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Children’s Commissioner’s major Inquiry reveals first evidence of illegal school exclusions

19 March 2012

Today Dr Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England publishes findings from her School Exclusions Inquiry in her report, "They Never Give Up On You".  It finds most schools work hard to cater for troubled students.  However, for the first time on record, schools have admitted illegally excluding children.


The School Exclusions Inquiry report follows eight months of work gathering far reaching evidence from the Government, key partners in education, pupils and visiting schools across England.


The Inquiry found good practice in many parts of England, as well as areas for concern and improvement.


Dr Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England said:

"For the first time schools are on record saying they had illegally excluded pupils. Due to the informal nature of such exclusions it is difficult to know how widespread this practice is but it is worth further examination.  Our Inquiry, which took evidence from a wide range of education partners and young people, found both good practice and serious causes for concern.


Our report recognises that exclusion may in rare cases be a necessary last resort.  It should happen only if a child is a danger to his or herself or others, or when learning is so disrupted that only exclusion is possible.  But all exclusions must be within the law.  They must be seen to be fair, and proven to be effective in solving the problems they are meant to address."


The School Exclusions Inquiry was the first to be undertaken by a Children's Commissioner for England, under her Children Act 2004 powers. The Inquiry was supported by a panel of experts and examined a number of areas including:

  • the decision making process up to the point of exclusion and whether schools and other public bodies are meeting their duties under equality legislation, and
  • whether the system is consistent with children's rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.


Three key themes - legal versus illegal behaviour, fairness and effectiveness - emerged from Dr Atkinson's Inquiry.  The final report contains recommendations for Government, teachers and education professionals.



Illegal Behaviour-

  • We found clear evidence of illegal exclusions. These ranged from Year 11 students being sent home at Christmas and told not to come back until their exams in June, to "informal" exclusions when someone is told verbally, with no correspondence with parents, to go home for a few days, or not to come back before the school has interviewed their parents. This informal "sending home", not recorded and done "by the back door" is illegal.


  • A barrister specialising in education law has alleged that some Academies are illegally stopping students from appealing against exclusions, because their funding contracts are between the school and government, and do not include rights for the child or family.


Fairness and transparency-

  • Government statistics about exclusions show that four key factors in a child's life make it more likely a child will be excluded: their gender, having special educational needs (SEN), their ethnicity, and when they live in poverty. When all four factors are combined, these figures show that a Black boy from an African Caribbean background, who has SEN and is also from a low income household, is 168 times more likely to be permanently excluded from the same school than a White female classmate, who does not have SEN and comes from a more affluent household. The figures have been known for many years, and it is past time for concerted action to close the gaps.


  • Pupils and parents should be able to appeal against unfair exclusions, and have a binding judgement given if a school has acted unfairly. Until recently, this right existed. The Education Act 2011 removes it. We agree with the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) that the changes in this Act are unlikely to be compliant with Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. We recommend that the changes to the law should be reversed.


  • Consistency in how schools behave when a child is excluded is important. We recommend the Department for Education issues clear and transparent guidance for the exclusion thresholds that schools use to decide on what to do when dealing with a child at risk of exclusion.


  • Students should only be excluded if they are harming themselves or others, or if they are preventing others from learning. They should not be excluded for minor breaches of school rules. This does not mean that students should be allowed to break school rules. It means that a clearly understood, consistently applied sliding scale of punishment should be used, as most schools have told us, and as we cover in the good practice examples in the report. This is not as simple as "keep them, or exclude them." Good practice shows schools working with other organisations, partner schools, children and families themselves, to deal with children's problems in a range of ways, with exclusion used as an absolute last resort.


  • Many young people and their parents do not know their rights, and so do not know when a school is acting unreasonably, or in extreme cases, illegally. More should be done to improve their knowledge of the exclusions policy and procedures.



  • We found schools of all types - from Academies to local authority and faith schools - all over the country, working together and with many other agencies to manage students' behaviour. They gave us evidence that proved they had drastically improved the educational and life chances of their communities' children and young people. Heads reflected that repeated fixed term exclusion of the same child on a "revolving door" basis, does not solve anything, for either the school or the child.
  • Our report looks at best practice in inclusion and the management of children at risk of exclusion, and at effective ways of dealing with difficult behaviour to support all children to reach their full potential. The report includes reflections by professionals and parents, and also by children and young people themselves.


Dr Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England said:

"Although overall exclusion rates have fallen for several years, and it's clear schools are working hard to keep children in learning so they can achieve what they should, certain groups, such as students with special educational needs and from some ethnic groups, continue to be over represented. This cannot be right.  We need to act to address the issue.


"We know that permanent exclusions have a negative effect on a child's life for far longer than the period immediately after exclusion. For whatever reasons, many of them explored in this report, as a society we have not challenged the failures in the system and brought about the changes which are urgently needed.  We publish this report today to support the good practice already going on.  But it also a challenge to policymakers, parents, school and sector leaders, to practise what the best schools are already doing."


The Children's Commissioner's School Exclusions Inquiry report "They Never Give Up On You" is being launched in Parliament on Monday 19th March and is hosted by Charlotte Leslie MP, member of the Education Select Committee and Baroness Estelle Morris, former Secretary of State.



Notes to Editors:

1.      The School Exclusions Inquiry report- "They Never Give Up On You" is available on the OCC website: Full report and Executive Summary 

2.      This is the first Inquiry conducted by the Office of the Children's Commissioner under the Children Act 2004 powers. A consultation period was held from 13th July 2011 to 5th October 2011. This was followed by oral evidence sessions with key stakeholders in the field as well as visits to a range of schools across England.

3.      The report's title comes from comments made by a young person who had been at risk of exclusion, whose school and other agencies had worked together to help keep the learner in the school, learning purposefully.

4.      Subsection (8) of the Children Act 2004 gives the Commissioner a range of powers to assist him or her in carrying out an inquiry under this section. By virtue of the application of subsections (2) and (3) of section 250 of the Local Government Act 1972 the Commissioner will, when conducting an inquiry in England, be able to summons people to attend to give evidence or to produce documents and to administer oaths and take evidence on oath and it will be an offence to disobey a summons by for example refusing to give evidence or by tampering with documentary evidence:

5.      The Children's Commissioner was supported in the Inquiry by five panel members who were selected for their particular experience and expertise in this field.


The Inquiry panel members are:


  • Janet Mokades- Schools Adjudicator
  • Robin Richardson, Educationalist and former director of the Runnymede Trust
  • Ian St Rose, Service Manager of Leeds Reach
  • Roy Blatchford, Director of the National Education Trust
  • Simon Woolley, Commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission

6.      The Children's Commissioner for England was established under The Children Act 2004 to be the independent voice of children and young people and to champion their interests and bring their concerns and views to the national arena. The Commissioner's work must take regard of children's rights (the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) and seek to improve the wellbeing of children and young people.  Articles relevant to the Inquiry include:


Article 2:       All rights apply to all children, whatever their circumstance

Article 3:       The best interests of the child must be a top priority in all actions concerning children

Article 4:       Governments have a responsibility to protect the rights of children

Article 12:     Every child has the right to say what they think in all matters affecting them, and to have their views taken seriously

Article 23:     Children with a disability have the right to special care and support.

Article 28:     "Every child has the right to an education... Discipline in schools must respect children's human dignity".

Article 29:     "Children's education should develop each child's personality, talents and abilities to the fullest".