An innovative scheme to reduce school exclusions by linking pupils with specialist charities appears to have had dramatic results, research shows. However, academics also found that the project has had to overcome concerns that non-teachers may be encroaching on teachers' territory.
Early figures show that exclusion rates across four Dundee secondary schools have fallen by 36 per cent since Inclusion Plus was introduced in 2013, from 686 in 2012-13 to 439 in 2013-14. The city as a whole had the worst exclusion rate in Scotland in 2012-13, at 96 per 1,000 pupils - three times the Scottish average.
Despite the improvements, however, initial findings from the University of Glasgow research reveal "challenges" arising from the scheme, "with the sense of imposition from outside having a [negative] effect in some of the school settings". The problems are particularly marked where similar services already exist in schools, according to researchers.
They add that Inclusion Plus staff should work to improve communication with school staff and make more effort to highlight the positives, notably the "significant drop" in the number of pupils excluded from the four schools.
The evidence also "strongly suggests" that Inclusion Plus has helped to improve the behaviour of pupils at risk of exclusion, the researchers say, largely thanks to the "therapeutic benefits" of giving pupils time and space "to reflect on their emotional responses and reasons for challenging behaviour".
Inclusion Plus is being delivered in four schools: Baldragon Academy, Braeview Academy, Craigie High School and St Paul's Academy.
Under the scheme, pupils at risk of exclusion benefit from one-to-one counselling to try to address the reasons for their poor behaviour and lack of engagement. They are also invited to take part in a broad range of other activities, both on school premises and elsewhere. These include outdoor adventures and entrepreneurial projects.
The three charities involved are Apex Scotland, which seeks to cut offending rates; SkillForce, which draws on the skills of ex-military personnel; and Includem, which specialises in building trusting relationships with troubled young people.
Despite the charities' involvement, the researchers insist that the work of schools remains "crucial" in reducing exclusions and that there is "no sense currently that school staff have serious concerns about the quality of work being delivered".
"Schools are key players - you can't just walk in and say `Here are these policies' willy-nilly, without taking into account what's already there," said Mark Murphy, who conducted the research with colleagues Chris Chapman, Stuart Hall and Kevin Lowden.
Dr Murphy, who is co-director of the University of Glasgow's Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, said it was "not surprising" that people would see outside agencies as "an imposition". However, he stressed that this finding applied only to some staff and should be seen in the context of the overall positive results.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said: "The EIS is clear that school discipline policies must always retain the option to exclude where necessary. However, alternatives to exclusion can be effective in managing behaviour while keeping pupils in the school, providing they are properly resourced."
Third sector involvement in such work was "not uncommon", he said, but maintaining discipline was proving challenging amid falling school staff numbers and significant cuts to specialist pupil support.
John Stodter, general secretary of education directors' body ADES, said that bringing in outside professionals was crucial in closing the attainment gap between poorer and more affluent children, as the problem should be solved by society as a whole.
"We should look at anything that helps us to address the challenges we have in closing the gap - it can't be done by teachers alone," he added.
Other professions, such as medicine, were more open to bringing in outside professionals with different areas of expertise, he said.