Exclusion rates for school children from poor families in Northamptonshire are more than four times higher than those for their peers from better-off households, figures reveal.
Children are getting into trouble because their families cannot afford uniform and equipment, or are struggling to cope without food or at-home heating, says charity Just for Kids Law, which is calling for reform of a “deeply flawed” exclusions system.
Figures from the Department for Education show schools in Northamptonshire excluded students eligible for free school meals 1,731 times during the 2019-20 academic year – 27 were permanent and 1,704 temporary.
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It meant there were 12.2 exclusions for every 100 children entitled to the meals – a measure for children from poorer households.
This was more than four times higher than the rate for children not eligible for free school meals, which was 2.9 percent.
The figures cover the 314 state-funded secondary, primary and special schools in Northamptonshire.
It was a similar picture across England, with the exclusion rate for children from poorer households at 9.5 percent, compared to 2.6 percent for those from better-off families.
Just for Kids Law, which provides help to families on legal processes, said exclusions worsened the situation for disadvantaged children, putting them further behind on their education and potentially leading them into crime.
Louise King, director of policy and campaigns, said: "Too often we see children who have been excluded because of circumstances beyond their control – that includes children whose families have struggled to pay for the correct uniform and equipment, who have faced racial discrimination, and who are coping with the impact of going without essentials like food and heating.
"This can leave children feeling like they’ve been treated unfairly, pushing them further away from school and their learning."
She said the Government needed to provide better financial support to families, put in place behavioural support in schools and give children an opportunity to challenge "unfair decisions" on exclusions.
"The Government needs to urgently reform the deeply flawed school exclusions system," she added.
The National Association for Headteachers said schools were finding it "increasingly hard" to access support for vulnerable pupils, partly because of funding cuts to services such as behaviour support teams.
It said the Government needed to fund support of specialist services to meet every child’s needs.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary at the union, said: "Schools play a vital role in supporting children in this area but they can’t do it on their own."
Overall, Northamptonshire schools excluded pupils 4,768 times in 2019-20 – 79 of which were permanent, and 4,689 temporary.
The figures for the academic year are not comparable to the previous year due to school closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
However, in the autumn term, before schools were closed as part of a national lockdown, there were 2,840 exclusions, up significantly from 2,156 in the same term of the 2018-19 academic year.
Across England, the number of exclusions increased by 13 percent year-on-year to 181,579 in the 2019-20 autumn term.
Guidance from the Department for Education states schools must not discriminate against pupils when deciding on an exclusion and should take into account any contributing factors.
A spokesperson said: “Our guidance for schools is clear that staff should consider any underlying causes of poor behaviour before taking the decision to permanently exclude, and these decisions must be lawful, reasonable and fair."