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What do we know about Exclusions in the Early Years?

In this article, Caroline Vollans hears from voices in the sector about the exclusion of our youngest children. 

Unofficial exclusion is not uncommon in the EYFS.

Several years ago, when I was teaching in Year One a child arrived new to the country from Pakistan. It emerged that when the family had visited their local school (a good distance from ours) they said that he would ‘do better’ with us. The family were not told why. The child had, in effect, been excluded from admission.

I have also heard of occasions when families are told there is a place, but when the child’s needs become apparent the place is suddenly up for question or disappears. They are clearly not welcome. 

As well as this, there is the more overt form of exclusion when young children behave in a way that settings will not tolerate or are unable to support. Why is it that settings are not equipped to offer provision for such young children with additional support needs?

Exclusion in the EYFS, however it happens, is a critical issue that needs highlighting and addressing. 



Disproportional representation

i)                    Children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

It may come as no surprise that children with learning differences and disabilities are disproportionally represented when it comes to exclusion.

Mandy Wilding is Education officer at the National Association of Special Educational Needs (NASEN). Mandy comments, “As I’m sure you’re aware, there is a very high percentage of SEND representation in students who are excluded. Unfortunately, figures from the Department for Education do not show how much of this is in the EYFS, but we can infer that children with learning differences and disabilities are far more likely to be excluded. For example, in 2018/19 if you have a special educational need and/or disability but no Educational Health and Care Plan (ECHP), you were 5.3 times more likely to be permanently excluded.”

Mandy continues, “More recent data shows that if a child has a special educational need and/or disability and a ECHP they are 78% more likely to receive a fixed term exclusion”.

In all, we can say that it is clear that there is an overrepresentation of children with SEND who are being excluded.

ii)                  Children from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Children from ethnic minority backgrounds are over-represented when it comes to exclusion. Alison Kriel was an Executive Headteacher and is now a Conscious Leadership Consultant. She points out, “Some schools will identify the challenges before the child is accepted on role and will give reasons why the child should not go there. Culturally, many Black families have been brought up to accept the authority of the school and will simply move on. Parents who are not fluent in English will move on without challenge.”  

Alison continues,

“A white child with a diagnosis of Autism or ADHD applies for a place in an Early Years setting. A place is available along with a Special Needs Framework with guidance on how to put support in place. Additional funding is available. The school knows what it needs to do to support the neurodivergent child. Allowances are made for their behaviour. 

“A Black child presenting with the same behaviours applies for a place. There is no diagnosis: there is at least a 3 year gap in diagnosis between white and black children which impacts on the way in which their behaviour is perceived. The child’s behaviour is seen as naughty, aggressive, defiant or due to poor parenting. Rather than being welcomed as a neurodivergent child, the child is perceived as the behaviour they are presenting.”

Alison points out three of the factors involved in the above:

       misdiagnosis: behaviour is interpreted more negatively in children from Black backgrounds

       failure to understand the needs of children from ethnic minority backgrounds: this means that the process for getting an EHCP is much slower for them

       deeply engrained prejudices, some unconscious

The need for anti-racist training for staff is pressing if we are to make any progress with equity regarding admissions. Alison points out, “Many people still expect Black children to behave badly. It’s hard to move away from stereotypes which have been fed to us throughout our lives.” 


Children ‘moved on’ due to their additional support needs

Case study (i)

Becky Dolamore is Headteacher of Rachel Keeling Nursery School in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Becky says, “We have accepted one or two children who have needed lots of support and where previous settings have not been able to offer this. In both cases, this was due to lack of resources - both staffing and expertise. This has resulted in children arriving at our school with limited experiences as they have been on reduced timetables in their previous setting or parents have been asked to remain with their child for their sessions. This not only impacts the child's development, but also parental wellbeing.”  

Becky adds, “Certain schools may have a ‘good reputation’ of working with particular types of needs and this can result in them being overwhelmed with applications. Being the school of choice for children with additional needs without any additional support or funding is a tricky position to be in.” She concludes, “We need greater understanding, support and investment across all early years settings to ensure inclusive practice is accessible to all children and families”. 


Case Study (ii)

Catherine McLeod MBE is CEO of Dingley’s Promise, a charitable organisation supporting Under 5s and their families with additional support needs. Catherine spoke about the difficult start at nursery for a family with two autistic girls. Their mother, Jan, described what happened.

"My daughters were diagnosed with autism. We were accepted at the specialist nursery but couldn't start for a year because COVID hit - I wasn't a key worker, so we had a whole year at home. When things started to go back to normal, we got extra funding (the inclusion funding) for the girls, which was brilliant. 

I was promised all these extra things, including 1:2 ratio for my girls. I was given sessions for both girls across two days, which was brilliant. I then asked for an extra day so that I could go to work, and I was told I couldn't have this because they didn't have the staff. However, we came to an agreement where they would have one of the girls for an extra session on Fridays - we alternated them so that I could have some one-to-one time with each of them.

After about a month I was told that I could no longer have this session -  they needed the key worker who was supporting my daughters for someone else. This is absolutely unacceptable and, as far as I’m aware, against the law to take away sessions that have already been agreed and funded.

I wrote an email to complain and the next morning the nursery manager phoned to say that I still had the session. I was so upset that I cried - I don't cry usually. Having my children in those sessions was so important for my mental health.

From then on, every time I went in I could see the keyworker was working with lots of other children, not just my two. This was having an impact on both of my daughters’ behaviour at home.” 

Jan talked more about the effects on her. “I want to work but can’t. I had a really good job and can’t return to it. There’s the stigma of your child being different and the stigma of not being able to work. I want to work but I just can't because they can't give my children any more hours, even though I could have the thirty hours. It’s not fair. For us guys, as parents, it’s 24/7, we need that time when the children are in settings.” 

Jan ended by saying when she was looking for work she phoned lots of local nurseries who all said they had places available. “Once I mentioned that my children had SEND, the places then miraculously disappeared”. 


The difficulties in settings

It is not beneficial to get into a blame game: settings often lack resources, expertise and funding, making it difficult to help children and families with additional support needs.

However, managers and practitioners must reflect upon and challenge their practices and attitudes. The status quo has to change to prevent these sorts of discrimination.

Alison Kriel summarises this well. “Most schools and staff have a desire to be inclusive and have ambitious outcomes for their pupils. Our education settings are struggling. They are cash strapped, morale is low, league table shaming is high, recruitment and retention is a challenge. Tough questions have to be asked about what is and what is not feasible. We have a fractured, hit and miss system, and ultimately the support a child receives comes down to parent confidence in challenging the system as well as knowledge and access to sources that can support them”.


Caroline Vollans
Having taught in primary schools for fifteen years, Caroline Vollans trained as a psychoanalyst. She now works as an author and freelance writer.

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This is so heartbreaking to hear.  Our setting never turns any children away, we have an excellent reputation regarding our SEND involvement and currently hold the 'Good Beginnings Autism Friendly setting Gold Award'.  Families come from all over to us, we currently have lot's of Autistic children either with or without a diagnosis and run monthly ASD coffee mornings with families to support them and give them a chance to meet like minded families.  Funding and training are available to support children's needs, settings just need to have the knowledge and confidence to tap into these resources which is where the problems start.  Early Years funding needs to be reviewed and kept in line with the current inflation, we are struggling to ensure our Pre-school remains viable and sustainable as we are truly relied on by these SEND families to give them a sense of hope and understanding.  Many Early Years settings will close due to the lack of monies available to support all children.  People working in Early Years have a passion to help and support families and children and it will be extremely sad if these facilities close and the families loose yet another entity that they so desperately need. 

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Thank you for sharing the work you and your setting does for children with additional support needs – and particularly the support you have in place for families to connect and seek advice. As you say, if early years settings close, the community around them loses so much, and this is especially the case for families with children with SEND who rely on them.

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I agree it can come down to knowledge and confidence of how and where to seek additional support/funding.  Unfortunately, in my experience, there can be a viscous cycle in the EYFS where a child doesn't have an EHCP in place because they aren't yet in a setting, but they can't get a place in a setting without the EHCP, due to lack of funding.  SEND 'Stay and Play' sessions can sometimes be a good route to a place - if the sessions are of a high quality and professionals are invited to meet families - this can get the ball rolling sooner.

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I think we have to be careful here to consider the difference between exclusion ...eg refusing a child access to your setting after they have started and 'planning' as in do you have the right support services available to them? If you know that your team/support can only help x quantity of children with additional needs then is going over that number possibly detrimental to all your service users?

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