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Challenge of the lost children;Schools amp; Society

Improved liaison between services is needed to stop pupils truanting or turning to crime, reports Biddy Passmore

Managers of public services must get together to avoid the obfuscation and delay that was allowing difficult children to fall into truancy, exclusion and crime, John Harding, head of the Inner London Probation Service, said last week.

Many young people from 12 onwards were getting at most four or five hours' teaching a week, he said. "They've virtually been abandoned by the system as ineducable - that's got to stop."

He was speaking at a conference in London on "Children who Challenge", organised by the National Children's Bureau and the Local Government Association, and timed to coincide with the launch of the Government's circular on behaviour support plans.

Several speakers emphasised the alarming rise in the number of children being permanently excluded and the over-representation of some groups, such as African-Caribbean boys and "looked-after" children.

Mr Harding said evidence gathered by the probation service in inner London suggested that most young offenders had been virtually excluded from school between the ages of 12 and 15.

"Our experience suggests that the majority are not picked up by the education system," he said. "Those excluded are not immediately offered alternatives and those who truant remain on the school roll but are not pursued vigorously to explore the reasons for non-school attendance." Undiagnosed literacy problems and the resulting frustration often lay behind exclusions, as well as disruptive behaviour because of what pupils perceived as racism or bullying. Abuse was a common factor.

He urged the adoption of agreed action plans for individual pupils along the lines of a scheme pioneered in Boston, Massachusetts, where the district attorney's office co-ordinates fortnightly meetings between managers from high schools, the police service and social services to review progress with children in trouble.

Councils needed the new behaviour support plans to "get out of departmental tramlines", Joyce Moseley, formerly head of social services for Hackney, told delegates.

When Vincent McDonnell, chief education officer for the London borough of Richmond upon Thames, said it was difficult for LEAs to pay for schemes to educate children with behavioural problems because of the delegation of funding to schools, Ms Moseley pointed out that it made sense to look at the cost as a corporate issue.

"It makes economic sense for social services to invest in schemes in schools because it costs pound;20,000 a year to put a child in secure accommodation," she said.

Graham Lane, education chairman of the LGA, warned the conference that exclusions from school could "quadruple" if the Government did not change the School Standards Bill now going through the House of Commons.

In its current form, the Bill removes the right of LEAs to force schools to reinstate an excluded pupil. But ministers are now considering amendments that would require school governors to consult local education officers during a 14-day cooling-off period before exclusions take effect.

* New guidelines helping local authorities to draw up behaviour support plans for unruly pupils come into effect on April 1. LEAs must outline the arrangements they are making to educate children with emotional and behavioural problems, what support services are available for schools and what alternative provision such as pupil referral units are available.

Excluded children must be tracked so that they can return to mainstream classes. The intention is to ensure good partnerships to stem the rise in exclusions.

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