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Few schools can escape the issue of exclusion. It's an emotive matter surrounded by myriad legal safeguards, most of them designed to prevent any infringement of human rights by denying any individual an education.

Exclusion penetrates to the heart of the school process. It focuses on the fundamental arena of learning, the classroom. It touches on relationships between pupils and teachers, between teachers and their head, and between the profession and the Government.

An exclusion is not a triumph. It indicates that something has gone wrong.

But day-to-day experience makes it a necessary evil - a quick fix. It has to exist as the ultimate sanction. But the dilemma remains: does exclusion deny difficult pupils an education, or do they deny themselves one?

The figures

Significant numbers of primary and secondary pupils are given fixed-term or permanent exclusions. And the numbers are increasing. Figures for fixed-term exclusions are not published in England, but in 2001, English schools permanently excluded 9,210 pupils, an increase of 11 per cent from the previous year. Of these 1,460 were in primary schools, an increase of 19 per cent on 2000. In Wales, in the same year, there were 430 permanent exclusions, an increase from 2000 of almost 100. The number of fixed-term exclusions in the principality increased from 8,200 to 11,700. Only in Scotland was there a small decrease of 0.3 per cent to 38,769 fixed-term exclusions; 322 cases ended with pupils being permanently removed from the school register.

What does the law say?

A pupil can be excluded for a fixed period of up to 45 days, or permanently. The only person who can do this is the headteacher or acting head, who may exclude on disciplinary grounds only. The governing body and LEA, where appropriate, must be informed of all permanent exclusions, or any exclusion that causes a pupil to miss more than five days in a term, or to miss a public exam. The governors' discipline committee has a statutory obligation to review all exclusions and, in the case of a permanent exclusion, decide whether they support the head's decision.

Exclusion is not appropriate for incidents such as a failure to complete homework, poor academic progress, lateness, pregnancy, not wearing school uniform or other issues related to dress. Neither should schools encourage parents to withdraw children from school as a way of dealing with troublesome behaviour or to avoid permanent exclusion.

So what grounds are there for exclusion?

In England and Wales, the guidelines are necessarily broad. They say exclusion may be used in response to serious breaches of a school's discipline policy, and if allowing the pupil to stay in school would seriously harm his or her education or welfare - or the education and welfare of others, including teachers.

The guidance is similar in Scotland, although it puts more emphasis on parental responsibility. Exclusion can be used if "the parent of the pupil refuses or fails to comply or to allow the pupil to comply with the rules, regulations or disciplinary requirements of the school".

What can schools do?

The head is responsible for ensuring good behaviour and discipline, and securing an orderly and safe environment. He or she should respond to inappropriate behaviour through the school's behaviour policy, which should include a range of strategies with exclusion as one option. One enduring myth is that exclusion can be used only for misdemeanours within school.

Out-of-school behaviour can lead to exclusion too - abuse of teachers in public is an obvious example.

But schools must take care to avoid being seen as pre-judging an issue that could lead to criminal proceedings. In any case, the burden of proof in a school is different from that required by a court. Criminal behaviour in school must always be reported to the police. Serious allegations such as rape need to be handled carefully, but there is nothing to stop a headteacher suspending a pupil on suspicion of committing an offence, pending the outcome of any criminal proceedings, if their presence in school is likely to prove problematic.

"If a head thinks that an offence has been committed and is sufficient to warrant not having the child in school, they can exclude them," says Bob Carstairs, assistant general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.

Statements should be taken as soon as possible after an incident; pupils should be allowed to give their version of events. Only those who have witnessed an incident should be asked to provide a statement. Pupils should never be asked leading questions; some teachers, who have perhaps watched too many crime series on television, try to turn detective, attempting to catch out master criminals through clever questions and sophisticated wordplay.

Although teachers are not bound by the same code of conduct as the police in questioning pupils (this was established in law in 1997), they still need to take care. Case law has established that questioning should not be "oppressive" and that it is "advisable to have a parent or another appropriate adult present during the interview". Searching pupils is ill-advised, no matter what suspicions you might harbour. You may search a desk or a locker, but not a school bag. You may ask pupils to empty their pockets but they are not obliged to do so. A body search without consent would be regarded as an assault.

Pupils must be given a fair hearing and they, and their parents, must know the nature of any accusations, particularly if they could lead to permanent exclusion. Evidence against the child must be "reduced into writing and disclosed" to the child, and his or her parents or representatives, before any hearing. It is regarded as unfair that a decision-maker should have access to damaging material to which the person at risk has no access.

Who gets excluded?

Many more boys than girls. Government statistics show that 83 per cent of those permanently excluded in 2001 were boys, most of them aged 13 to 15.

Much of the reason for this goes to the heart of the school process and to fundamental gender differences. Sometimes just being an adolescent male in an institution can lead to conflict.

Boys and girls tend to sort out problems between themselves in different ways. Girls, on the whole, will sort out disagreements verbally. They argue, they talk things through. Teachers sometimes become involved. Boys, on the other hand, often fight or threaten each other. This inevitably leads to conflict with school, an institution that tries to prevent such confrontation.

Research by Pauline Padfield of Edinburgh University also points out that the classroom priorities of some boys can lead to conflict (see Resources).

They are concerned to keep face among their peers, to maintain their reputation and social standing. They prioritise social relationships above learning, whereas teachers necessarily give priority to learning. This is the basis of the sort of disruptive behaviour that leads to exclusion.

The Department for Education and Skills has identified those pupils who are most at risk of exclusion. They include:

* children from families under stress;

* looked-after children - 20 per cent of excluded pupils are in care;

* children with emotional and behavioural difficulties;

* African-Caribbean boys - black pupils make up 2 per cent of the school population, but account for 8 per cent of exclusions;

* Traveller children.

Why are they excluded?

The two most common official reasons are "threatening others with intended or actual physical harm", which encompasses bullying, and generally disruptive behaviour - a persistent refusal to conform to the rules of the classroom. But a 1997 Ofsted report shows that most exclusions are for verbal abuse of school staff. And although the Government is anxious that exclusion should be used for any drugs-related offences, they hardly appear in the statistics. Where drugs are an issue, the usual rule of thumb is that possession deserves a fixed-term exclusion, while selling drugs should be punishable by permanent exclusion.

What do pupils think?

Where schools act appropriately, exclusions are usually supported by the student population as a whole. Most pupils realise that their own right to a decent and trouble-free education has been violated. They regard it as the ultimate punishment, akin to being thrown out of the family, and carrying a sense of rejection. Some, though, regard exclusion as a badge of honour. If you don't like school much, you can get an extra holiday by swearing at a teacher, preferably a senior member of staff. For some it is a price worth paying.

What about parents?

They often react with confusion and anger. They cannot always understand how what they see as extra days off can be regarded as a punishment. The removal of their child's right to continuity of education can also provoke resentment. They rarely understand the impact on the school of their child's behaviour.

And the Government?

It wants the numbers excluded to go down - and has set targets. Ministers believe these reductions can be met by identifying problems early and by "ensuring that (exclusion) is not used for trivial reasons". It should happen only if there have been serious breaches of the school's discipline policy. Other strategies should be tried and the exclusion should only go ahead if "allowing the pupil to remain at school would be seriously detrimental to the education and welfare of others". Exclusions should be as short as possible, and a permanent exclusion should happen only when all other strategies have been tried and failed.

What does the research say?

It confirms that the risks associated with exclusion are huge.

Statistically, excluded pupils are more likely than others to face unemployment or homelessness. They are also more likely to become involved in crime. Studies have also shown that two out of three excluded pupils never return to school - more than two million school days are lost each year as a result. Having special educational needs increases the likelihood of exclusion sevenfold, and 34 per cent of pupils excluded are from lone-parent families.

Exclusions are also expensive. Research by the think-tank Demos shows that as long ago as 1997, the costs incurred by all services involved was pound;81 million. To have kept these pupils in school would have cost pound;34 million.

What do teachers think?

The inadequacies of exclusion become apparent when you track the effect on individuals. But teachers don't deal with these individuals in isolation.

They see the part they play in a class and the influence they have, and they see the effects on themselves. They believe their needs are marginalised while wider social considerations are pursued. And the desire for revenge can run deep after pain or humiliation. Sometimes an exclusion can keep a hurt or offended teacher in school because it brings a sense of finality. The head may deem it preferable to having a teacher phone in sick.

The head knows the staff will pull together to support one of their own. In this way exclusion takes its place in the politics of the school. It becomes a challenge to the leadership: evidence shows that when procedures for dealing with behaviour are circumvented and pupils are sent directly to senior staff, they are more likely to be excluded immediately. If a pupil swears and the teacher announces to the class that he or she will be excluded, what options does the head have? Suddenly the potentially excluded pupil can become a pawn in the staffroom game of chess.

Are there alternatives?

There must be. Some pupils are temperamentally unsuited to classroom teaching, and realistic provision must be made for them. But exclusion should be part of a planned and managed behaviour strategy, and the ultimate sanction doesn't work for everyone. Alternative punitive sanctions can be suggested, such as exclusion from class with supervision from another teacher - perhaps in some sort of "sin bin". But such arrangements can breed resentment and are expensive to run, and teachers don't like staffing them. Ensuring their success can take a lot of school management time, which is not necessarily cost-effective.

The most productive alternatives place the need for developments firmly in the classroom. Planning and preparation by the teacher and flexible curriculum arrangements, especially at key stage 4, with the provision of off-site opportunities, are more effective. But alternatives are expensive or long-term, often both. They do not give the instant and dramatic "quick fix" of an exclusion.

Permanent exclusion Revised guidance from the DfES in early 2002 says permanent exclusion should "generally be used only as a last resort when a range of other strategies has been exhausted". Permanent exclusion for a first offence remains an option for sexual misconduct, drugs offences and incidents involving an offensive weapon.

The LEA has a central role to play but, to a large extent, it is unable to influence events. It is the referee on fixed-term exclusions and it has to pick up the pieces after a permanent exclusion. The problem is schools'

natural reluctance to take on someone else's problem pupil - hence the Government's suggestion of attaching "dowries" to these pupils when they change schools. Certainly, without extra cash a school might be unable to give the support they need.

The requirement upon the LEA has been to establish pupil referral units (PRUs) to accommodate challenging pupils, but teachers do not regard them as attractive places in which to work. PRUs require sensitive, mature, confident and charismatic teachers of the highest quality. And if you are such a teacher, the one all schools are searching for, do you really need to take on such challenges?

Schools reflect the society they serve. If some communities are under strain, those tensions will be reflected in their schools. If schools are put under pressure to produce results to meet arbitrary targets that are forever cranked upwards, and some pupils are seen as a barrier to achieving them, it is little surprise that the schools act to protect jobs and reputations.

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