s behaviour is linked to being autistic. You can read about reasonable adjustments in the disability discrimination in schools page.

Informal exclusion

Some schools ask parents to take a pupil home or to keep the pupil at home, without officially excluding them.

Parents may have 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 and parents losing their right to make representations in writing to the governors or in person at a meeting to consider the decision.

‘Informal’ or ‘unofficial’ exclusions, such as sending pupils home ‘to cool off’, are unlawful, even if the parents have agreed to it. Any exclusion of a pupil, even for short periods of time, must be formally recorded and follow the correct procedure. Exclusion for an indefinite period of time is also unlawful.

The exclusion process

Here is the process for a fixed period exclusion:

  1. Head teacher makes the decision to exclude a pupil.
  2. Head teacher writes to parents.
  3. Parents can write to the chair of governors.
  4. Governing Body responds to parents’ email/letter and,  in some cases, will arrange a meeting to consider the headteacher’s decision to exclude.
  5. Parents make a claim against disability discrimination to the First Tier Tribunal: SEND 

Head teachers' decision

Before deciding whether to exclude a pupil, the head teacher should make sure that an appropriate investigation has been carried out. They must:

  • consider all the evidence available, taking into account the school's behaviour policy and, if applicable, the Equality Act 2010.
  • where practical talk to the pupil to hear their version of events
  • talk to other witnesses to the incident
  • check whether the incident may have been provoked, for example by bullying or by racial or sexual harassment, or whether there were any other contributing factors such as bereavement, or mental health issues
  • if necessary consult others, but not anyone who may later have a role in reviewing the head teacher’s decision, such as a member of the governors’ discipline committee.  

Head teachers should take account of triggers that could impact on autistic pupils’ behaviour. 

These might include:

Any of these might lead to a build-up of frustration, stress and anxiety that could result in a meltdown.

A recent ruling makes clear for the first time that all schools must make sure they have made appropriate reasonable adjustments for autistic children, or those with other disabilities, before they can resort to exclusion.

A loophole in the Equality Act meant schools didn’t have to make reasonable adjustments for disabled children when they had a 'tendency to physical abuse' - even when that behaviour was caused by a lack of appropriate support. However, this loophole no longer applies which means that children cannot be excluded for behaviour that is linked to being autistic, if no steps had been taken to put the right support in place.

Therefore, allowances should be made for autistic pupils’ behaviour and schools will need to ensure that reasonable adjustments (positive steps, changes in practice, policies and strategies) are in place to make sure that pupils are able to fully participate in the education and other aspects of school life

An exclusion is unlikely to be justified in circumstances in which the school has not complied with its duty to make reasonable adjustments for that pupil.

The Equality Act 2010 also requires schools to make reasonable adjustments for pupils with disabilities both to the exclusions process and to the disciplinary sanctions imposed. This might mean applying alternatives to exclusion so that an autistic pupil is not at a substantial disadvantage in relation to other pupils.

Head teacher writes to parents

Once a head teacher has made the decision to exclude a pupil, they should write to parents notifying them of:

  • the reason for the exclusion
  • the length of the exclusion
  • the right to make representations to the governing body and how the pupil may be involved
  • if the governing body is required to meet, then the right of parents to attend the meeting, be represented and bring a friend
  • details of any alternative provision if this is being arranged
  • the responsibility of parents to ensure that, during the first five days of an exclusion, their child  isn’t present in a public place during school hours.

Parents write to chair of governors

Parents can write to the chair of governors if they want to state their case following a fixed period exclusion.

They may wish to challenge their child’s exclusion and to have their child’s school record state that it wasn’t justified. A parent might challenge the exclusion on the following grounds: 

  • their child didn't do what they were accused of
  • there were factors affecting their child’s exclusion that weren’t taken into account
  • exclusion was a disproportionate punishment
  • the school didn’t follow the correct procedures
  • the exclusion amounts to disability discrimination.

Governing body considers the head teacher’s decision to exclude

The governing body has a duty to take into account the reasons why parents’ believe the exclusion is unjustified, but it does not have to arrange a meeting to consider the head teacher’s decision to exclude. This depends upon a number of factors, including the total number of days the pupil has been excluded in one term.

  • 1 to 5 days exclusion (in one term)
    The governing body must consider any written representations made by parents, but it can't direct reinstatement and is not required to arrange a meeting with parents.
  • 5 ½ to 15 days exclusion (in one term)
    If the parents have requested a meeting, the governors must convene a meeting to consider reinstatement within 50 days of receiving notice of the exclusion. If the parents have not requested a meeting, the governing body is not required to consider the exclusion.
  • 15 ½ days to 45 days exclusion (in one term)
    The governing body must convene a meeting to consider reinstatement within 15 days of receiving notice of the exclusion. 
  • Exclusion will result in missing an exam.
    If a pupil’s exclusion means they will miss a public exam such as GCSE or a national curriculum test, parents should contact the school straightaway to find out what the arrangements are.

The governing body must convene a meeting to consider reinstatement within 15 days of receiving notice of the exclusion, taking reasonable steps to meet before the date of the exam. If it is not practicable for a sufficient number of governors to consider the decision before the examination or test, the chair of governors, in the case of a maintained school, may consider the exclusion alone. In the case of an academy, the exclusion may be considered by a smaller sub-committee.

The meeting of the governing body to consider the head teacher's decision to exclude

In the meeting, the governors must consider:

  • the circumstances of the exclusion
  • the views of the parents and their child (if they have participated in the meeting)
  • the interests of other pupils and people working at the school. 

They will look at the facts in light of the civil standard of proof: ‘on the balance of probabilities’ is it more likely than not that the pupil did what he/she is accused of? 

They also need to consider whether the head teacher’s decision was lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair. The governors may be in a sub-committee that may be called the governors’ discipline committee (GDC), with at least three members. 

Following the meeting, the governors must inform parents of their decision, either to uphold the headteacher’s decision (decline to resinstate), or to decide that it was unjustified (direct reinstatement). In the case of reinstatement, the governors would add a note to the pupil’s school record.

In Annex A of the DFE Guidance on Exclusion there is a useful flow chart: A summary of the governing board’s duties to review the head teacher’s exclusion decision.

Parents make a claim against disability discrimination

Autistic children are three times more likely to be excluded than pupils with no special educational needs. Parents believing that factors relating to autism, whether their child is formally diagnosed or not, or who believe that a school’s failure to make reasonable adjustments exacerbated a situation, have the right to make a claim against disability discrimination to the First-tier Tribunal for Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND).

For parents appealing an exclusion on the grounds of disability discrimination, please read our Navigating exclusion appeals to the First-tier (SEND) tribunal guide.

Parents should  believe that the following applies: 

  • their child should be considered disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, section 6
  • the exclusion was related to their child's disability
  • the exclusion wasn’t justified and there were other actions the school could have taken
  • the school could have made reasonable adjustments to prevent the situation that led to the exclusion. 

Parents who wish to make a claim should gather evidence to support their case. They must lodge a claim within six months of the exclusion.

The tribunal will take a fresh look at the disability aspects of a fixed period exclusion. It’s not just a review of the governing body’s decision. There is no fee for making a claim to the tribunal. However, there is a cost for legal representation, unless you are entitled to legal aid

Alternatively, a representative could be a friend or someone from a help organisation.

Claims relating to fixed period exclusion typically take four to five months, depending on their nature and complexity.

Alternatives to exclusion

Different educational provision

Schools are allowed to arrange alternative educational provision for a pupil at a different site, including at pupil referral units (PRUs). This can be used to prevent exclusions, or to re-engage students in their education.

When these placements work well, young people have a programme of activities allowing them to gain confidence, skills and qualifications. They then build on these when they are back in mainstream education.

Managed move

Sometimes parents and schools agree that a new start in a different school would benefit a child who is at risk of exclusion. The transfer can then be arranged between the two schools.

This is known as a ‘managed move’ and is usually on a trial basis at first. However, schools shouldn’t use the threat of exclusion to persuade parents to take their child out of school.

Parents do not have to agree to a managed move if they do not want to.

Returning to school

Schools should have a strategy for reintegrating pupils who return to school following a fixed period exclusion, including how to manage their future behaviour.

Some schools will hold a reintegration meeting for parents and their child to discuss this, but they aren’t obliged to. The meeting can also be a chance for parents to air their views and concerns, particularly if they were not entitled to a meeting with the governing body to consider the head teacher’s decision to exclude.

The guide Successful reintegration of autistic pupils following school exclusion can provide a positive starting point in discussion with the school about your child's reintegration. 

Avoiding future exclusions

School should try everything possible to keep a pupil with special educational needs in education. They may do this by:

Parents may like to share the guide Steps to avoid the exclusion of autistic pupils, with their child’s school.

Further help from our charity

Further help for parents trying to prevent or challenge exclusion is available from our School Exclusion Service.

Recommended reading

Your guide to getting justice for all unlawfully excluded children (PDF). Ambitious about Autism (2017)

Exclusion from maintained schools, academies and pupil referral units in England. Department for Education (2017)

Last reviewed: 31 January 2019