WHEN EVEN the Government describes implementing one of its initiatives as a "challenge" it is a fair bet that things are not going to be easy.
This month, laws come into force giving schools a much greater responsibility for pupils they temporarily exclude. The measures are part of the controversial 2006 Education and Inspections Act. With high-profile battles raging over admissions and trust schools, the measures received little public attention last year. But for many schools they are turning out to be one of the Act's thorniest issues.
The measures stem from recommendations made by the Government's behaviour task force in 2005. The panel of senior school staff, chaired by Sir Alan Steer, head of Seven Kings School, Ilford, wanted to ensure excluded children continued to be educated and were not wandering the streets.
The Government agreed, believing that temporary exclusions were often ineffective because some pupils viewed them as an extra holiday. So, from this term it will be a school's responsibility to ensure that their pupils are receiving a suitable full-time education between 21 to 25 hours a week after the fifth day of a temporary exclusion.
To complicate matters, schools are forbidden from using their own sites unless it is in facilities shared with at least one other school and available to outside pupils.
It is parents who are given a legal responsibility for the first five days of an exclusion. They must ensure the pupil is not found in a public place during normal school hours without reasonable justification.
Parents that fail to do this are liable for an on-the-spot fine. Government guidance says it wanted to "strike a balance" between their responsibilities and those of schools.
But schools still have plenty to do, even during the initial five days. They are expected to set work for the pupil, send it to their home to be completed, and mark it. And it is up to schools to inform parents of their new responsibilities. The Government has even suggested that heads could step in and offer off-site provision and more structured study during this period.
But Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Lecturers, warns: "We won't have many offering for the first five days when they are struggling to work out what to do for the sixth."
The Department for Children Schools and Families says that from this term all secondaries and pupil referral units (PRUs) should be working in local behaviour partnerships to allow joint planning for pupils after the fifth day of any exclusion. It suggests schools make reciprocal arrangements to look after each other's temporarily excluded pupils or invest in a shared unit. Alternatively, they could use PRUs or the private and voluntary sectors. But if they do choose the latter option, schools will still remain accountable for the quality of education their pupils receive, even though they are not providing it. They will also retain responsibilities for pupils' health and safety which cannot be delegated.
The department acknowledges that finding somewhere to educate these pupils with a limited budget could prove difficult. It writes in its guidance: "We do not underestimate the challenge of meeting this requirement."
Nor does Mr Ward. He suspects there will be some schools that have not yet formed partnerships. And even if they have, he believes they might not prove to be effective.
And, he says, some schools will not have managed to work out a plan for exclusions of more than six days at all yet. "There probably will be quite a lot who don't really know what they are going to do," he said. "A few will keep their heads down and hope that nobody notices."
It is isolated schools in rural areas that could fare worst of all. They will have no other schools, PRUs or private and voluntary-sector providers for miles around .
The department describes their situation as "particularly challenging" but warns that, even though many very small rural primary schools rarely exclude, they still need arrangements in place just in case. "Transport is already provided to bring pupils in from outlying areas to the school and it may be impractical and too expensive to arrange additional transport to take them on to another village or town," the guidance reads.
"In some rural areas local bus companies and taxi firms are at full capacity for school runs and there may be little flexibility."
It admits the situation could be even more difficult where a head may have to prevent a pupil from using school transport because their exclusion related to an incident on the journey to school.
But while strong on analysis, the guidance is much weaker on solutions. It only says that schools need to be aware of all types of alternative provision in their area and comes up with the helpful suggestion that: "Someone in the community may be able to provide education for a limited period."
So what will happen in practice? "We will see a reduction in the number of fixed term exclusions of more than five days and may see an increase in the number of permanent exclusions," Mr Ward predicts.
Some heads are openly warning that they will turf pupils out of their schools permanently rather than have to find alternative provision.
DCSF guidance says this is unacceptable: "We do not expect head teachers to decide to exclude pupils from school permanently simply to evade their responsibilities to arrange full-time education where a fixed period exclusion would be a more appropriate response."
But a Q and A section on its website makes interesting reading. Asked whether schools could substitute exclusions of more than five days with five day exclusions followed by a period of reintegration, it reads: "If the head teacher considers that a five day exclusion is appropriate in response to an incident it would be perfectly acceptable to arrange more tailored education in school on the pupil's return."
RESPONSIBILITIES THE ACT PLACES ON SCHOOLS
* To inform parents of their responsibility to ensure that their child is not in a public place in school hours during the first five days of a temporary exclusion
* To set homework for excluded pupils during the first five days and mark it
* To provide suitable full-time education, off-site or in shared provision, from the sixth day onwards of any temporary exclusion
* All secondaries should be working in partnerships with other local secondaries and pupil referral units to plan provision for exclusions of more than five days
* Heads must arrange re-integration interviews with parents after the temporary exclusion of a primary pupil and after any temporary exclusion of more than five school days for a secondary pupil