Exclusions are suddenly popular again, after five years in which ridding the school of a troublemaker was less of a last resort and more of a dirty secret.
The number of children thrown out of school had been rising steeply when Labour came to power in 1997 and, with Downing Street's Social Exclusion Unit demanding action, the then education secretary David Blunkett promised to cut the total by a third.Which he did. The financial system was fixed to penalise schools which excluded pupils, and targets were set to "guide" governors.
Five years on, and the tone has changed. Last month it was reported that Education Secretary Estelle Morris is to draw up new legislation to force schools to exclude pupils after just one incident of serious bullying or violence. Or in headline terms, that "bullies face school ban for single offence". In addition, appeals panels would be legally barred from re-instating the miscreant into the care of an unwilling school.
These plans, when they finally emerged, were not quite as billed. Revised Guidance on Exclusion From School, a consultation document, does not involve a change in the law, but a low-key attempt to tidy up the controversial circular 1099, issued in October 99 as ministers tried to clamp down on exclusions.
The key features are that bullying and carrying weapons are cited as reasons to exclude a child after one offence and appeals panels have been told they should not in these cases expect to reinstate the pupil.
Annex D, paragraph. 32 says: "Where a headteacher has excluded a pupil in accordance with clearly-stated provisions in the school's published discipline policy - for example, zero tolerance of drug supplying - the appeal panel should not normally direct reinstatement." Two paragraphs later the point is reinforced. The Secretary of State, it says, "would normally regard it as inappropriate to reinstate a pupil who had been permanently excluded for
* serious actual or threatened violence,
* sexual misconduct, l supply of an illegal drug,
* carrying an offensive weapon,
* persistent and defiant behaviour. This would encompass bullying including homophobic bullying.
Presentation of the consultation paper was dominated by the Secretary of State's insistence that "the message has to be got across loud and clear that bullying is entirely unacceptable" which is only mentioned once. And there is no change in the law proposed in a paper which even the Department for Education and Skills says is mainly a matter of emphasis. Nor does it bind the hands of appeals panels. According to the leading education solicitor Jack Rabinowicz from the London firm Teacher, Stern, Selby, any attempt to deprive an excluded child of a full appeal would almost certainly breach human rights legislation.
In other words, the document changes very little - the real change came last year when the Government dropped its exclusion targets. In practice, pupils are already often permanently excluded for persistent bullying or bringing weapons into school. But the new guidance still pleased the headteacher organisations, teaching unions and governors groups, who had a major hand in drawing up the proposals. According to John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association: "The most significant change signalled by this document is a change in climate from a regime in which schools were made to fear greatly when they excluded disruptive children to a recognition that the headteacher is also responsible for the interests of the other people in the school.
"We have moved from a situation where we have had targets to reduce exclusions, with huge pressure from government and local authorities not to exclude children at a time when no resources had been put in for out of school learning units. That has now been turned around. A lot of money has now been put into out-of-school referral units and in-school support units."
Heads were particularly vexed by the rate at which excluded children were being returned to their school by appeals panels, claiming that the war on exclusions was driven largely by Downing Street, not educational considerations. Thanks to Labour's drive to cut the rate, the total dropped from 12,700 in 1997 to 8,300 in 2000."We will hopefully have no perverse decisions by appeals panels of the sort whereby they think of returning children to school who obviously shouldn't be there," says Dunford. Whether or not it will have the intended effect is a different matter, of course.
Will it, for instance, help to stem widespread bullying and anti-social behaviour in schools? According to ChildLine, bullying has been the chief cause of concern to the troubled youngsters ringing its emergency number for the past five years, with 20,000 complaining annually.
Research carried out for the National Union of Teachers by Warwick University and published last year found that nearly half of the pupils questioned witnessed some form of bullying every week. A third of the pupils had seen offensive weapons brought into school at some point and a fifth did so annually. Across society as a whole, levels of violence are continuing to rise as, according to the eminent psychiatrist and paediatrician Professor Sir Michael Rutter, are levels of child and teenage "disorder", ranging from hyperactivity to suicide.
Michele Elliott, director of the Kidscape charity which speaks out for child victims, knows of schools where parents are refusing to let their youngsters attend because violent children remain at large in the classroom. Late last month parents in Gloucester were enraged to find that a six-year-old had been allowed to continue at his primary school despite bringing a knife on to the premises.
At least the new guidance recognises these tensions but the key question is whether there is anywhere else for excluded pupils - quite likely themselves to be victims of violence and bullying - to go.
Ministers can point to 1,000 new referral units or "sin bins" to look after difficult pupils and 50 more are due to be opened in the coming year. But few believe this is an adequate total and, around the country, excluded children are continuing to put up with part-time home tuition, or nothing at all. Nor has the network of new units come anywhere near compensating for the destruction of the old local authority network of units and special schools, mostly closed down in the late 80s and 90s.
According to the YoungMinds mental health charity, around one in 10 children is unable to adjust to the institutional demands of a mainstream school. But acknowledging the sheer scale of children's needs is an expensive proposition. "Unless that is recognised and dealt with, I really can't see how standards are going to rise," says Dinah Morley, deputy director of the charity. "The underlying factor is the money's not there. We're not acknowledging children's mental health problems to any great degree."
In a similar vein, both John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, and Jack Rabinowicz from Teacher, Stern, Selby believe that a common refusal to pay the full cost of looking after children with emotional and behavioural difficulties will continue to blight school life.
And if there is no alternative, the effect may well be to keep children who should not be there in school. Appeals panels are not supposed to consider what might become of an excluded child. But, speaking privately, the members of such panels admit that they do.
Essex has referral units but, predictably, the space is strictly limited and the county can't cater for any girls over the age of 12 or boys over 15. Stephen Ginns, is a governor of two schools in the county and worked on the new guidance on behalf of the National Association of Governors and Managers. Overall he is pleased with what has emerged. But, as he admits:
"When you go on appeals panels, it's very often the start of the spiral for the child concerned. You do wonder what's going to happen to them. You can't help it."
Parliamentary questions, 30 Revised guidance on exclusion from school - consultation: www.dfes.gov.ukconsultationsexcl. Closing date for comments: April 19