Too many five-year-olds are being excluded from primary school, former Ofsted boss warns

 (Alex Lentati)
(Alex Lentati)

A former head of Ofsted today branded it “unacceptable” that children as young as five are being permanently excluded from school.

Sir Michael Wilshaw blamed a sharp rise in the number of young children being excluded from school partly on the weakening of local authorities since academies and free schools were introduced.

He claimed local authorities are “nervous” about intervening and facing “very powerful and highly paid” chief executives of multi academy trusts.

It comes as data from the charity Chance UK found that the majority of children who are excluded in primary school do not pass their English and Maths GCSEs later in life.

Sir Michael, who was the head of Ofsted from 2012 until 2016, said the number of primary schoolchildren permanently excluded from school doubled after academies and free schools were introduced from 2010.

Latest data shows more than 22,000 children aged six years and under were excluded or suspended in 2022 in England.

Asked if the system of exclusions is failing, Sir Michael told BBC’s Today programme: “Yes it is. It is entirely unacceptable that small children of five and six years of age who just come out of reception are excluded permanently and suspended from school.”

He added: “Local authorities, who are responsible for monitoring in schools including academiesand free schools, are not intervening as much as they should. Their power has been weakened over the years. They often have to face very powerful and highly paid chief executives of Multi Academy Trusts and are nervous about doing that.”

He said the rise in exclusions is a symptom of the change in structure of schools, adding “Someone has to monitor what’s happening and check what’s happening and intervene quickly when schools and trusts are excluding children too quickly.”

Chance UK, which supports children with behavioural and emotional difficulties, said the number of children being excluded from schools in England is at an almost 20 year high. Almost all of those excluded have a special educational need or disability and more than 90 per cent excluded from primary school then go on to fail GCSE English and maths.

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union, said he “fully agrees” with Sir Michael’s comments. He wrote on X: “Academisation has shifted power away from local communities.”

Chance UK’s chief executive Vanessa Longley said: “When you have a five year old excluded 17 times in a year then something clearly isn’t working.

“These are our most vulnerable children in the classroom who are often waiting months and years for a specialist diagnosis.”

She added: “Exclusions don’t work, they just pass the problem on. What we are calling for is ringfenced money for early intervention so those children who are most struggling get the support when they need it early, to prevent this happening.”

But Tom Bennett, the government’s behaviour adviser, said: "Exclusions are done in the most extreme circumstances for example when a child is violent towards a teacher or abused another student or persistently disrupted lessons.

"You can't teach a lesson if someone is throwing chairs at you. Exclusions are incredibly rare; the average primary school excludes one child every 17 years."

Writing about the issue on X, he added: “In other news: kids who tell their teachers to f*** off all the time ‘tend not to do as well as they could.’

“Eye-watering stupid activism from this organisation.”

He added: “So many of these stories rely on one-sided self-reported accounts of the students who disrupt lessons or terrorise their peers. What about the victims of this behaviour?”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Schools work hard to help children secure support when they face challenges in their lives which can impact their behaviour, wellbeing, and academic attainment - but they cannot resolve these complex issues alone.

“Suspensions and exclusions are used only as a last resort in order ensure the safety of all pupils and staff, and exam grades can obviously be influenced by a range of complex issues and are rarely a result one factor alone.”

He added: “The most significant issue schools face is that government underfunding of vital services like social care, children’s mental health and support for children with special educational needs and disabilities mean that when they seek help for children and families it is now incredibly difficult to access or, in many cases, simply unavailable.

“We need to see far more government investment in essential support services so that children get early help before problems spiral and become harder to solve."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "For pupils at risk of exclusion, we've set out a new model for alternative provision schools to work with mainstream schools and provide targeted support early on, helping improve behaviour, attendance and reduce the risk of exclusions."