Mainstream academy schools across Essex could be expelling more pupils to “suit their own ends”, a councillor has warned.
Speaking in an Essex County Council meeting on Tuesday, Councillor Mike Mackrory claimed academies are permanently excluding the young people because they “don’t want them on their books any more”.
The claim comes as the authority is set to replace a pupil referral unit in Basildon with a brand new building to help accommodate rocketing numbers of children expelled from school.
According to council data, permanent exclusions in the county went up from 50 to 161 between 2014 and 2020.
The council says the new building is required to replace the current classrooms and facilities at the Fairview Centre which are no longer fit for purpose, and will have new teaching accommodation and facilities for 100 pupils.
A statement as part of decision papers discussed on Tuesday May 24 said the new building will provide pupils with greater opportunity to gain further skills and certification, such as BTEC, enabling them greater opportunities upon leaving education.
But it has also conceded there are concerns that some schools may be knowingly be shifting responsibilities on the county council.
Cllr Mackrory, leader of the Lib Dem group at Essex County Council said: “There is a suggestion in some quarters that since the rise of academies young people are being permanently excluded because those academies don’t want those young people on their books any more.”
Tony Ball, Essex County Council Cabinet Member for Education Excellence, Life-Long Learning and Employability, said: “I do understand and am very concerned with the increase in the last few years of the pupils who have been referred to specialist units.
“It could be for a variety of reasons. I have heard the same thing anecdotally around schools excluding pupils at certain times to suit own ends.
“We do as much as possible to try to work with schools to avoid exclusions and to provide them with support that that young person needs to stay in mainstream school.”
The council has said the need has grown sharply – since 2015 there has been a significant year on year increase in pressure on existing capacity at Essex pupil referral units, as a result of rising permanent exclusions.
There were 50 permanent exclusions in 2014/15 which increased to 161 in 2019/20. There was at the same time, a rise in the number of children and young people who required provision due to their medical or mental health needs.
Cllr Ball added: “Certainly I would say with the current trajectory 100 places will probably not be sufficient but our aim is to reduce the number of young people who are referred to pupil referral units in time and therefore maybe is not sufficient for now, and not for the very short term. But in the longer term I am very much hoping and confident 100 places will meet the need as times goes on.”
The council said that consistently high number of pupils with SEND cannot have their needs met in Essex schools and are subsequently educated in independent schools or outside of the county at higher cost.
It says that by enhancing the facilities at Fairview, it is able to give parents greater confidence that needs can be met locally and reduce appeals to the SEN tribunal for places in the independent sector.
Cllr Ball said: “The need for school places for children and young adults with social and emotional mental health needs has been rising. We are determined to meet that need even though these are financially straitened times.
“The investment in the Fairview Centre in Basildon, utilising funding from the council and the Schools Forum, means Essex County Council can provide excellent education to many more children and young adults with additional and special educational needs in the county.
“Fairview is operated by the South Essex Children’s Support Service, an Essex maintained pupil referral unit with a strong record of improving outcomes for vulnerable children and young people.”