In spite of one or two highly publicised cases in which expulsions have been reversed by independent panels, many authorities are now reluctant to interfere when schools feel they have reached the end of the road with a pupil, or to insist that other schools accept them. As one chief education officer is reported to have said, "There is no point in locking horns with governors over exclusions."
Powers which, on paper at least, enable authorities to direct admission or reinstatement are widely seen as unenforceable, particularly with grant-maintained schools. But the prospect of local authorities being forced to undergo OFSTED inspections in the near future - with exclusion rates and education of children outside school high on the inspectors' agenda - may lead authorities to shed their diffidence.
Schools may soon find LEAs taking a tougher line, ordering reinstatement or compelling other schools to accept excluded pupils, under duties proposed in the Education Bill and new guidance promised from the DFEE.
Exclusions continue to rise nationally. But it has not gone unnoticed that, whereas in some authorities the rate of expulsions has doubled, in a few the numbers have stabilised or even fallen. OFSTED has already published a highly critical report on pupil referral units, and is due to publish a report on exclusions shortly. Higher-than-average exclusion rates could be one of the performance indicators used to decide which LEAs need inspecting most urgently; further incentive, if they needed it, for authorities to review the way they deal with exclusions.
Until three years ago no one knew how many pupils were being expelled. Surveys by Dr Carl Parsons, of Christchurch College, Canterbury, have since revealed that numbers are rising rapidly, from around 8,000 in 199293 to 13,400 in 199596. Exclusions increased in three-quarters of LEAs over the past year.
Fewer than one pupil in 100 is excluded from secondary school (where four out of five exclusions take place, with a peak in year 10). But, while the numbers are not large, the pupils most affected are already the most socially and educationally vulnerable.
Their future is likely to be bleak. Only about 15 per cent of those excluded from secondaries return to mainstream schools; 40 per cent may go to pupil referral units, though usually only for half-time or less, and about a quarter get a few hours of home tuition. According to a recent survey, only three authorities provide more than 10 hours of tuition a week to permanently excluded pupils.
Several factors have been blamed for the increase. According to Carl Parsons, reasons include the pressure on schools to achieve in performance tables and compete for admissions; the imposition of a national curriculum, which does not necessarily suit all pupils; a rise in the numbers of children with psychiatric problems; and the growing economic and social pressures on young people and on family life.
Others point to shortfalls and delays in funding pupils' special needs at a time when emotional and behavioural difficulties are said to be increasing; to attempts, without sufficient training and support, to integrate pupils who would once have been in special schools; and to an increasingly punitive approach to disruptive children or at least a feeling that they should not benefit from their behaviour. One DFEE official talks of a reluctance to provide "goodies for baddies".
There is concern that Afro-Caribbean boys are over-represented among those excluded. And DFEE figures, as yet unpublished, are believed to show a third of those expelled from secondary schools (two-thirds from primaries) are children in local authority care. More than one in 10 excluded pupils are said to have statements of special educational need. Excluded boys outnumber girls by four to one.
In response, the Government is addressing discipline and exclusions in it latest Education Bill. It plans to provide a legal basis for detention; nine weeks' fixed-term exclusion a year instead of three weeks a term; mandatory school discipline policies; to permit under-subscribed schools to make home-school agreements a condition of admission; to allow LEAs to choose the school a child should attend after two exclusions; and to improve management for pupil referral units.
The Bill will also require authorities to maintain a statement of the arrangements they make for the education of children with behavioural difficulties, including their advice and assistance to "relevant" schools, the arrangements made for excluded pupils, and how they assist children with behavioural difficulties back into schools.
The Bill makes it clear that the authority is to have an active co-ordinating role in all this and that "relevant schools" includes the GM sector. There have been allegations in some areas that GM schools are excluding awkward children too freely and refusing to accept their share of pupils excluded from other schools. Overall exclusion rates of GM schools are not higher than average, but their intake is not regarded as representative either.
How authorities should achieve this co-ordinating role will be the subject of guidance from the DFEE. And last week it was made clear by DFEE sources that even if the Bill does not make it through Parliament before the General Election, guidance is likely to be issued anyway, a promise instantly applauded by Graham Lane, chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities education committee, who welcomes restoration of some local authority powers in this area.
Croydon is one authority that has reduced exclusions through the kind of co-ordination envisaged in the Bill. Permanent exclusions in the borough peaked at 179 in 199495 but fell to 158 last year - including GM schools - thanks to a package of measures. A Pounds 3,000 bonus to schools that reintegrate an excluded pupil for at least two terms was offered, but heads preferred to see the money used in additional support services.
Croydon's education officer, Malcolm Peckham, says, "We are trying to work together, to eliminate a blame culture in order to eliminate exclusions. " The vast majority of heads try to retain children in schools at considerable cost, he adds. One teacher had her nose broken recently and still the special school involved did not permanently exclude. "That is a level of professionalism that doesn't get advertised enough."
A placement review panel, with full GM representation, oversees exclusion patterns and reinstatements. A 15-point advice and support package for parents includes an advice hotline and LEA warning leaflets for parents whose child is in danger of exclusion.
Other initiatives in Croydon include school improvement and pupil motivation studies, teacher and support-assistant training in behaviour management, upgrading PRUs, a code of practice on permanent exclusions, a study of black pupils' achievements, and efforts to work with voluntary groups. These have all been consolidated into an 18-point action plan.