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Exclusion time-bomb

Dr Carl Parsons' report on pupil exclusions for the Department for Education and Employment has been encumbered with a title that can induce sleep quicker than any hypnotist's watch: "National Survey of Local Education Authorities' Policies and Procedures for the Identification of, and Provision for, Children who are out of School by Reason of Exclusion or Otherwise". But its troubling findings should jolt us all awake.

He points to the increase in permanent exclusions, the marked variation in LEA exclusion rates , and the small percentage of excluded pupils who are being returned to mainstream schooling. In some respects this is primarily a social, rather than educational, phenomenon. Professors Michael Rutter and David Smith recently highlighted the dramatic rise in psychosocial disorders among children and teenagers throughout the Western world since 1945. But it is undoubtedly true that there are factors at work in the education service that have contributed to the rise in exclusions.

Why should schools carry on wrestling (sometimes literally) with disturbed pupils at a time when they face bigger classes, receive less support from local authorities, and are less able to pay for the extra staffing bills that such children create? Why accept a child excluded from another school when he (secondary boys are four times as likely as girls to be excluded) will almost certainly depress your school'sperformance table scores and risk attracting bad publicity?

So what is to be done? Appeals tribunals and local authorities can always force schools to accept excluded pupils - provided there is sufficient space - but Dr Parsons is right to prefer measures that reduce the possibility of a child being excluded in the first place. The Government's more sophisticated approach to children who commit drug offences - the DFEE has said that a criminal offence should not automatically lead to exclusion - is one step forward. But there need to be two or three more. Despite their own cash and staffing problems, LEAs must try to do more to help schools cope with behaviourally difficult pupils. They must also strive even harder to ensure that excluded pupils are returned to mainstream education as quickly as possible. Home tutoring is no real solution as it can take up to nine months to arrange and amount to no more than an hour a day of tuition, slotted in somewhere between the breakfast-time TV cartoons and Home and Away.

As Ministers never tire of pointing out, however, extra resources are not the only answer. There needs to be more research into why exclusion rates have gone down in one in four authorities, and why it is that teenage boys present so many problems. If the increase in exclusion problem is to be arrested we will need to know even more about how 14 and 15-year-old boys tick - and all too often explode.

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