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POSITIVE ALTERNATIVES TO EXCLUSION. By Paul Cooper, Mary Jane Drummond, Susan Hart, Jane Lovey and Colleen McLaughlin. Routledge. Falmer. pound;16.99. ALTERNATIVES TO EXCLUSION FROM SCHOOL. By Pamela Munn, Gwynedd Lloyd and Mairi Ann Cullen. Paul Chapman pound;15.99. EXPERIENCING EXCLUSION. By Eva Pomeroy. Trentham Books pound;15.95. CHALLENGES TO SCHOOL EXCLUSION. By Neville Harris and Karen Eden with Ann Blair. Routledge, Falmer. pound;17.99.

Inclusion is a slippery idea, but one measure of how far schools are making it happen is their avoidance of exclusion. These books give some insight to what schools are doing to steer clear of using this most drastic of sanctions.

Positive Alternatives to Exclusion comprises case studies of five schools and a college. The work, part of a university research project, was undertaken with the aim of understanding how inclusion was being helped or hindered in each place.

The team aimed for a "researcher as agriculturist" approach rather than "researcher as hunter", indicating its primary aim to "cultivate and nurture" rather than capture information. This will have been of immense value to the schools involved, and the findings should be more widely useful.

Interpretation is not easy, though, as each study differs in character - the researchers draw on a range of literatures and analytical frameworks - and the conclusions drawn from such diverse studies are necessarily complex.

Much of the success of the inclusive enterprise seems to come down to the humanity at the heart of the school and the idiosyncratic ways and means by which ethos and systems are fused together.

The authors of the similarly titled Alternatives to Exclusion from School also point to school ethos as a factor distinguishing high-excluding from low-excluding schools. In an interesting comparison of pairs of schools which differed in the extent to which they excluded, the authors found several differences: the schools' views on what education is all about; the way the curriculum is structured; relations with parents; and decision-making about exclusion.

A range of strategies for developing a positive ethos follows this presentation of differences: using praiseand reward systems; structuring breaks and lunchtimes; and promoting pupil participation in decision-making.

Although Experiencing Exclusion's focus on exclusion highlights the student's experience, Eva Pomeroy draws similar conclusions to the authors of the previous two books. Relationships with teachers are vital for the quality of student experience at school, she says. But she paints richer colour into the picture of exclusion by her detailed discussions with the young people themselves. For them, relationships with peers - as well as with teachers - are of central significance in establishing a sense of identity and worth.

Other factors, perhaps overlooked in any focus on school systems, also figure strongly in the picture - the crises in these young people's lives, with poverty, abuse and criminality making daily existence all but intolerable.

The view of most of the young people that their social world is "an aggressive, intimidating place" is especially powerful.

The complex process of exclusion and appeal are discussed in Challenges to School Exclusion. Following detailed research funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the authors of this excellent book remind us that around 12,000 children are permanently excluded from school each year in England, and they note the devastating effects of exclusion on these young people's lives.

Despite the destructive consequences, though, appeal is difficult, and successful appeal next to impossible - only 200 children were reinstated in 1997-98. The process of appeal must improve, argue the authors, not just because schools and LEAs now have to respond to new human rights legislation but also for more positive reasons - the appeal process can highlight children's problems that might not otherwise have come to light.

If nothing else forces the education system as a whole to become more inclusive in the years ahead, an increasingly anti-discriminatory legislative environment will do so. In their different ways, these books will enable everyone involved to look at the complex means by which the move to inclusion can be addressed.

Gary Thomas is professor of education at Oxford Brookes University

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