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Special educational needs and the risk of school exclusion

Children with special educational needs are more likely to be excluded than other students. Exclusions put children at risk. Without proper support, young people can find themselves falling victim to people who want to exploit them.


Our research

Our Disrupting Exploitation team work directly with children who have been criminally or sexually exploited. Their aim is to break the cycle of exploitation by helping change the systems and institutions that impact young people’s lives.     

Many of the children the team work with have been excluded from school at some point. Their research has highlighted exclusion as a risk factor in the criminal exploitation of young people. When children are not in school, they end up falling through the net.

At increased risk

Black girl in school uniform checks her phone in the early hours of the morning leant against a bus stop.

At increased risk

Children with special educational needs (SEN) are up to 5 times more likely to be excluded from school. With support, they are still more than twice as likely to be excluded than children without SEN. 

Our Disrupting Exploitation team spoke to a group of young people with special educational needs. They have now left mainstream education.


Exclusion figures

Five times

more likely to be excluded if they have no specialist support

Two times

more likely to be excluded, even with support

Communication is key

Communication is key

All children mature at different rates. But special educational needs have been linked to noticeable delays in the ability to communicate.

Communication is key to our understanding of behaviour. If a child struggles to communicate how they are feeling, they may lash out or otherwise appear to be misbehaving.

‘When I was back in mainstream school, I was stressing every single day. I had so much homework. Every second I’m getting detention, I had to be like a robot.’ 

'I didn't understand properly.'

I used to think teachers had something against me. I used to think teachers had something against me.

Struggling with expectations

Pupils are often expected to speak up if they are struggling. But those with additional needs can find this to be a barrier. 

‘No one offered support, we had to go to them. They never asked, “Do you have a problem, what’s going on?”’

If they sat down with me, I could have explained to them what I found difficult.

When things escalate

When things escalate

These small issues can escalate quickly. The typical response of schools is to defuse the situation by isolating students who have been misbehaving. This can have the opposite effect for those struggling to handle their emotions. 

‘Isolation gets you stressed out more. You’re in a little room, trapped, with so many people.’ 

Isolation and exclusion do more harm than good – damaging a child's learning and having negative impact on their mental health.

Close up of white sandy haired girl in a mauve hoody sat in a school playground staring directly at the camera.jpg

Listening and learning

Change is possible. Schools can make sure they are equipped to break the cycle. In their new report Youth Voice: SEND and School Exclusions, our team outline positive steps, taken directly from pupil's experiences at Alternative Provision schools, that every school can take.

Rewarding good behaviour

They actually want to support you. They actually want to support you.

Tools such as behaviour management charts focus on positive behaviour and flag behaviours that need to be changed, rewarding good behaviour. Young people are given the chance to reflect and see where they need to improve.

'It helped a lot because it made me look forward to what I wanted.'

Reward systems give children incentives and nurture progress. They help professionals build relationships with students and break the cycle of disruptive behaviour and punishment.

Working together

All young people deserve the chance to thrive. But it takes effort from the institutions that impact their lives.