Two months ago a news story sent shivers down the spines of school leaders across the country.
It claimed that the government was going to remove the power of headteachers to permanently exclude pupils. And it came as the education world awaited the long-delayed conclusions of the Timpson Review of school exclusions.
In the event, the Department for Education issued a strong denial. But, as Tes subsequently revealed, there had been a behind-the-scenes Whitehall row over whether it should curtail heads’ powers to permanently exclude.
Your guide: Timpson Review at a glance – the key points
Reason for delay: Behind-the-scenes row over school powers
Today, the Timpson Review is finally published, and although it may be overshadowed by the birth of a royal baby, it is likely to leave a mark on our education system long after baby Sussex has left his school days behind him.
So, for schools and teachers desperate to understand the implications of Timpson, what does it mean for exclusion?
School exclusions and off-rolling
Firstly, both the report and the response of education secretary Damian Hinds are explicit that headteachers still have the power to exclude pupils when necessary.
In a way, this should not be a surprise, since the review’s terms of reference spelled out that “it will not seek to curb the powers headteachers have to exclude but will examine the ways in which such powers are exercised”.
But if Edward Timpson’s personal instinct was indeed to curb these powers, a hint of this remains in his recommendation that the limit on the amount of fixed-term exclusions a pupil can have could be reduced from its current 45 days in an academic year.
Instead of curbing the heads’ formal powers to exclude, the report wants to use the accountability system to make sure that all schools think very carefully about the effect of exclusion on a pupil by holding them accountable for their future outcomes.
It sounds simple, but could prove fiendishly difficult in practice, and it is telling that in interviews ahead of the report's publication neither Mr Timpson nor Mr Hinds would venture what such a system could look like in practice.
Instead, the DfE will consult on how to do it in the autumn.
Is this a classic case of kicking the can down the road? Time will tell, but Mr Hinds suggested not, telling reporters, “We are going to do this.”
Just as interesting in the report's recommendations is the return of the importance of all schools in local areas working together, under the auspices of the local authority – perhaps a recognition that the fragmentation of the state school system has had negative effects.
Talking to journalists, Mr Timpson outlined how if even one or two schools refuse to take part in local discussions about what is best for individual children at risk of exclusion, “it does not work”.
“In some ways, I’m not interested in the type of school, what I’m interested in is that they take that collective responsibility in ensuring that every child in their local area is being helped by every school in their local area,” he added.
Local collaboration over exclusions
Some of his recommendations point to a role for local authorities in knitting together the different parts of the system.
And Mr Hinds’ own letter to Mr Timpson talks of the DfE’s “intention to drive a place-based, local, collective focus” on pupils who are excluded, or at risk of exclusion.
But the elephant in the room, as far as the unions are concerned, is funding.
For them, funding pressures have forced schools to cut vital support for pupils, leading to worse behaviour and more exclusions.
Timpson’s recommendations talk of additional funding in specific areas: a new fund to help develop best practice; more capital investment in alternative-provision facilities.
But there is no call for the billions of pounds of extra funding schools say they need to give vulnerable pupils all the support they need.
In this sense, Timpson’s recommendations read like those of a Whitehall insider who wants to deliver a practical report that will be acted on, rather than a campaigning report that will simply be ignored.
And, as the lengthy behind-the-scenes dialogue between Timpson and the DfE shows, that is what this report appears to be – a pragmatic exercise that has made compromises where necessary to ensure that action is taken.