Children with disabilities – especially autism – are routinely illegally excluded from school and this can have a devastating impact on their education and mental health, according to new research.

A survey of more than 400 parents of children with a range of learning and/or physical disabilities by disability charity Contact a Family found that almost a quarter (22%) have children who are illegally excluded every week and 15% every day. The children attended a range of different schools, including mainstream, academies, private schools and special schools.

Of the parents in the survey, called Falling Through the Net, more than 60% had a child with an autism spectrum disorder, some 20% had speech, language and communication needs, nearly 20% had a moderate learning disability and about 10% had a severe learning disability.

The majority of parents also said that their child had behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. But less than 10% had a physical disability including hearing and visual impairments.

Other findings included:
• More than half (53%) of families have been asked to collect their child during the school day because there are not enough staff available to support them
• 56% of families have been told by the school that their child can't take part in a class activity or trip because it is unsuitable for them.

Head teachers can only exclude a pupil for disciplinary reasons. It would be unlawful to exclude a pupil simply because they have additional needs or a disability that the school feels it is unable to meet. Unofficial exclusions are unlawful – even with the parents’ consent.

Schools using illegal exclusions bypass official procedures laid out by the Department for Education. Unlike formal exclusions, schools do not have to report this type of exclusion to the local authority. It is not subject to review or external monitoring and can drag on indefinitely.

Srabani Sen, chief executive of Contact a Family, said: “Illegal exclusions undermine the Government's intentions set out in the Children and Families Bill of disabled children of achieving their full potential. Children with additional needs up and down the country are missing out on a good education and the opportunity to form friendships because of illegal exclusions. If non-disabled pupils were sent home because there were not enough school staff, there would be uproar. We have to ask why is it happening so regularly when it comes to disabled children and what can be done to tackle it?”

For disabled children who already need more support than their peers, this withdrawal of education can have a devastating impact on their progress and attainment, as well as their confidence, relationships and mental health.

Contact a Family is concerned that local authority cuts could lead to increased numbers of disabled children being illegally excluded from school. As school budgets are stretched further, there could be less support for children with additional needs.

The charity is making the following recommendations:
• Where exclusion is necessary, schools must follow statutory procedure to ensure decisions are lawful, reasonable and fair
• The most frequently illegally excluded pupils with a disability or additional needs are those who have conditions which affect behaviour. Schools should take early action to tackle the underlying cause, and to put in support before a crisis occurs
• Schools and teachers should work closely with parents to understand a child's condition or disability and their extra support needs and ensure the child gets the help they need
• Ofsted has an important role in identifying unlawful practice in the course of an inspection.  School should be offered additional support to help them improve their practice. A grading of 'inadequate' should be considered if schools continue to illegally exclude children with a disability, special educational need or additional need.

“Parents of disabled children often don't realise this type of exclusion is unlawful,” Sen added. “Our survey was carried out with parent carers who recognised that their child was being illegally excluded. As a result we fear that this is just the tip of the iceberg and many more children with a disability or additional needs are falling through the education net.”

Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England, added that the findings reflect those of her office's School Exclusions Inquiry, which discovered disabled children are disproportionately more likely to be excluded than children without disabilities. “It is vital that disabled children are not discriminated against in the education system,” she said.