Schools must become hubs of local learning and service networks rather than self-contained institutions set aside from the outside world, according to a new pamphlet on social exclusion from the independent think tank, Demos.
The concentration of poverty and wealth over the past 20 years has meant that children who experience multiple deprivation are now more likely than ever to be lumped together in schools with a reputation for low achievement and high truancy, argues Tom Bentley in an essay, "Learning to Belong". Young people in deprived neighbourhoods may have no positive role models or wider ties to the outside world and the attitude to education in such communities is often deeply ambivalent and sometimes openly hostile.
Many schools are too rigid to give young people in such circumstances the right kinds of support, says Mr Bentley, a senior researcher with Demos. They tend to do badly at preventing problems or weaknesses from getting worse, so that young people with problems get caught in a vicious cycle.
"For hard-pressed professionals working with limited resources, it is difficult to spend much time or energy on such problems if they seem to detract from the core goals of the institution and to divert resources from other pupils," he says. The indicators by which schools' performance is judged - mainly exam results and attendance rates - also encourage them to focus on pupils who meet threshold conditions with ease. "The result," he says, "is a growing body of disaffected under-achievers and a leakage of young people from institutions through demotivation, truancy, criminal offending and exclusion. "
Where the surrounding environment is hostile to education, it is understandable that schools "pull up the drawbridge". Yet strategies for combating social exclusion depend on breaking down barriers: "between schools and communities, between formal and informal learning, and between professional and lay knowledge".
One way of doing this, especially where communities depend on other forms of state support, is to work towards integrating other family and social services with mainstream education, Mr Bentley says. In New York, several schools in deprived urban communities base family, health and social services within the school. Many community colleges in England offer "cradle-to-grave" education.
Disaffection and behavioural problems can be addressed within schools, rather than resorting to tighter control and exclusion, argues Mr Bentley. He praises Youth Link in Surrey, which brings together educational psychologists, youth and social workers and teachers to support for disaffected pupils still in school.
For some young people, however, school has already become too much to cope with. For this group, the aim must be to guide them from the margins back to the mainstream by nurturing their confidence, motivation and emotional development alongside skills and knowledge.
As a striking example of this approach, Mr Bentley singles out the Dalston Youth Project. This is a mentoring and educational support programme in the London borough of Hackney for 15 to 18-year-olds who have been excluded from school and are at risk of becoming persistent criminal offenders. Central to the programme is the designation of an adult mentor for each young person, often from the same ethnic background, The project's results so far have been impressive, Mr Bentley says, with nearly three-quarters of young people in the first cycle ending up in college, training or work and arrests down by 61 per cent.
Mr Bentley will be publishing a book, Learning beyond the classroom, next year, and is also involved with a new, two-year project on "Reaching young people beyond the fringes of the state" which Demos is conducting jointly with Save the Children, Pilot Light and Centre Point.
"The wealth and poverty of networks: tackling social exclusion" is available at Pounds 8 from Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4V 6AP, tel 0171 353 4479, or fax 0171 353 4481.