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Exclusion confusion

ANOTHER week, another batch of confusing messages on how to maintain discipline in the classroom.

The confusion did not arise from Welsh headteacher Marjorie Evans's conviction for slapping a 10-year-old pupil who admitted trying to push, punch and butt her. The message the court sent out was unequivocal: teachers must turn the other cheek - no matter how much provocation they have to endure.

But what are we to make of the Government's U-turn on exclusions? Ministers appear sincere in their commitment to educational inclusion. However, by trying to appease headteachers - and head off threatened industrial action - they have ended up with a ludicrously contradictory exclusions strategy.

Headteachers have now been told that appeal panels will not be able to reinstate pupils who are permanently excluded for serious breaches of discipline. But schools will still be expected to reduce the number of exclusions by a third. That is like asking judges to introduce tougher sentences while reducing the size of the prison population. A clever trick if it can be carried off - but don't hold your breath. Instead of setting unrealistic exclusion targets ministers shoul be diverting more resources to tackling anti-social behaviour in the infant and primary classroom (United States research suggests that there is little scope for "correcting" aggression after the age of nine).

The Government should also provide schools with hundreds of social workers who are specially trained in anger management and conflict resolution. Home Office-funded trials have demonstrated that they can dramatically reduce the number of flash-points that lead to exclusions.

But as many young people will continue to invite exclusion it is evident that more - and better - pupil-referral units need to be established. David Blunkett has already said he intends to open a further 580 "learning support units", but it remains to be seen how successful this very welcome expansion programme will be.

A recent study of pupil-referral units showed that many were hampered by a lack of facilities, equipment and expertise (they often cannot offer classes in design and technology, foreign languages and science). Unless that changes many of these units will continue to be little more than dumping grounds. And we will all pay the price for that failure.

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