Support not punishment – 6 ways the DfE’s guidance on school exclusions and behaviour can be improved to support the needs of all children

29 Apr 2022

In March 2022, the Department for Education (DfE) published its long-awaited revised statutory guidance on school exclusions and guidance on behaviour in schools for consultation to address many changes recommended by the Timpson review in 2018. At Just for Kids Law, we find that the children we work with are often unfairly treated and disproportionately affected by school exclusions and behaviour policies. These policies often focus on managing behaviour rather than supporting children that display behaviours that challenge.

Here, we outline six ways the DfE’s guidance can be improved to ensure that all children are being appropriately supported in school and their rights respected.

1. Acknowledge that children from Black & ethnic backgrounds face exclusions at a much higher rate

School exclusions don’t affect all children equally. Government statistics show that Black Caribbean children are more than twice as likely to be excluded than their peers. While there is an acknowledgement in the guidance that certain groups of children are more likely to be excluded from school, the guidance fails to specify who those groups are or acknowledge the impact that race and discrimination has on school exclusion. This omission calls into question the Government’s commitment to addressing the discrimination in school exclusions.

We want to see greater recognition in the guidance that children from Black & ethnic backgrounds face exclusions at a much higher rate and greater detail on how the Government aims to support schools to address this issue.  

2. Provide schools with the right tools to support children with Special Educational Needs & Disabilities (SEND)

The behaviour guidance makes greater reference to SEND than the previous edition as well as for how schools can make reasonable adjustments for children with SEND. However, our experience and official statistics show children with SEND are still disproportionately excluded from school, which suggests that more must be done to ensure the school environment caters to their needs. Currently, the guidance places too much emphasis on upholding high standards of behaviour, for example through a new minimum standard of behaviour rather than supporting pupils.

Focusing on upholding high standards often disregards the need for reasonable adjustments that consider the ways behaviour arising from SEND might manifest. The guidance should provide schools with the tools to ensure that children with SEND are adequately supported to be a part of the school community, including encouraging better implementation of reasonable adjustments.

3. Support schools to better understand Child Criminal Exploitation

We see in our work that children are often excluded because of circumstances beyond their control, including children who are victims of child criminal exploitation (CCE) whose behaviour is directly connected to that exploitation. Children can also become more vulnerable to exploiters once they are excluded. A clear link has been proven between exclusion from school and entry into the youth justice system - more than eight out of 10 children in custody have been excluded. Schools must be made fully aware of this and have mechanisms in place to identify CCE and support children.

The behaviour guidance makes one reference to CCE as a contributing factor to misbehaviour, but fails to mention CCE in more detail, its warning signs, and the effect this may have on a child’s behaviour. Headteachers and governing boards must consider whether a child is a victim of CCE before they are excluded, so the guidance should outline how schools can identify CCE and when behaviour might be linked to exploitation.

4. Make the school exclusions process more robust

Currently, the Independent Review Panel (IRP) that reviews school exclusions do not have the power to direct the school to reinstate a pupil following a hearing; they can only recommend reinstatement. However, in 2019/20 only 20% of pupils were offered reinstatement following a recommendation from an IRP. This consultation was a missed opportunity to provide greater clarity on the role of the IRP and increase their powers. A process that places the decision to reinstate the pupil in the hands of those who made the initial decision to exclude is not a process that is procedurally fair or in the best interest of the child. If exclusions are seen as a last resort due to its severity as a form of punishment, then there should be a robust process for challenging them.

5. Support children instead of using removal and isolation rooms

We’re very concerned that the use of isolation rooms, now renamed ‘removal’ in the draft guidance still remains as an option for teachers. Removals are detrimental to the mental and emotional health of children. It damages their education and breaches their human rights. In our work, we often see children are removed from classrooms for an unreasonable amount of time, are not given adequate work to do while in removal, are treated unfairly, and are not properly reintegrated back into the classroom.

To properly safeguard children, the DfE should work alongside schools to end the use of removals as a punishment. Instead, they should set out details for alternative means of responding to behaviour that challenges in the classroom that prioritises de-escalation while ensuring that children know they are valued and wanted and not problems that need to be ‘removed’ or ‘isolated’.

6. Listen to pupils 

The children we work with through our School Exclusion Campaign and our legal work express how they often do not feel involved in the decisions made about them. To have a school system that operates in the best interest of the child, it is crucial to prioritise their voice and put children at the heart of each decision.

As part of its consultation, the DfE met with a group of our school exclusion campaigners who were able to share their experiences and views on exclusion and behaviour. We welcomed the involvement of our campaigners throughout this process. However, moving forward as the Government finalise the guidance, they should make it a priority to meet with a range of different children, including young children in primary schools, to ensure that the guidance is reflective of the views of children who face the effects of disciplinary and behaviour policies in schools.

As one of our campaigners said:

In order to have any positive change in schools, pupils need to be involved.

In the final version of the guidance, the Government should also make it a key action for schools to have to involve children in the development of their behaviour policies.

We urge the DfE to address our concerns if we want schools to be a place where children and young people can thrive and their rights are respected. Our full response to both the school exclusion and behaviour guidance consultation can be found below.


Written by Ayomide Sotubo, School Exclusions & Youth Justice Policy Officer