I don’t say this lightly but….

Zero-tolerance and no excuses culture in schools is having a devastating effect on inclusion, reasonable adjustments, SEND and it is creating an exclusions epidemic, one I’ve never seen before.  The Department for Education and Local Authorities need to wake up.


Exclusions have gone up as much as 300%. There’s a surge, particularly in secondary schools. No excuses and zero-tolerance schools have become a new fashion in education and I worry that this is one of the reasons for a rise in statistics.  My fear is that these schools do not support students who have special educational needs and that this new fad incorrectly sees reasonable adjustments as making excuses.

The concept came from America and despite concerns there by campaigners such as Diane Ravitch, who argue it increases exclusions for marginalised groups, it is becoming popular in the UK with Regional Schools Commissioners and influential DfE spokespeople championing no excuses schools. I may be making a false correlation with the cause of exclusions but in my work, I talk to a lot of schools and educators and anecdotally, the stories seem to match up to these statistics. Neighbouring schools, to improve their results introduce zero-tolerance approaches, exclusions go up and the more inclusive schools down the road are receiving more children who don’t fit in with this new approach. There’s even government work looking at increasing alternative provision due to the rise.   Why are we not looking to prevent exclusions rather than accepting the staggering increase?  Looking for the root cause would be cheaper and far less damaging to many children rather than expensive sticking plasters.

IPPR figures suggest it costs £370,000 for each child excluded, imagine if mainstream schools were given just a fraction of this figure to improve support for children with SEND?   Prevention is the preferable option, especially for the child concerned but also for our bulging alternative provisions who can then concentrate on the lower numbers of children who do need to be educated outside the mainstream system.

Emma Hardy MP told me that rising exclusions from no excuses cultures in schools has also been raised at the education select committee.  There is no doubt that this country is experiencing an exclusion epidemic.  I believe this is partly being caused by no excuses and zero-tolerance policies in schools, add to this no money, fewer resources, low retention of teachers and a lack of specialist SEND knowledge and we have the perfect storm meaning exclusion rates will increase further for those children who need adjustments and cannot fit into a homogenised view of education.  These children lose their childhoods, identify with being ‘bad’ and become further disenfranchised.  The specialist work alternative provision provides is extraordinary, but it is not appropriate for children who should be having their needs met in mainstream schools.

The Children’s Commissioner report ‘They go the extra mile’ and ‘Someone else’s problemshows clearly that despite only being 14% of a school population, learners with SEND make up ¾ of the intake in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) and over half of school exclusions comprise children with SEND.  We are excluding children who need education the most and who have the fewest resources available to them.

We need to be sure that the needs of vulnerable students are being met and reasonable adjustments are put in place.  In any good behaviour policy, a staggered approach with individual behaviour plans or preferably, education plans should examine meeting that need.  Using a graduated approach as the SEND reforms suggest creating a spiral of support around the child which tightens when in crisis and expands slowly when needs are being met.  In the no excuses culture, this approach is non-existent, the system has no flex for SEND or complexities linked to disadvantage, creating a toxic mix for students who require adjustments.  Assuming schools who are not no excuses don’t have clear boundaries and consistent policies is part of the problem, all great schools do.   It is systems which make inclusion work but there must be flex and this is the reasonable adjustment.  The damage for those sent unnecessarily to alternative provision can be devastating and it’s perverse to spend more money building alternative provision in reaction to a lack of reasonable adjustments in mainstream schools.

Teacher to pupil ratios are important regarding supporting learners with needs as are resources and funding.  There is no money in mainstream schools now and those with SEND and complex lives suffer most from this.  But the answer should not be to exclude through a no excuses school culture.  A system which is failing means teachers and students are both victims.  If schools are using no excuses because there’s no money to support more complex children then that is terribly wrong, firstly because children permanently excluded cost £370000 and secondly because, unless a child requires alternative provision, the move can have a devastating effect.

The argument defending no excuses schools is that excellent behaviour means most students are not hijacked by the few who disrupt lessons. Who wouldn’t want this system? The students who don’t appear to flourish however have SEND, are the disadvantaged and often black Caribbean students (see full exclusion figures here). The chances of exclusion also affect Gypsy, Roma and travellers from Irish heritage although these figures have a cautionary note attached due to small numbers in the category.  Learners who get excluded are also likely to have literacy and language difficulties meaning that those who need education the most, those who have the fewest resources available to them are failing. This is a damning indictment of a society if we cannot protect and educate our most vulnerable.

Often when discussing exclusions, the cliched response is that critics of no excuses are defending children who sexually or physically assault staff or other students or children who bring knives into school.  This is not however the most common reason to exclude children.  From the DFE’s statistics, most exclusions are from year 9 and for ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’.  These are the children who may not need to be excluded, these children, predominantly boys, mainly with SEND or receiving free school meals and worryingly often boys who are black and from Caribbean origin.

No-one is making excuses for poor behaviour but when there’s an unmet need, reasonable adjustments need to be put in place. Furthermore, criticising no excuses does not mean those who support children with SEND have low expectations and lack ambition for them.  If anything, it’s the opposite, seeing students when difficulties have not been identified is the ultimate in low expectations, it’s a message to those children that we have given up on them and literally, for some who end up in the criminal justice system, have thrown away the key.

Critics will tell me I am ignoring the needs of the teachers. This is not the case, they are as much victims in this system as the excluded pupils. Enabling them to teach is, of course, vital but there is in government rhetoric recently, a traditional and zero-tolerance approach which ignores SEND and the marginalised.  In literacy policies, there is no dyslexia  only bad teaching, in OFSTED children don’t need scribes for their exams just better teaching and the DFE’s behaviour tzar Tom Bennett writes how much SEND is just cryptopathologies.  With this denial of learning difficulties is it any wonder no excuses schools are not meeting the needs of learners? The message from up high is they don’t exist, we shouldn’t differentiate and if schools would only use zero-tolerance policies all students’ behaviour will improve.  The answer for those who don’t? Exclusion is the way to deal with this to save most students having their lessons disrupted by the few.  The DFE’s response to these rising exclusions is to have an enquiry to build more alternative provision to house these children.  This is not the answer, this is creating a two-tier system and for those learners who already struggle in education, the government appears to want to hide them away so they are not a blot on the PISA landscape.

Read DYT’s submission to the DfE’s exclusions consultation and to the Education Committee’s inquiry on Alternative provision.