The education secretary has spoken out against the practice of "off-rolling", which sees schools exclude children with special educational needs through the back door – often in order to improve their league table position.
Damian Hinds made the intervention after hearing what he said were “many stories” of schools using informal exclusions to get rid of pupils with educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and prevent them from applying for places through “pre-emptive exclusions”.
“I want to be clear right now - this is not OK. SEND pupils are not someone else’s problem. Every school is a school for pupils with SEND, and every teacher is a teacher of SEND pupils,” he said.
There has been a “movement” of children with special needs out of mainstream schools – with some entering specialist or alternative provision, and others being home schooled, Mr Hinds added.
The minister told a conference in Manchester: “All schools and colleges – alongside central and local government – have a level of responsibility here, it cannot just be left to a few.”
Off-rolling has become an issue of growing concern for schools watchdog Ofsted amid claims that schools are playing the system and getting rid of students who might bring down their GCSE results.
A report last month found that thousands of children in England are missing from official education statistics after being removed from schools before they sit their GCSEs.
In the study, researchers called for school league tables to be weighted to take into account the amount of time a child had spent at each school to reduce the practice – but it is unclear at this stage what action the Department for Education will take to crackdown on the practice of off-rolling.
But Mr Hinds said in his speech to directors of children’s services that he wanted to work with Ofsted to ensure schools were rewarded for working with vulnerable pupils who need more support.
The minister will also ask Ofsted to carry out more inspections to gauge how well local areas fulfil their duties to SEND.
“SEND is a huge priority for my department – and we’ll be saying more about all of this in the coming months,” the education secretary said.
The government has launched a review into permanent exclusions - after the numbers have risen by 44 per cent since 2012/13 - which will investigate why SEND children are more likely to be excluded.
But some parents are already taking the matter into their own hands and are legally challenging the schools’ right to exclude pupils over behaviour linked to their disability.
A Derbyshire family of a 13-year-old boy with autism is hoping to overturn a rule that allows children to lose protection from discrimination under equality laws because their challenging behaviour is said to be ‘a tendency to physically abuse’ - even if it is a direct result of the disability.
If the case - which was heard by the Upper Tribunal this week - is successful, the numbers of children with special educational needs who are excluded for poor behaviour could reduce, lawyers say.
Meanwhile, families in Hackney have this week been granted permission to challenge the council’s plans to reduce its SEND budget in the High Court as they argue their children, who have an array of special educational needs, are not receiving the essential support they require.
Council leaders and education unions have been calling on the government to urgently boost funding to ensure they can place pupils with special needs and provide the right support.
Addressing the wide gap in outcomes for children with SEND and their peers in his speech, Mr Hinds said he recognised that councils and schools were “feeling the pressure when it comes to budgets.”
“While we had record investment in the education for children with complex SEND at £6bn this year, it’s clear that budgets are under pressure. And, frankly, this is difficult - I can’t say today that I have all the answers. But I am listening to your concerns,” he said.
Mr Hinds added that the growing trend of moving children out of mainstream schools – and into specialist provision – has placed an “extra pressure” on council’s high needs budgets.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), told The Independent that the minister deserved credit for acknowledging the issue. But he said: “Frankly, we need the prime minister and the chancellor to do so too.
“The government must put its money where its mouth is and provide the funding that schools and colleges need for all their students.”
Mr Barton agreed that it was right to condemn off-rolling and pre-emptive exclusions. “Such practices are completely unacceptable and they are deplored by the vast majority of school leaders," he told The Independent.
“We think this sort of behaviour is rare, but there is anecdotal evidence of it taking place, and we have established an ethical leadership commission to support leaders and teachers in calling out unethical practice.”
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