What is a suspension?
Suspension (also known as fixed-period exclusion or fixed-term exclusion) is the second most extreme option available to a headteacher when responding to unacceptable behaviour. The most severe sanction is permanent exclusion. Suspension involves a pupil being kept away from the school for a fixed amount of time.
A decision to suspend a pupil must be made on disciplinary grounds and can only be made by:
- the headteacher or principal of a maintained school or academy
- the teacher in charge of a pupil referral unit (PRU)
- a person acting in either of the above roles.
A pupil may be suspended for one or more fixed periods up to a maximum total of 45 school days in a single academic year.
A suspension doesn’t have to be for a continuous period. This might apply where a child has been suspended for lunchtimes only.
When and why can a headteacher suspend a pupil?
There is no list of set behaviours for which a pupil can and cannot be suspended. A headteacher can decide to suspend a pupil for:
- persistent breaches of the school’s behaviour policy, when other strategies or sanctions have been exhausted or deemed inappropriate in the circumstances
- a more serious one-off incident.
Schools vary in the types of behaviour they feel warrant a suspension. However, in general, incidents will fall into one of the following categories:
- physical assault against a pupil or adult
- verbal abuse/threatening behaviour against a pupil or adult
- racist abuse
- sexual misconduct
- drug and alcohol related
- persistent disruptive behaviour.
The behaviour of pupils outside school can also be a reason for suspension. This includes online activity, such as cyber bullying and inappropriate use of emails, images or other material on social media.
Schools are required by law to have a behaviour policy. If you think your child might have been suspended unfairly, check that the school is complying with it. You should also be aware of equality legislation and that schools have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to policies for disabled pupils. As autism is generally considered to be a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, section 6, headteachers can be flexible if they think a child’s behaviour is linked to being autistic.
You can read about reasonable adjustments on our disability discrimination in schools page.
The suspension process
If your child is suspended, here’s how the process will go:
- The headteacher makes the decision to suspend your child.
- Ideally they will tell you face to face or by phone and then, without delay, they must write to you with details of the suspension.
- The headteacher may withdraw the exclusion if it hasn’t been reviewed by the governors (also known as governing board, governors’ discipline/exclusions committee, or an academy’s trustees).
- You can write to the governors (see the exclusion letter for name of person to whom you can write).
- The governors will respond to your email/letter and, in some cases, arrange a meeting to examine (or ‘consider’) the headteacher’s decision.
If you think your child has been discriminated against, you can make a claim to the First-tier Tribunal (special educational needs and disability), also known as the First-tier Tribunal (SEND).
The headteacher’s decision to suspend
Before they decide to suspend your child, the headteacher should make sure that an appropriate investigation has been carried out. They must:
- consider all the evidence available, taking into account the school's behaviour policy and, if applicable, the Equality Act 2010
- where practical, talk to your child to hear their version of events
- talk to other witnesses to the incident
- check whether the incident may have been provoked, for example by bullying or by racial or sexual harassment, or whether there were any other contributing factors such as bereavement, or mental health issues
- if necessary, consult others, but not anyone who may later have a role in reviewing the headteacher’s decision, such as a member of the governors’ discipline committee.
Headteachers should take account of triggers that could impact on your child’s behaviour. These might include:
- changes of teacher or timetable that they hadn’t been prepared for
- sensory differences
- difficulties understanding the rules of social communication
Any of these might lead to a build-up of frustration, stress and anxiety that could result in distressed behaviour, sometimes referred to as a ‘meltdown’.
A recent ruling makes clear for the first time that all schools must make sure they’ve made appropriate reasonable adjustments for autistic children, or those with other disabilities, before they can resort to exclusion.
Previously, a loophole in the Equality Act meant schools didn’t have to make reasonable adjustments for disabled children when they had a 'tendency to physical abuse of others', even when that behaviour was caused by a lack of appropriate support.
However, this loophole has been closed. This means children can’t be excluded for behaviour that’s linked to being autistic, if the right support wasn’t in place.
Therefore, allowances should be made for autistic pupils’ behaviour and schools will need to make reasonable adjustments (positive steps, changes in practice, policies and strategies) so pupils can fully participate in the education and other aspects of school life.
A suspension is unlikely to be justified if the school hasn’t made reasonable adjustments for that pupil.
The Equality Act also requires schools to make reasonable adjustments, for pupils with disabilities, to both the exclusions process and to the disciplinary sanctions imposed. This might mean trying alternatives to exclusion so that an autistic pupil is not at a substantial disadvantage compared to other pupils.
The headteacher’s written notification to you
Ideally, the headteacher should first let you know in person or by phone about their decision to exclude your child. This gives you a chance to ask any initial questions or raise concerns directly.
Once the headteacher has made the decision to exclude your child, they must write to you and notify you of:
- the reason for the exclusion
- the length of the exclusion
- your right to make representations to the governors, and how your child may be involved in this
- if the governors need to meet, then your right to attend the meeting, be represented and bring a friend
- details of any alternative provision, if this is being arranged
- your responsibility to ensure your child isn’t present in a public place during school hours, for the first five days of an exclusion.
Your email/letter to the chair of governors
You can write to the chair of governors if you want to state your case following a suspension.
You may wish to challenge the suspension and have your child’s school record state that it wasn’t justified. You might challenge the suspension on the following grounds:
- your child didn't do what they were accused of
- there were factors affecting their suspension that weren’t taken into account
- suspension was a disproportionate punishment
- the school didn’t follow the correct procedures
- the exclusion amounts to disability discrimination.
The governors consider the headteacher's decision to exclude
The governors have a duty to take into account the reasons why you believe the exclusion is unjustified. However, they’re only required to arrange a meeting to consider the headteacher’s decision in certain situations. These depend upon a number of factors, including the total number of days your child has been excluded in one term.
- Total of ½ day to 5 days exclusion (in one term)
The governors must consider any written representations you make, but aren’t required to arrange a meeting with you and can't decide that the exclusion was unjustified and overturn it (direct reinstatement).
- Total of 5½ to 15 days exclusion (in one term)
If you’ve requested one, the governors must meet to consider reinstatement within 50 days of receiving notice of the exclusion. If you haven’t requested a meeting, the governors are not required to consider the exclusion.
- Total of over 15 days (in one term)
The governors must meet to consider reinstatement within 15 days of receiving notice of the exclusion.
- Exclusion will result in missing an exam
If your child’s exclusion means they’ll miss a public exam, such as a GCSE or national curriculum test, you should contact the school immediately to find out what the arrangements are.
The governors must meet to consider reinstatement within 15 days of receiving notice of the exclusion, taking reasonable steps to do so before the date of the exam.
If it’s not feasible for a sufficient number of governors to meet before the exam, the chair of governors (in the case of a maintained school) may consider the exclusion alone. In the case of an academy, the exclusion may be considered by a smaller sub-committee.
The governors’ meeting to consider the headteacher's decision to exclude
In the meeting, the governors must consider:
- the circumstances of the suspension
- yours and your child’s views (if they took part in the meeting)
- the interests of other pupils and people working at the school.
They’ll look at the facts in light of what’s known as the ‘civil standard of proof’. So, ‘on the balance of probabilities’, is it more likely than not that your child did what they’re accused of?
They also must consider whether the headteacher’s decision was lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair. The governors may be in a sub-committee that may be called the governors’ discipline committee (GDC), with at least three members.
After the meeting, the governors must inform you of their decision, either to uphold the headteacher’s decision (decline to reinstate), or to decide that it was unjustified (direct reinstatement). If your child is reinstated, governors would then add a note to their school record.
In Annex A of the DFE Guidance on Exclusion there’s a useful flow chart: A summary of the governors’ duties to review the headteacher’s suspension decision. You may also like to read our information on How can I challenge a suspension?
How you can make a claim of disability discrimination
Autistic children are three times more likely to be suspended than pupils with no special educational needs. If you believe that your child’s autism, or the school’s failure to make reasonable adjustments, exacerbated a situation, you have the right to make a claim of disability discrimination to the First-tier Tribunal (SEND). You can do this even if your child doesn’t have a formal autism diagnosis.
If you want to appeal on the grounds of disability discrimination, please read our guide on How do I appeal my child's exclusion to the First-tier Tribunal (SEND)?
You should believe that the following applies:
- your child should be considered disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, section 6
- the suspension was related to your child's disability
- the suspension wasn’t justified and there were other actions the school could have taken
- the school could have made reasonable adjustments to prevent the situation that led to the exclusion.
If you want to make a claim, you should gather evidence to support your case. You must lodge your claim within six months of the suspension.
The tribunal will take a fresh look at the disability aspects of a suspension. It’s not just a review of the governors’ decision. There’s no fee for making a claim to the tribunal, but you will have to pay for any legal representation if you’re not entitled to legal aid.
Alternatively, you could choose a friend, or someone from a support organisation, to represent you.
Claims relating to suspension typically take four to five months, depending on their nature and complexity.
What are the alternatives to exclusion?
Different educational provision
Schools are allowed to arrange alternative education for a pupil at a different site, including at pupil referral units (PRUs). This can be used to ‘improve behaviour’, prevent suspensions or permanent exclusions, or to re-engage students in their education.
When these placements work well, young people have a programme of activities allowing them to gain confidence, skills and qualifications. They then build on these when they’re back in mainstream education.
Sometimes, parents and schools agree that a new start in a different school would benefit a child who’s at risk of suspension or permanent exclusion. The transfer can then be arranged between the two schools. This is known as a ‘managed move’ and is usually on a trial basis at first. However, schools shouldn’t use the threat of exclusion to persuade parents to take their child out of school. You do not have to agree to a managed move if you don’t want to.
Returning to school
Schools should have a strategy for reintegrating pupils who return to school after a suspension, including how to manage their future behaviour. Most schools will hold a reintegration meeting for parents and their child to discuss this, but they aren’t obliged to. The meeting can also be a chance for parents to air their views and concerns, particularly if they weren’t entitled to a meeting with the governors to consider the headteacher’s decision to suspend.
Our guide to Successful reintegration of autistic pupils following school exclusion can provide a positive starting point for discussions with the school about your child's reintegration.
Avoiding future exclusions
Schools should try everything possible to keep a pupil with special educational needs in education. They may do this by:
- asking the local authority for an assessment of education, health and care needs
- calling for an early/emergency annual review, if the pupil already has an education, health and care (EHC) plan
- seeking advice and support from the local authority and other professionals, such as educational psychologists, behaviour support services or the local autism advisory service
- arranging autism training for staff
- arranging extra help or different support
- making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to policies and practices
- considering a multi-agency meeting that goes beyond the pupil’s educational needs, such as a Team around the child (TAC) meeting
You might like to share our guide on Steps to avoid the exclusion of autistic pupils with your child’s school.
If you’re trying to prevent or challenge an exclusion, you might find our School Exclusion Helpline helpful.
Exclusion from maintained schools, academies and pupil referral units in England. Department for Education (2017)