The focus on lawful exclusion in schools continues to grow and state schools are recommended to remind their staff that they cannot use disciplinary sanctions in relation to academic performance following the St Olave’s case.
The issues at St Olave’s came to light last summer, amid concerns that pupil places for the final year of sixth form had been withdrawn, with students being told they could not proceed to year 13 after they failed to get three Bs at AS levels and meet “floor-standard requirements”. Pupils were told no exceptions could be made to the strict academic requirement to progress into the final year of sixth form.
Parents at St Olave’s launched legal action on the grounds that the exclusions were illegal. An independent inquiry delivered a damning report accusing the school of illegally treating its students as “collateral damage” in the pursuit of its own interests. The report concluded that the school should remove its policy of restricting access to the upper sixth form. Following both legal challenge and a review of the school’s policy, the school rapidly took the decision to remove this requirement.
The DfE took the opportunity to clarify the law, namely that permanent exclusion should only be used as a last resort and only in response to a serious breach or persistent breaches of the school's behaviour policy, and where allowing the pupil to remain in school would seriously harm the education or welfare of the pupil or others in the school. The DFE has confirmed that withdrawing sixth form places at the end of Year 12 based on academic performance is not a disciplinary matter which can be sanctioned with exclusion.
The St Olave’s story has therefore turned the spotlight on a practice has been used by a number of high-achieving schools in order to boost a school’s league table position and it is categorically clear that requiring a student to leave if they do not obtain certain academic attainment levels (in the absence of AS grades) at the end of Year 12 will be unlawful. Given the introduction of two year A levels with no AS stage, it is also almost certainly unlawful to require a student to discontinue a subject or subjects at the end of Year 12 because of their legitimate expectation to be able to complete a two year course. It is still possible for schools to seek to persuade students to these outcomes in their best interests but only in the clear context of them being able to continue if they wish to do so. It is also possible for disciplinary sanctions to be used when appropriate in the face of student defiance of teacher instructions. However staff should be reminded to tread carefully as regards disciplining sixth form students for anything which relates to their actual academy study or performance.