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Excluded pupils 'wait for weeks'

Major differences in the treatment of excluded pupils have been revealed by the local government watchdog, reports Chris Bunting.

LOCAL authorities are leaving excluded pupils on the educational scrapheap for anything between one week and three months, according to the Audit Commission.

A third of them cannot even trace where permanently excluded pupils are six months after the end of the academic year in which they are expelled. This bleak picture emerged as ministers this week put local authorities at the centre of their strategy to cut pupil absences.

From 2002, all councils will have to provide full-time education for pupils within 15 days of exclusion. But the new Audit Commission report Missing Out, shows many will struggle to do so.

The report concludes that 30 per cent of councils are doing nothing to support parents in getting their children back into education.

One unidentified council is taking an average of 18 weeks to provide alternative education to children after they have been excluded by their headteacher. Even after the exclusion process has been completed and pupils are removed from their school's roll, they are spending 11 weeks waiting to be taught.

Another local education authority is completing the whole process in eight weeks, however, with only one week spent waiting for education following the end of the formal exclusion process.

Greg Birdseye, associate director at the Audit Commission, said local authorities should "get their act together".

"Some councils seem to just leave this to parents. Once the child is excluded, it's up to the parents to find somewhere else. This kind of attitude just will not be sustainable when the Government target comes along," he said.

The commission's research also indicates that, when councils do provide alternative education, it is often not full-time.

While full-time home tuition - a popular choice for excluded pupils - would cost an average of more than pound;500 per week, councils using this option spend an average of only pound;100 a week. Full-time provision in pupil referral units costs about pound;270 a week, but councils spend only pound;240.

With a third of excluded pupils still in home tuition or pupil referral units six months after their exclusion, the Audit Commission believes "the current pattern of provision is not financially sustainable full-time".

"If they are to meet the requirement to provide all excluded pupils with full-time education by 2002, LEAs must review the efficiency and effectiveness of different types of provision," the report says.

The Audit Commission report also uncovers glaring gaps in local authorities' monitoring of other causes of absence from schools. Fewer than 20 per cent monitor the progress of children in groups vulnerable to attendance and exclusion problems such as those in care, children from ethnic minorities and pupils with special educational needs.

Less than half of authorities analyse data on fixed-term exclusions, although this sanction is 12 times more common than permanent exclusion. And while more young women miss school through pregnancy than through expulsion, the majority of LEAs do not know whether these mothers re-engage with education.

The Audit Commission's criticism came as schools minister Jacqui Smith announced a doubling of the money provided to councils to deal with pupil absence - from pound;66 million to pound;140m next year. Councils were, she said, one of three key partners in the effort to deal with the issue.

"Parents have a role to play in ensuring that their children attend school. But clearly it is also important for schools to develop the types of early intervention strategies that prevent problems developing and local authorities have to provide data and resources to support those schools."

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