A little grease

The Government's promise to do something about disruptive pupils at the end of a long summer of discontent was barely touched upon by Gillian Shephard last week in an uninspiring speech to the Conservative party conference. As far as the intentions of her Bill can be divined, once again it leaves the causes and treatment of anti-social behaviour in schools untouched. Instead it fiddles with the bureaucracy for coping with the results.

The fact that the Government is doing anything at all owes less to the recent threefold explosion in permanent exclusions than to the awkward publicity arising out of a small number of contested exclusions given a high profile by teachers' reactions. In Government, as in schools, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But it is pretty thin stuff. Allowing schools to exclude for nine weeks in one go rather than three will simply ensure that the pupils most in need of order, structure and a sense of worth will spend more time in limbo with no guarantee of alternative education.

It is not certain how the Bill will "make sure that local education authorities make proper arrangements for those pupils", as Mrs Shephard put it. If, as expected, this amounts to no more than compelling them to publish details of the services provided for such pupils, it will be no more effective than the present requirement that LEAs publish their arrangements for pupils with special educational needs.

Tough-sounding crackdowns aimed at inadequate parents may go down well with the party faithful. At ground level things often look different. Mrs Shephard may be willing to contemplate after-school detention without prior warning; it is unlikely that many governors will if they think about the unnecessary anxiety this can cause to parents.

Making school admissions conditional on home-school agreements promises to create more problems than it solves, and to what end? Schools are already legally empowered to enforce reasonable school rules to the point of exclusion provided they observe due process.

Such agreements may highlight pupil and parent acknowledgement of the deal. But if distinctive forms of veto are to be allowed to every school - even local authority schools not currently responsible for their own admissions - administering admissions will become a nightmare. Oversubscribed schools will be able to specify what kinds of pupils and families they are prepared to do business with. But what provision is to be made for the children of refuseniks? Are schools to be compelled to take them anyway, or are they simply to pass straight from cradle to pupil referral unit?

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