SCHOOLS in Oxfordshire have attempted to exclude vulnerable children during the coronavirus lockdown, with concerns there may be an increase once schools fully reopen.

Oxfordshire County Council has been working to reduce exclusions in schools since an investigation began two years ago.

The council believes that there could be a rise in exclusions due to children’s relationships with school staff being 'fractured' during the lockdown, and the impact on mental health.

Permanent exclusions were stopped from March 23, however a small minority of schools still sought to exclude vulnerable children after that date.

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The council’s education scrutiny committee met yesterday to address the problem.

John Howson, deputy chairman of the committee, said: “Officers worked with schools to see the underlying problems and intervened in such a way that exclusions didn’t take place.

“We don’t know what the mental health of children will be like, especially for those in Year 9, which is the group that has the most exclusions, and how they will react to going back after potentially six months away.

“Council officers have got a plan for vulnerable children that might be at risk of exclusion whilst in school.

“Covid-19 has thrown up all sorts of problems, from which we don’t know what the effect might be on schools.

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“All but one secondary school in Oxfordshire are academies and the academies have been working together for Oxfordshire.

“Officers, teachers, school leaders and governors have worked very hard to create good outcomes as best as they could.”

Mr Howson also confirmed that new data for exclusions will be released next month.

Exclusions on a permanent basis in the county have been growing in recent years, particularly from secondary schools, with the reason for a reduction in 2017-18 yet to be established as a dip or a trend.

In Oxfordshire, SEN (Special Educational Needs) pupils are seven times more likely to be excluded from school, whilst those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds are also more likely to face exclusion.

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Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, ‘challenge conversations’ were booked with leaders from schools with high exclusion numbers, however these have been suspended due to Covid-19.

Meanwhile, new anti-bullying resources and guidance has been made available to schools by the county.

Thames Valley Police has also been working with secondary schools to avoid the exclusion of children at risk of criminal activity.

In the last few years, both permanent and fixed period exclusions have been increasing across the country to 4.29 per cent for fixed term exclusions.

Until 2014-15, the rate in Oxfordshire was lower than that nationally, however it then increased to be in line with the national figures, most noticeably in primary schools.

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For the years 2016-17, there were 310 fixed term exclusions from primary schools, with 1,430 from secondary schools.

For the same period, 42 pupils were excluded at least once from the county’s special schools.

The county council has targeted zero exclusions for ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’ and aims to reduce the number of permanent exclusions of SEN pupils.

To achieve this, a penalty may be introduced for schools who permanently exclude pupils, while an understanding of pupils at risk of exclusion is to be developed, as is a curriculum to focus on wellbeing for pupils.

Excluding pupils is seen as a last resort, and not an ‘effective behaviour management technique’.

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Guidance from the Department for Education published in 2017 states that the Government supports exclusion as a sanction where it is warranted.

However permanent exclusion should only be used as a last resort, in response to a serious breach or persistent breaches of a school’s behaviour policy, and where allowing a pupil to remain in school would harm the education or welfare of the pupil or others in the school.

The guidance adds that the decision to exclude a pupil must be lawful, reasonable and fair.

Last week, the University of Oxford’s Department of Education reported that school exclusions may be higher after Covid-19.

Ian Thompson, associate professor of education, said: “The social and emotional disruption caused by the pandemic and the subsequent school closures is highly likely to have increased or exacerbated student anxiety and other mental health issues.”

Professor Harry Daniels added: “All children will have experienced some adverse effects from the Covid-19 pandemic, but for some these will be traumatic and long lasting and this may impact negatively on whether and how they return to school, and the likelihood of formal, informal and self-exclusion.”