Last week's media interest in the success of an Essex school's crackdown on poor behaviour raises an important question: why do some schools send home more pupils than others to maintain good discipline?
Tendring Technology College in Thorpe-le-Soken, Frinton, believes its zero-tolerance approach to managing behaviour is one reason for the school's improved results. In 2004, 48 per cent of pupils were gaining five good GCSE grades. By 2008 this figure had risen to 74 per cent. Last year there were 478 fixed-term exclusions there - almost three times the national average.
One can understand why certain sections of the media loved the story. There's nothing like a clampdown on behaviour to appeal to the wider public, whose often negative perception of young people - as highlighted in this week's report from Barnardo's - appears so often to be at odds with their own more positive experiences as parents.
And there is much to admire in what Tendring has established. After all, many of the principles underpinning the school's approach are accepted good practice. It is widely acknowledged that effective behaviour systems are based on a clear set of well-understood procedures consistently applied. This approach would appear to be at the heart of Tendring's success and was praised by Ofsted in 2007. It means that Tendring's teachers have more time to focus on actual teaching, rather than wasting time and energy dealing with poor behaviour. This is good for staff morale. It also ensures pupils and parents know where they stand.
Yet the question remains: why are fixed-term exclusions at the school so high? They are running at nearly three every day of term. There are many examples of schools that achieve equally good results while serving similar communities without excluding so often. A closer look at Tendring's figures may reveal the answer. While the number of exclusions equates to approximately a quarter of the school, the actual number of individual pupils excluded represents only about 4 per cent of the school population. One can see how such figures can appear to overstate the issue.
However, given the high levels of exclusions, one can only conclude that the vast majority of those excluded are repeat offenders. In other words, while the exclusion policy is working for the majority, it would appear to be ineffective in changing the behaviour of a specific minority. If it were, the same pupils wouldn't be excluded continually. This is perhaps not surprising when one considers that young people often don't see being sent home as a deterrent. Indeed, for many it is a welcome excuse to stay at home or wander the streets.
Overuse of fixed-term exclusions can also exacerbate inequalities within the system. Figures released earlier this year show that pupils entitled to free school meals last year were more than twice as likely to be excluded than their peers. If schools are serious about narrowing the achievement gap, then the practice of sending home those we already know to be at the greatest risk of underachieving needs to be considered carefully.
In response, many schools have introduced what is often referred to as internal exclusion, where pupils are isolated from their peers but remain in school, often even losing the right to socialise with their peers at break and lunchtimes. This is not simply a response designed to keep Ofsted happy by reducing exclusion figures. It is an acknowledgement that this type of sanction is both a greater deterrent than fixed-term exclusion and doesn't place an often unrealistic expectation on families to supervise their excluded children. Because - despite the fact that local authorities now have the power to fine parents up to Pounds 50 if they don't keep errant pupils at home to complete homework set by the school - many are unable or reluctant to take time off work. Which means that young people are often left unsupervised. And well know that is likely to lead to more instances of anti-social behaviour and other offences.
Of course, establishing an effective internal exclusion system requires additional investment and careful planning. Some schools have established an exclusion room, staffed by either a teacher or member of support staff. Others use discrete areas of the school, such as administration corridors, removing the requirement for direct supervision. Whichever model is adopted, avoiding the need to send pupils home is appreciated by parents and ensures the experience isn't seen as a soft option by pupils.
Tendring and other schools like it should be applauded for taking a no-nonsense approach to discipline, and they are right to ask parents to support the school when it comes to maintaining high standards of behaviour. But we need to make sure that the core of any school's behaviour policy focuses on both pupils accepting responsibility for their own behaviour and schools responding in a balanced way when things go wrong. Sending pupils home is an important part of any school's behaviour system. But the challenge for schools has to be getting the balance right.
Andy Buck's 'Making School Work: A Practical Approach to Secondary School Leadership', is available at http:greenex.co.uk
Andy Buck, Partnership headteacher at the Eastbrook-Jo Richardson partnership in Barking and Dagenham, east London.