THERE are strong links between school exclusion and criminality, says the social scientist who is evaluating Scotland's pioneering Freagarrach project, which targets persistent young offenders.
David Smith, professor of applied social studies at Lancaster University, said in a Howard League for Penal Reform lecture in Edinburgh this week that he doubted the effectiveness of anti-exclusion strategies.
Referring to Falkirk and Clackmannanshire, the authorities with the highest rates of temporary exclusion in Scotland, Professor Smith said: "I have a sense that anti-exclusion strategies are more talked about than they are enacted upon. I talk to headteachers who say they have a strong commitment to preventing exclusion, but this is not translated in any consistent way in behaviour."
The Freagarrach project, which is funded by the Scottish Executive and run by Barnardos, is based in Alloa and Polmont.
Professor Smith said that because the Government encouraged schools to compete with each other, exclusion was encouraged. Japan, where exclusion is illegal, was an example of "integration and inclusion", with crime rates well below those of Britain and the United States.
His work at Freagarrach showed that by the time young people joined the project they might have committed as many as 100 offences in a year. "It seems implausible to expect any intervention to have a dramatic effect," Professor Smith said. "What we look for is a decrease in offending. But that is a more complicated message to get across in the political arena."
But Freagarrach demonstrated the criteria of successful interventions. It was voluntary - "inconceivable south of the border," Professor Smith claimed. And it was a community-based programme, "which does better than institutional programmes and encourages family involvement".
In mainstream schools positive experiences by pupils were the key to minimising delinquent tendencies, Professor Smith said. It was important to develop "the ability to form bonds of care and concern for others". In combating delinquency, "the message is that everybody can be somebody".