Heads hold key to exclusion rate

The attitudes of senior secondary staff are closely related to the number of pupils who are excluded, according to a major study of exclusions carried out by Moray House Institute for the Scottish Office.

Schools with similar catchment areas and pupils were found to have widely diverging rates of exclusion. The researchers, headed by Professor Pamela Munn, conclude: "Schools matter; the attitudes of staff play a crucial role in creating the context for educational success or for disaffection and disruption."

Case studies showed that schools with a higher use of exclusion were characterised by a management style that narrowly defined the teacher's role, the purposes of the school and the nature of what was acceptable from pupils.

Relationships between teacher and pupils were an important factor and confrontation and coercion seemed more common in the higher excluding schools. Such exclusions were often ineffective. A reluctance to talk over problems and generally poor interpersonal skills also led to more exclusions.

Schools are urged to consider why pupils misbehave. Incentives and recognition of good behaviour and work through praise were effective in promoting good behaviour. Boys were more likely to be excluded but schools often failed to recognise the gender pattern.

The researchers found that schools with high rates of exclusion tended to take a narrower view of the curriculum offered to pupils. "They tended to focus on academic work at the expense of the curriculum for personal and social development, which therefore lacked status," they comment.

The potential of the informal curriculum to motivate less academic pupils was sometimes missed by secondaries. "Unmet learning needs resulted in misbehaviour and fuelled the use of exclusion."

The research team concludes: "Rigid, hierarchical discipline systems in themselves encouraged the use of exclusion."

In primaries, there were more similarities than differences between high and low excluding schools. Optimism about the success of inclusive educational policies was based on ideas about early intervention and gaining parents' trust. It was often stressful for staff in resolving the conflict between the task of setting standards and the need to support pupils who could not always meet these standards.

The researchers state: "There was also conflict between the needs of the majority and the needs of the disruptive minority. Exclusion reinforced the importance of teaching the compliant majority." Headteachers had a key role in promoting the culture of the school.

Case studies of excluded pupils revealed that almost all of them say their exclusion was often triggered by an incident they felt was trivial or interpreted in a biased way by teachers. School was not dismissed as pointless or useless by pupils or parents, although individual teachers were seen as contributing to a child's problem.

Pupils who made an effort to improve their conduct put this down to maturity and parent pressure. There was a tendency for pupils to be passive and expect change in behaviour to come from outside themselves.

The majority of parents wanted their children to fit in. Communication between schools and parents appeared generally difficult and time consuming and the role of external professionals was not always clear to parents.

The report's main messages For ministers

* There is a need for more comprehensive information than the total number of exclusions.

* More information is also needed on provision for young people who are repeatedly or permanently excluded.

* Parents should be made aware of their responsibility to ensure attendance and obedience to school rules.

For local authorities * Better monitoring of exclusion and a regular analysis of patterns and variations in exclusion rates.

* Range of off-site provision should be reviewed and a continuum of provision developed.

* Officials should pay more attention to primary schools in developing policy and procedures.

* Coherent staff development is needed to promote positive educational experiences in schools.

For schools

* The ethos of the school should be reviewed to ensure values espoused on paper are acted on. Perceptions about the role and remit of teachers and schools had a profound influence on exclusion rates.

* Exclusion should be seen by pupils as an effective sanction not a holiday.

* The educational experience of pupils in danger of exclusion should be considered. Learning support and guidance staff should be involved.

* Schools should recognise the importance of inter-agency work.

* Data should be used to review school policy and practice. Schools need to question why boys, particularly in third and fourth year, are excluded much more often than girls, as are disadvantaged pupils and those from minorities.

* Teachers need to work with parents to prevent problems and on solving them when they occur.

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