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Aspire to exclude exclusion

Ministers must not rest on their laurels with the fall in children permanently out of school, but should turn their attention to fixed-term expulsion, says Jodie Reed

* 2001 the Government boasted that it had met its target to reduce permanent exclusions by a third a year early. Ministers then set a new aim of enabling all permanently excluded children to receive full-time education by 2002. Two years on they claim to have met this target too.

Now there are no more targets and permanent exclusions rose by nearly 10 per cent last year. In addition, there are concerns that the focus on permanent exclusions has led to a stealthy rise in fixed-term ones.

Tim Brighouse, commissioner for London schools, estimates that one million days were lost through fixed-term exclusions last year alone, calling this a "recent systemic phenomenon".

Permanent exclusions have been the first priority. Investment in pupil referral units was meant to be part of a "revolving door" policy designed to get children back into mainstream education as soon as possible.

In reality, some units have been more "door" and less "revolving".

Meanwhile, having apparently solved the permanent exclusions problem, the Government has shied away from real investment in tackling fixed-term exclusions.

Cash for on-site learning support units has been comparatively limited.

Some are little more than four white walls, so it is hardly surprising that many schools continue to send troublesome children home.

If defusing trouble in the classroom to enable teachers to teach and other pupils to learn was the only purpose of exclusion, we should expect to see a whole range of on-site alternatives and preventative measures. Why has this been so limited?

A clue lies in the thinking behind the policy of fining parents of persistent truants. The Government is keen to preserve exclusion as a means of bringing responsibilities home to parents. Whatever the merits of "rights and responsibilities" when applied to adults, the casting of parents as the consumers of education has led to blurred definitions which sanction the breaching of children's human rights. According to the UN, inclusive education is a right of all children and, last year, it expressed concern about the "still high rate" of exclusions in the UK.

On-site alternatives and preventative measures do not have to be a code for "making everyone else suffer". If exclusion becomes a last resort and is backed up with the appropriate range of tools for teachers, we can focus on solutions that work for everyone.

For example, using restorative justice in schools supports all concerned as it allows face-to-face meetings between children who behave badly and their victims, establishing a contract between the parties to make amends. Early findings from a project in two schools in Hammersmith and Fulham, west London, showed 60 fixed-term exclusions were avoided in a six-month period last year. The project has now been extended to seven more areas.

In March, the Department for Education and Skills finally wrote to chief education officers asking them to prepare for the collection of national fixed-term data. This paves the way for the first comprehensive analysis of "reasons for exclusion". The new data could aid a braver approach to exclusion, too, if accompanied by a serious ambition to cut it across the board.

Proper analysis of the reasons for exclusion could prove invaluable for developing preventative work. The new survey format will allow comparisons to be drawn between schools and authorities. The data should provide a tool for systematically monitoring which of the plethora of initiatives are most effective at keeping children included. Comparing similar schools and identifying specific characteristics of those with low exclusion but no obvious initiatives, may reveal even more about best practice.

There is no reason for the Government to be timid. Programmes such as Sure Start are having a real impact on improving early childhood education, and may begin to affect behaviour. Fresh curriculum thinking could help counter disaffection and emphasis on school federations should encourage schools to share responsibilities for challenging pupils. Let's break the current doctrine and aspire to a situation where a zero-exclusions policy is a real possibility.

Jodie Reed is education researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research. Contact her for more details of IPPR's Toward Zero Exclusions project: j.reed@ippr.org

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