It is a fact that too many children are being written off as failures, with tragic consequences. Permanent exclusions have risen by 40% in the past three years, and analysis carried out by Barnardo’s found that one in three local authorities in England has nowhere for excluded children to go, leaving them socially excluded and at serious risk of being groomed and exploited by criminal gangs. This is simply not acceptable. Urgent action is required to help schools reduce the number of children who are excluded. It is therefore imperative that those schools have the necessary resources to support pupils at risk of exclusion, especially those with more complex social needs.
We know that the most vulnerable children in society are more likely to be permanently excluded. Indeed, analysis found that 78% of permanent exclusions were issued to children who had special educational needs or who were eligible for free school meals. It is also worth noting that Traveller children of Irish heritage have the highest rate of permanent exclusion, followed by Gypsy and Roma children. However, as this House has noted in recent debates, school budgets are £1.7 billion lower in real terms than they were just five years ago. As a result of the shortfall, special needs provision in England has lost out on some £1.2 billion since 2015. Does the Minister share my concern, and that of others, that the current level of funding is so desperately inadequate that many schools have had to cut back on support staff who provide key support and early intervention for children with challenging behaviour? Here I am thinking of teacher assistants.
Exclusions must be used only as a last resort; on that I think we are all agreed. However, as Mr Timpson emphasised, “exclusion from school” should never be allowed to become “exclusion from education”—and yet sadly that is what has been happening over the past few years. It is clear that the Government must do more to improve the availability and quality of alternative provision, to ensure that every child, particularly the most vulnerable, gets the education they need to achieve a positive future. However, the latest wave of free schools included just two specialising in alternative provision. Does the Minister recognise that restrictions on new schools imposed by this Government have seriously constrained the ability local authorities have to address the lack of services in some areas without allowing other schools to be built?
I would also like to touch on the shameful practice of off-rolling, which the Statement dealt with, where schools try to remove pupils who cause problems or who might lower exam league table performance. Pupils moved in this way miss out on the support they would receive via the formal exclusion process, and are hidden from scrutiny and due process. Schools must be made accountable, not only for permanently excluded pupils but for those who leave their rolls in other ways and circumstances. Will the Minister advise the House what action the Government are taking to address this phenomenon? The Statement makes plain that this is accepted as an issue, and we must ensure that no child is left behind.
To conclude, although the Opposition broadly agree with the recommendations of the review, we remain concerned at what is not included. The Government’s response to the report makes no mention of the impact of cuts to schools, nor have they outlined a credible plan for how improved outcomes for pupils in alternative provision will be achieved. This falls far short of where we believe we should be going on this issue.