Image of Maintaining Safe Education Environments: Understanding the DfE’s Suspensions and Permanent Exclusions Guidance

Maintaining Safe Education Environments: Understanding the DfE’s Suspensions and Permanent Exclusions Guidance

In this blog, experienced teacher, trainer, and consultant John Rees explores the definitions and duties that educators have when it comes to suspensions and exclusions. 

The DfE guidance ‘suspension and permanent exclusion for maintained schools, academies and pupil referral units in England, including pupil movement’ was updated in September 2023 and is relevant to schools maintained by local authorities, academies, free schools and pupil referral units (referred to collectively here as ‘schools’) in England. Although the guidance is detailed and comprehensive, it should also be informed by the ‘behaviour in schools’ guidance, which offers advice on establishing a school culture with high expectations for behaviour for learning and complements the DfE’s ‘guide for parents on school behaviour and exclusion’. The guidance is also informed by ‘mental health and behaviour in schools’.

While the guidance provides a roadmap for navigating the complex terrain of suspensions, it should be regarded as a framework for making informed decisions and doesn't replace the need for legal advice. Fostering a supportive social and emotional learning environment is essential for pupils (and staff) to thrive in all educational settings. However, the DfE acknowledges that, at times, the following environmental factors may be considered to maintain a safe and respectful learning ethos:

  • School exclusions
  • Managed moves 
  • Off-site direction 

To help achieve a safe and supportive environment for both pupils and staff, headteachers alone have the power to temporarily suspend or permanently exclude pupils, although their decisions must then be reviewed by the governing body. The decision to suspend or exclude should be a last resort when all other strategies have been exhausted, and any decision must be lawful, reasonable, fair, and proportionate.

We are reminded that schools should not adopt a "no exclusions" policy which may discourage some settings from excluding pupils, even when it's in the best interest of the pupil to access alternative provision to remain engaged in education. 

The role of schools and headteachers

Schools have dual statutory responsibilities to safeguard their pupils and provide education. To fulfil these duties, schools must follow the guidance provided by the Secretary of State for Education and ‘keeping children safe in education’. When a safeguarding investigation is underway or a pupil faces the possibility of permanent exclusion, schools may be faced with challenging decisions while fulfilling their duty to both protect children and provide education. Regardless of the specific circumstances, schools should adhere to general safeguarding principles outlined in KCSIE, which are designed to retain the welfare and safety of pupils at the forefront of decision-making.

KCSIE also outlines the safeguarding process for serious cases, such as incidents of sexual violence. When such reports are made, the designated safeguarding lead (or a deputy) should conduct an immediate risk and needs assessment. When considering reports of sexual harassment, the need for a risk assessment should be determined on a case-by-case basis, although this must always be considered with the best interests of the young person as paramount.

In relation to suspensions and exclusions, headteachers should adhere to the following responsibilities: 

  • Establish a clear and transparent process for exclusions. 
  • Ensure that this process complies with legal requirements and is equitable in its approach. 
  • Process should monitor the maximum allowable days of exclusion. 
  • Ensure that all relevant parties receive timely, appropriate information and support for both excluded and reintegrated pupils.

When determining the facts related to a suspension or permanent exclusion, headteachers are bound by the "balance of probabilities", which means that they should believe that an event occurred if it’s more likely to have happened than not. They also have a legal duty of care when sending a pupil home following an exclusion, bearing in mind the pupil's age and level of understanding.

The DfE say that they trust headteachers to exercise professional judgment when deciding to suspend or exclude a pupil. While specific reasons for exclusion are provided, this list is not exhaustive, and it's essential for headteachers to consider individual circumstances.

Headteachers are encouraged to consider the views of the pupil and consider their age and understanding before deciding to exclude. Pupils should be supported to express their views, potentially through advocates such as parents/carers or social workers. Although schools have the authority to make decisions, they are expected to collaborate ‘meaningfully’ with safeguarding partners and external agencies, such as children's social care and the police, as necessary.

There are longstanding national trends which show that groups of children are more likely to be suspended or permanently excluded from school. Schools must be aware of and guard against any bias. Suspension(s) may be issued for one or more fixed periods up to a maximum of 45 school days in a single academic year. During this time, pupils must continue to receive education, and the school's legal obligations to pupils with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) still apply.

The Equality Act 2010 requires schools to make reasonable adjustments for pupils with SEND. Schools should engage proactively with parents in supporting the behaviour of pupils with additional needs. Where a school has concerns about the risk of suspension or permanent exclusion of a pupil with SEND or an EHC plan, it should consider what additional support or alternative placement may be required.

The role of governing bodies

Although headteachers can decide to suspend or permanently exclude a pupil, any decision needs to be ratified by the governing body. Inevitably, there is guidance with a long and detailed set of requirements to ensure that these expectations are met fairly, transparently, and with the best interest of the child at heart. Governing boards have a crucial responsibility in considering whether excluded pupils should be reinstated, and the school and governing body must make arrangements for key personnel to make representations or share information. Page 39 of the suspension and exclusion guidance also provides a visual flowchart to help governing bodies consider reinstating the pupil.

The governing body should adhere to the following responsibilities:

  • Decide whether to reinstate the pupil immediately (or on a particular date) or decline to reinstate the pupil. 
  • Consider whether the decision to suspend or permanently exclude is lawful, reasonable, and procedurally fair. 
  • Consider the welfare and safeguarding of the pupil and their peers, and any other evidence that’s presented. 
  • Governing body’s decision and the reasons for making that decision, must then be circulated in writing without delay to all appropriate parties.

The headteacher must notify the governing body without delay about any suspension or permanent exclusion, as well as the child’s parents (and social worker and/or local authority) when appropriate, to ensure that all parties understand the incidents that have led to the action being taken, and provide all of the information as set out in part six of the suspension and permanent exclusion guidance. The headteacher should also describe what arrangements have been made to enable the pupil to continue their education prior to the start of any alternative provision or the pupil’s return to school.

Some exclusion or suspension decisions may involve police or criminal proceedings, which may affect how the exclusion and subsequent review processes are conducted. These must always be lawful, reasonable, and procedurally fair.

Supporting pupils who are suspended or excluded

The guidance states that the very best alternative provision can make an important contribution to managing behaviour and providing alternatives to exclusion. This could include outreach support for pupils in mainstream schools and offering short-term places to pupils who need a time-limited intervention away from their mainstream school. Schools should work with high-quality alternative provision providers to ensure that continuity of support is available for pupils for whom good behaviour cultures and policies are not working.

While suspensions are a challenging aspect of school life, the focus should always be on helping students learn from their mistakes and giving them a chance to re-join the school community as better individuals. A well-crafted reintegration strategy, combined with clear communication, can pave the way for more successful, respectful, and engaged learners.

If the pupil is permanently excluded, then there’s a set of procedures that must be followed to remove the pupil's name from the school register. The designated safeguarding lead should ensure that the pupils' details and any child protection data are transferred to the new school or college as soon as possible.

Appealing an exclusion

Parents can, of course, appeal an exclusion. Again, there’s a detailed set of instructions around the creation of an independent review panel (IRP) and the role of the local authority or academy trust to ensure that this happens appropriately and with the best interest of the pupil at heart. If appropriate, the local authority or academy trust may also wish to appoint an expert in SEND to attend and advise the review.

If the IRP directs or recommends that a pupil is reinstated, the governing body must reconsider whether the pupil should be reinstated. This may be based on whether the panel has directed or merely recommended the reinstatement of the young person.


The power of headteachers to suspend or permanently exclude pupils is a crucial element of maintaining a safe and respectful educational environment. It’s a responsibility that should be exercised judiciously, considering the welfare and future of the pupil involved whilst considering the needs and well-being of other pupils and staff. This is in addition to upholding the principles of KCSIE, along with equity, transparency and fairness.

If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for all staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.