No cheap inclusion deals

Progress has been made on truancy. Further success will depend on the Government demonstrating its commitment the hard way, says David Hart

The Government's social inclusion agenda is not yet "joined up". Delays in translating policy announcements into action are followed by a frenzied series of initiatives that appear to be unconnected. Mixed messages are received by schools. This would be a cause for concern at the best of times. It is a real worry when levels of pupil and parental misbehaviour have reached unprecedented heights.

The Government spent four years trying to drive down exclusions by dubious target-setting, policed by local education authorities and independent appeal panels. The Department for Education and Skills revised its exclusions circular more than once, but it still could not get it right. Now targets have been abandoned, uncertainties remain. Drug dealing is outlawed. Possession, even of Class A or B drugs, is treated more leniently. This is no help to schools that have zero-tolerance drug policies. Violence is treated with the utmost seriousness. Nothing is said about other criminal offences. Theft away from school can lead to custody. Theft in school is ignored.

Heads, above all, want to be strongly supported by governors, LEAs, appeal panels and government in their defence of decent standards of behaviour. It does not matter if schools have different behaviour policies, as long as they are adopted by their governors and applied fairly and consistently. Government should throw its weight behind the application of those policies. It must not issue guidance, or launch initiatives, that send confusing messages to those who are striving to maintain schools as "oases of calm".

It may be that last week's exclusion statistics demonstrate that stability has been restored to the exclusion process, but I suspect that the pressures on headteachers not to exclude will remain strong.

Truancy, or more accurately, parentally condoned absence, is a "besetting sin". We know 50,000 pupils per day are absent. We understand only too well that they will drift into crime and then into a life of unemployment. But what is needed is a coherent and comprehensive policy that tries to stop absence occurring and deals with it effectively once it starts.

The Government has "notched up" a number of pluses on this front. The Excellence in Cities programme and the Connexions strategy have given youngsters in deprived communities hope where there was once despair. Multi-disciplinary policies are tackling "problem families" more effectively than in the past. Parenting orders are being imposed. The courts are using the powers introduced by the Government. The sentences appear draconian at first sight, but let no one be under any doubt that they have already had an impact in the short term and may well affect behaviour in the long term.

Then, suddenly, the Government lurches off in the direction of child benefit deductions for parents who transgress. Yet we have not seen the implementation of the Government's promise to extend parenting orders further. And the ink is hardly dry on the very good truancy and crime reduction strategy, announced at the end of April, involving police in schools and other key initiatives.

So, school leaders are not convinced. They understand the need for ministers' "tough on crime: tough on the causes of crime" mantra. They can even appreciate that government policy has to have "a hard cop soft cop" routine, that it can apply flexibly.

But developments must be placed in the context of:

* a concerted drive to quicken the pace of educational inclusion - a policy that is deplorably underfunded and places great pressure on school staff;

* a recruitment and retention crisis caused partly by staff leaving early because they are not prepared to tolerate rising levels of pupil and parental misbehaviour;

* a demand for workload reduction that is an absolute necessity. The fact that staff workload has been increased by a larger number of dysfunctional families is undeniable;

* a standards agenda that places significant demands on school leaders and teachers. Targets and league tables are public manifestations of accountability. But they conceal the day-to-day work done by thousands of teachers to raise levels of attainment against the odds. Although the Government has done much to bring about a "sea change" in support for families from deprived neighbourhoods, there is still much to do to turn round the attitudes of a significant minority of pupils and their parents.

Government needs to understand that it is accountable to the most professional cohort of school leaders the education service has seen. They are entitled to a wide-ranging and coherent policy on inclusion supported by a comprehensive spending review that delivers substantial additional resources long term.

David Hart is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

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