There is a category of child in the school system whose care is often of a lamentably low standard. In far too many parts of the country exclusion from school results in a level of neglect more commonly associated with the times of Charles Dickens and the Artful Dodger than the 21st century.
In August last year Ofsted reported that the result of this neglect is that vulnerable children can drift into crime, substance abuse, prostitution and early pregnancy, before graduating to our adult penal system.
School exclusion is a topic of great controversy. It divides teachers, politicians and the public. Emotions can run high and intelligent debate is generally rare. The "one off" offender, the sad, the criminally inclined and the mentally ill are often lumped together in discussion, while the only factor they share is the likelihood of their education grinding to a halt.
It is right to want to protect children and teachers from the behaviour of the unruly or the violent. We may sympathise with the Artful Dodger, but we also recognise the impact he may have on the education and happiness of other children. This should not lead us accept a tacit policy of neglect for those children who most need support.
The question of what to do with very challenging children is difficult, but we must not avoid engaging with the problem. There is an enormous disparity across the country in the provision for children who are not taught in a mainstream setting. Schools, local authorities and ministers have all been complicit for far too long in tolerating what should be unacceptable.
The Importance of Teaching white paper contained a curious mix of policy proposals on pupil behaviour. Some were unwise, or irrelevant to the problem. Others were truly radical and deserve full support. They will require courage and commitment from ministers if they are to be successfully implemented, but they offer a real chance of something better for many of our children and for society at large. Chief among the proposals was the suggestion that schools should retain responsibility for pupils they exclude, using delegated funding to buy appropriate placements.
This may alarm some headteachers and commentators. It should not.
The continued decline of local authorities and greater autonomy for schools means such delegation is inevitable. It is also right. Schools have a duty of care to all their children and who is better placed to make educational decisions? It does not mean that necessary exclusions will not take place, but that when exclusion occurs, the pupil will be properly cared for to the benefit of all. In many schools this already happens, with the enthusiastic support of the police and community services. As with so much in our school system our need is to ensure best practice becomes universal practice.
Such a radical change will not be easy to implement. Ministers and schools need to work closely together to overcome the difficulties, and there are many. At a time of financial pressure, cynical heads may wonder if they are being given responsibility for excluded pupils without the resources to carry them out. Some children in alternative provision have not been excluded from school - so who will be responsible for them? Some residual local authority seems essential.
These are significant challenges that will need to be overcome, but they are nothing compared to the task of changing some of the attitudes within the school system. This will require leadership from heads and government. It must stop being acceptable for a minority of schools to disregard their legal duties when managing an exclusion. How do we teach respect for the law if we ignore it when it suits us? One might have similar concerns over school admissions.
Will schools be less willing to admit children with particular needs if they know that their responsibility to them has been extended? The Government's desire to simplify the admissions code must not lead to ever-higher levels of covert selection in some schools if the commitment of David Cameron and Michael Gove to a more fair and equal society is to have any meaning. Overcoming these problems will require courage and vision from schools and ministers. In a world of autonomy it remains unclear how schools are to be properly challenged in such matters, but it is in everybody's interests that they are.
Changing attitudes and practices on school exclusion will take time.
For children out of mainstream schooling and in alternative provision the white paper contained another proposal to applaud. By this September all local authorities will be required to provide a full-time education to all children in their care. No longer will excluded children, or those with other reasons for being outside mainstream schooling, have to accept the mockery of the "hour a week" supplied by some home tuition services. It is in areas where this has been the custom that Fagin would flourish!
Once again the Government needs to show courage in implementing this change. Local authorities have long held a responsibility to properly educate these children, yet some have failed abysmally. In future, the needs of children educated outside mainstream schools must have a higher profile in our system and their care form part of a rigorous inspection process. They have been neglected long enough.
In making these proposals Mr Gove has set a moral challenge to schools and local authorities. It is a challenge that needs to be welcomed and met.
Sir Alan Steer is a former headteacher and government behaviour adviser (2005-2010).