Disability, Education, Young People / 2 Dec 2020

‘It Shocks Us As Teachers’: The Mass Exclusion Of Special Needs Pupils

By Edd Church, Journalist
State schools across the UK have seen a 71% increase in permanent exclusions over the last seven years. In Wales, where the rise has been steepest, more than two thirds of exclusions were given to pupils with special educational needs (SEN). England’s children’s commissioner has warned of a potential exclusions “spike” as SEN pupils struggle with returning to school amid the pandemic. EachOther speaks to a family once trapped in a cycle of exclusions, to teachers concerned about gaps in their training, and to experts and policy-makers working to turn the tide.

Among the surge of SEN pupils to have faced exclusion is Thomas*, from south Wales. Over the past five years, the 16-year-old was permanently excluded from three different schools. His mum, Rhian Williams,* told EachOther this experience left him “floored”.

Thomas has severe Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – a condition which causes inattentiveness and impulsiveness – but was not diagnosed until February 2019, due to long clinical waiting lists.

His behaviour became more challenging when he started secondary school in south Wales in 2015, Rhian said.

“It was constant disruptions – he started getting up and wandering around class every lesson. When he had to complete a piece of work, he’d literally do it for a minute and then he’d get so agitated and angry he’d scribble it up. Knowing what I know now it was [because] he physically couldn’t focus himself.”

Initially, Thomas would be sent out of the classroom, put in detention, or in isolation after scribbling up his work. Later he would face temporary and, eventually, permanent exclusions as he grew more impulsive.

Following his eventual ADHD diagnosis, Thomas was prescribed medication and his behaviour improved rapidly. Nevertheless, the experience of being excluded from schools multiple times during the intervening years took a toll on both him and his mum.

“The system is an absolute nightmare. If you’re just a run of the mill parent, it’s so hard to navigate,” Rhian said. “Aside from that, it was Thomas’ mental health. The second exclusion absolutely destroyed him, and he never recovered.”

We will return to their story later.


Sad student speaks to a teacher. Credit: Pressmaster / Motion Array

The Teachers 

“Teachers are taught to teach”. Ordinarily that might sound like an obvious description of how schools work – but coming from Welsh exclusions expert and ex-specialist headteacher Dr April-May Kitchener, it’s a damning criticism of the way teachers are trained.

Exclusions are rising in UK state schools every year, by 71% between the 2012/13 and 2018/19 academic years, and Wales’ are rising faster than any other UK country. 

Between 2017/18 and 2018/19 alone, the numbers in Wales jumped by 41.4% from 174 to 246.

These increases exceed the rise in student numbers. 

Around 68% of the exclusions in Wales were given to children with special education needs (SEN).

Teachers are taught to teach, not to manage behaviour.

Dr April-May Kitchener

Dr Kitchener, founder of non-profit Siarad Da, said children with disabilities like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) slip through the school system’s nets by being excluded for behaviours they cannot control, or not having their condition spotted. 

With permanent exclusions in Welsh schools rising, and the high proportion of SEN students being kicked out, Dr Kitchener argues better training for teachers and school leadership is overdue. 

SEN children can feel isolated in a classroom, says Dr Kitchener. Image: Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash

“All professions have targets to meet, but teachers are taught to teach, not to behaviour manage. When a teacher is being assessed for her training, her bedside manner is not what will fail or pass her.  

“It’s shocking to us as teachers. I desperately want to make a change in that. 

“The teachers themselves are asking, begging for it. They say please, please, please we want to have training in behaviour management.”

One such teacher is AJ Miller, 24, who like many teachers finished a three-year undergraduate degree in biological sciences followed by a one-year teacher training course. 

Miller began teaching at the Broadway Academy in Perry Barr, Birmingham, around a year and a half ago. 

His Postgraduate Diploma in Education, from the University of Birmingham, covered all the basics of how to manage a classroom. But the training focused on breadth rather than depth, he said. 

“You do modules on teaching theory, how to plan a lesson, how to engage students. Bits on behaviour strategies – how to get the kids back on track. 

“It more taught you how to get them back on track in the lesson. Nothing to really manage the behaviour. Just to circumvent or mitigate it.”

He laid out some strategies which secondary school teachers are taught: “If you have a kid constantly talking, you place them in a corner at the front so they have an 80-degree angle where they can’t talk.  

“You put them next to kids who are of similar ability levels. All of this is very useful, but that was essentially it: how to talk and how to seat them.”

Miller teaches science to children of all secondary school ages and abilities and said these strategies help. Though, very little time was given to specifically teaching SEN students. 

When asked if he felt prepared to deal with a child displaying signs of severe behavioural difficulties, Miller said: “No, not at all. I feel secure in the knowledge I would know what to do in the moment.

“But I couldn’t tell you the exact protocol to get them on the right track, or any specific strategies for someone with, say, undiagnosed ADHD because that wasn’t something we were taught.”

There’s a gap in training, there’s definitely a gap.

Angharad Kitchener-Hanley

Experienced teachers agree with Miller, including Angharad Kitchener-Hanley, who worked at Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) in Swansea before becoming a teacher 10 years ago. She teaches science at Tonyrefail Community School in the Rhondda Cynon Taff Valleys, having previously worked at an academy school in Bristol.  

“There’s a gap in training, there’s definitely a gap,” she said, adding that placements could be used better to educate new teachers on how to handle students with additional learning needs.  

Asked how aware the average teacher is about how to avoid a student being excluded, and the process as a whole, she said: “Definitely not as much as we could be. 

“When a student is permanently excluded, their options are quite limited. Unless the next step provision is well managed and well-funded, an exclusion is almost like a sentence of some sort.

“I know that for the staff I work with, it is their goal to avoid permanent exclusion wherever possible.

“If you’re not a teacher, people sometimes think the schools aim to remove the student – but we know when a child leaves due to exclusion their options are extremely limited. You fight to stop them reaching that endpoint.”

Kitchener-Hanley thinks, in an ideal world, all teachers should spend time working in a PRU at some point in their training years – but doubts that would be possible in practice. 


She added: “While teacher training affords you some insight into behaviours, it’s almost like learning how to drive. You can’t learn how to drive from a manual.”

“You can be taught how to deal with students, recognise behaviours, recognise triggers and how to de-escalate. But if you haven’t had that experience, it’s tricky. 

“For nurse training: you experience all sides of it. If you want to be a paediatric nurse, you don’t just walk straight in to work with children. You have to work in A&E, geriatric wards, etc.

“You can’t be a fully rounded teacher unless you’ve experienced all manner of children and all manner of needs.”

You can have the child going from one classroom where they feel supported to a classroom where they feel abandoned.

Upset schoolboy leaning on lockers while standing in classroom. Credit: Pressmaster / Motion Array

You can have the child going from one classroom where they feel supported to a classroom where they feel abandoned.

Instead of in-depth SEN training, Miller’s course taught him most students with special needs should have their own teaching assistant.

However, this relies on every student with a behavioural disorder or disability being diagnosed.

“This is a very big assumption to make,” Miller said.

“I know for sure I have a couple of kids who are on the autism spectrum and need extra help. But because their parents can’t or won’t take them to be diagnosed, SEN departments can’t do much.”

Miller said rising exclusions, particularly among students with behavioural difficulties and disabilities, is worsened by teachers’ lack of training. 

He added the problem is complex, and partly due to school behavioural policies which can build to an exclusion based on lots of minor infractions. Without a diagnosis, Miller said, a child can just drift up the chain without intervention. 

“I can support the kid as much as possible. But in the end, exclusion policies will be at work regardless of what I do.  

“Some teachers are very understanding of a disability, others won’t bother to read the paperwork, won’t read briefs, don’t engage with the fact something may be needed to engage this kid. 

“You can have the child going from one classroom where they feel supported to a classroom where they feel abandoned. They form negative relationships with members of staff and it builds and builds.”

The system is totally screwed, but there’s always one [teacher] who’s gone above and beyond. Our schools just do not support kids with additional needs well enough.

A mother and son stand by the sea front. Credit: Unsplash

The system is totally screwed, but there’s always one [teacher] who’s gone above and beyond. Our schools just do not support kids with additional needs well enough.

A mum and son navigate a ‘nightmare system’

Thomas’ first brush with being sent to a PRU came only 18 months after starting at secondary school in 2015.

Rhian recalled the events leading up to Thomas’ first exclusion: “I was having constant phone calls about Thomas crumpling his paper up again.”

Then, while Thomas was on a rugby tour, some friends had been caught by the police ramming trolleys into a local supermarket.

His head of year had Thomas’ friends sign statements stating if he was there and warned them not to associate with him.

“I was in work and Thomas phoned me, hysterical crying his eyes out,” Rhian said. “I left work and went into school and said what you’re doing now is causing emotional distress and I’m withdrawing him from school until this is sorted.”

Thomas was, by now, on the school’s special educational needs register for emotional behavioural needs.

The last straw at this first school came not long afterwards.

“One day, in class, he picked up a pencil off the teacher’s desk to use and began fidgeting with it.”

Fidgeting like this is a sign of ADHD, Rhian explained.

“Thomas snapped it, and the kid who’s pencil it was got sent out the room by the teacher because he was upset.”

The teacher sent Thomas out to apologise.

“They’ve put a child on the special needs register for emotional behavioural needs, and yet they’ve sent him outside to apologise and comfort an emotionally distressed kid. He turned around and full-on smacked Thomas in the face,” she recounted.

“And the school? They phoned me and said they were investigating Thomas for bullying. I went absolutely mental.”

The school called to arrange a meeting with exclusions officer from their local authority, who deals with extreme cases, three days later.

“I work in health, so I had clinics and patients – I could not get time at this short notice.”

The meeting went ahead, and a day later Thomas was temporarily excluded for two days.

During his exclusion, Thomas came across the same child who had punched him, and he allegedly pushed Thomas off his bike.

“Thomas had enough,” Rhian said. “He put the bike down and punched this kid one.”

Thomas was permanently excluded, and sent to a Pupil Referral Unit, where staff were astounded that he had not been diagnosed with ADHD.

Shortly after, he started at his second mainstream school. Thomas, now 13, started to become more impulsive – but was still on the waiting list for professional help.

“He was jumping out of windows and moving cars, smashing things in the house. The exclusion sent him off the rails.”

Meanwhile, Thomas was hanging on at school by a shoestring.

“They were doing everything they could to keep him there,” Rhian said, praising Thomas’ head of year at the time for his patience.

“He had very sensory needs and never wanted to wear the school jumper, for example.”

Whenever he struggled with work, he would scribble on it and go to sleep in class, and he began self-medicating with cannabis to calm himself down.


Young man worried about his problem and talking about it with the woman comforting him. Credit: AnnaStills/Motion Array

At 14, Thomas broke every window in the house: “I rang [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs)] and told them I couldn’t take it anymore. A consultant took one look at him and diagnosed him.”

Finally, in February 2019, mid-way through Year 10, Thomas was diagnosed with ADHD and put on medication.

The change was overnight.

He stopped ripping up his work, concentrated in class, and was no longer getting in trouble at school every day.

Equipped with a diagnosis, under the Equality Act 2010 the school made reasonable adjustments including a separate room for exams and breaks midway through assessments.

Thomas, with his severe ADHD, finally had the resources he needed to succeed at school.


“The phone calls from school went from complaints about uniform and behaviour to news that Thomas was doing great.

“Then,” Rhian said, “Out of the blue, I was told he had been permanently excluded.”

Thomas had been making a bottle opener out of steel for his engineering class when he cut through it, exposing a sharp edge. He took it to the corner of the room and kept filing away at it until a technician confiscated it.

Rhian got a call saying her son had made a knife in class. “Thomas was absolutely devastated,” she said.

A lengthy appeals process saw the exclusion overturned when the family discovered school governors had met in a café to discuss the case, breaching confidentiality.

“Even though the second exclusion didn’t go through, Thomas couldn’t go back there. He had no respect for them anymore.”

Thomas received some good news that summer: he had passed his Year 10 science GCSEs and got a D in English Literature – far higher than he had expected.

But this victory was short-lived.

He started at his third school in September 2019 – but lost lessons, and a turbulent private life prior to his diagnosis, meant Thomas had missed out on a huge amount of content in Year 10.

The school wanted to hold him back a year unless he made it to every single lesson – an impossibility for Thomas, who despite his medication was still not free of the symptoms of his ADHD. Thomas’ school persisted, and made him redo the year.

Predictably, this pushed him even further away and his anxiety worsened.

“He was not going to school, and he was like: ‘something bad is going to happen, I’m just gonna get kicked out again. I can’t do this. I’m not going back a year.’”

One morning Thomas arrived for a maths lesson when the head teacher asked to search him. He declined, and the head threatened to exclude him – so he agreed. But it was too late, and Thomas was permanently excluded for a third time.

Rhian said: “I asked him: ‘What is it about school?’ He said: ‘Mum, it physically hurts my body. I can’t sit there all day every day. It causes me pain.’

“I promised him he’ll get his GCSEs one way or another. He’s always wanted them. He wanted to work, but he just couldn’t manage.”

Rhian and Thomas decided it was time to withdraw from the mainstream school system and they entered education other than at school (Eotas), which saw Thomas given tuition from a qualified teacher at home.

His grades shot up, and, now 16, Thomas looks forward to starting an electrical engineering course at college. He no longer gets in trouble with the police and has no criminal record.

Looking back, Rhian praised the work of individual teachers: “In his second school it was his year tutor. He really hung on to him until he was on medication. Thomas might have been excluded much earlier, but he really hung on.

“The system is totally screwed, but there’s always one who’s gone above and beyond. Our schools just do not support kids with additional needs well enough.”

EachOther contacted the three secondary schools Thomas attended for comment.

Cardiff, Wales' capital. Credit: Pexels

UK exclusions: Breaking down the data

The number of permanent exclusions in UK state schools is on the rise, according to the most recent government statistics.

UK-wide, the number rose by around 1% from 8,094 in 2017/18 to 8,173 in 2018/19.

England’s rate of exclusion remains around one for every 1,000 students, but the overall number decreased from 7,905 to 7,894 between the 2017/18 and 2018/19 year – the first recorded drop since at least 2012.

Northern Ireland’s exclusion rate has remained fairly consistent across the 2013/14 to 2018/19 period.

Scotland has reduced its number of permanent exclusions from 21 in 2012/13 all the way to only three in the 2018/19 academic year.

The biggest annual percentage increase came in Wales, where it increased by 41% from 174 in 2017-18 to 246 last year.

For Welsh state secondary schools in particular, permanent exclusions have been on the rise since 2013 – as has the rate of exclusion per 1,000 students, which more than doubled between 2013/14 and 2018/19 from 0.4 to 1.3.

This means that, between September 2018 and June 2019, more than one student in 1,000 was permanently kicked out of school.

Short-term exclusions are also trending upwards: across Welsh secondary schools, 75 pupils per 1,000 were handed an exclusion of five or fewer days in 2018/19, up from 69.6 the previous year.

Experts approached by EachOther – including Dr Kitchener, Caerphilly-based therapist Abu-Bakr Madden Al-Shabazz and the head teacher of an alternative school in south Wales (who wished to not be named) – are unsurprised at these stats.

All three emphasised the damage an exclusion – particularly a permanent one – has on a child’s education.

“In a state system, you often can’t manage bad behaviour because there are so many people,” the unnamed head teacher said.

“Students can be excluded because of their behaviour, but if you actually look at what’s causing it, the problem is much easier to manage. But it’s easier to shift the problem rather than address it.”

She echoed the sentiments of Kitchener-Hanley and Miller, saying many teachers only take one year of training before beginning as a trainee, meaning they receive very little education on how to engage with students with special educational needs (SEN).

The result, she said, is a higher exclusion rate.

The numbers seem to agree: 68% of permanent exclusions in 2018/19 were handed to students known to the school as requiring special educational needs. Taking into account pupils with undiagnosed conditions – the real number is likely even higher.

According to the UK ADHD Partnership, which researches behavioural disorders and the British school system – this is not a Wales-only problem and occurs throughout Britain.

What path lies ahead

Dr Kitchener and Al-Shabazz both referred to the results-focused nature of UK schools in their explanation of rising exclusions.

“This fixation on league tables is a huge issue,” Al-Shabazz said. “Emotional and psychological development is pushed to the side, ignored, or not even looked at.”

“A lot of teachers focus too much on test scores and do very little to develop the emotional and psychological wellbeing of their students. It needs to be part of the pedagogy. It cannot just be subjects.”

Image: Abu-Bakr Madden Al-Shabazz

Al-Shabazz works with children in Caerphilly’s pupil referral units (PRUs), many of whom have been permanently or temporarily excluded from school.

Part of his job is to assess boys before they are placed in a PRU exclusion unit, where they are educated outside of a mainstream school setting. This is called Eotas (education other than at school).

He added that diversity in teachers is another contributing factor. “When I spoke to the excluded kids from a therapeutic perspective – they’re not getting enough male teachers,” he said.

Al-Shabazz pointed to the gender balance in Welsh schools, where women outnumber men in all teaching positions.

In state-run secondary schools, 61.7% of teachers are women, and in primary schools only 19% of teachers are men.

Al-Shabazz said this is important because school-age boys without a father in the picture lack positive interaction with adult male figures. This, he said, makes them more prone to expulsion.

“Many of them come from broken homes, you know,” Al-Shabazz added. “They don’t see any positive male role models – most of their role models are from game consoles, Xbox and things.

“They are usually fictitious role models, unfortunately. Or they are personality-based: celebrities and such. What they’re lacking is that close proximity relationship.

“There’s not enough positive male energy in their lives. Especially in the age of 13 upwards.”

The lack of men wanting to be teachers, according to Al-Shabazz, can mean teenage male behaviour is seen as threatening and exclusions are overused.

Al-Shabazz further said, for black children, racist misinterpretations of behaviour is an even bigger problem. “Black boys from an early age are considered more threatening to white femininity.

“This is training which white women have had since the 1600s during enslavement. When we show aggression, at the same point where a white child would, they will see it from the black child as more aggressive.

“The white child will be ‘frustrated’. Same action, different interpretation.”

In consultation with the Welsh Government since 2007, Al-Shabazz has been investigating academic performance in Wales’ black communities.

One solution to this part of the exclusion problem, he said, is to hire more black men as teachers.

Al-Shabazz said the rising number of exclusions is worrying, but any number of children being excluded is a scandal.

“It destroys their self-esteem even if they don’t like school.”

Professor Sally Holland, Children’s Commissioner for Wales, also referred to the risk that exclusions pose to children reaching their potential.

“They should be well nurtured and supported in schools that promote and uphold their human rights, including their right to be the best they can be,” she said.

The Children’s Commissioner’s job is to make sure the rights of children in Wales are protected.

“It’s important, too, to remember that being excluded from school can also exclude a child from aspects of their community life and friendship groups and can have a profound impact on their lives now and in the future.”

Prof Holland said, based on her experience as Children’s Commissioner, children pay a heavy price for exclusion.

“When children are excluded from mainstream school, it’s extremely important that they’re given the support they need to return to a suitable education as soon as possible,” she added.

Dr Kitchener, pointing out Wales’ performance compared to other UK nations, praised Scotland’s approach. “What is it they’re doing? Maintaining ownership of the child, and schools are prepared to move students rather than exclude them,” she said.

In Scotland, where only three students were permanently excluded in 2018/19, many children with very challenging behaviour are kept on their original school’s register – but still moved to alternative education.

This is said to be positive as it means a school keeps responsibility for the child, preventing unnecessary exclusions for the sake of meeting league table targets.

“Schools in Wales, for example, are under enormous pressure to meet certain performance indicators. That is still there, the government may be talking about it but we’re not going to see any change in the numbers yet.

“But, in Scotland, instead of giving up on a child, they recognise a student may just not be in a mental position to absorb the curriculum in a normal classroom setting,” she said.

For Dr Kitchener, SEN and behaviour management training for teachers is an important part of the solution.

“I’d love to see a university do a pilot teacher training where they change the curriculum where at least 25% of the course centres around challenging behaviour, adjusting approach to SEN students, and understanding behavioural disorders and SEN,” she said.

“It’s not about teaching individual students one-on-one, because that’s not possible in the classroom. It’s about being able to reach a diverse population of students.”

Dawn Bowden, MS for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. Credit: Welsh Parliament.

Dawn Bowden, member of the Welsh Government Education Committee and Member of the Senedd for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, is part of a Wales-wide inquiry into Eotas.

The inquiry will check the quality of education children receive in Eotas, look into a rise in children being placed into it, and investigate the supposed tie between Eotas and involvement in crime.

She said one of the main concerns the committee has is the increase in children accessing Eotas.

“Because of results, there may be an inclination for schools to move children off the roll prematurely.”

One solution Ms Bowden is keen for is widening the curriculum for PRUs, which in many cases focuses only on essential subjects.

“If we get to a point where it is important a child is educated in this way, they need the widest access to curriculum as possible otherwise they’ll be disadvantaged further,” she said.

As well as this, Dr Halima Begum, director of race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, told MPs in October exclusions should be paused until the coronavirus pandemic is over, and highlighted the problems black schoolboys in particular face.

Given just how devastating exclusions can be, moving away from our traditional ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ children is necessary to prevent more futures being ruined.

With Scotland’s trailblazing approach to exclusions showing results, and the rest of the UK starting to reassess the usefulness of school exclusions – the future seems bright.

With luck, the Welsh Government’s Eotas inquiry, and England and Northern Ireland’s continued efforts to better fund SEN provision, will help stem the tide of children being excluded.


Excluded: EachOther’s forthcoming documentary

On 10 December 2020, Human Rights Day, EachOther will release ‘Excluded’, a documentary with a difference focussing exclusively on young people’s perspectives on school exclusions.

Young people have the right to education (The Human Rights Act, Article 2, Protocol 1). They also have a right to express themselves on issues that concern them, be listened to and taken seriously (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12).


About The Author

Edd Church Journalist

Edd is a journalist currently working for Cornwall Live as a trainee reporter. He studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism and writes on topics such as education and social justice.

Edd is a journalist currently working for Cornwall Live as a trainee reporter. He studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism and writes on topics such as education and social justice.

Featured news

In Conversation: School Exclusions Are A Human Rights Issue
2 min read
Panel Discussion
How School Exclusion Happens: A Youth Worker's Perspective
10 min read