A real alternative to exclusion

1st May 1998 at 01:00
As the Scottish Office launched new guidelines this week, Seonag MacKinnon saw how West Lothian tackles problem pupils

The headteacher hurrying along the corridor had a sense of deja vu when she passed pupils drumming their heels outside classroom doors.

"It was always the same children," says Kate Reid. "I used to wish I had the resources to do something effective about them."

Now that the Government has made serious sums of money available, Mrs Reid is implementing hard headed alternatives to exclusion for troubled and troublesome kids.

As West Lothian's head of educational development and quality assurance she has the real clout that so many headteachers long for. She can make decisions about people, strategies and cash. From outside West Lothian others are asking how this small authority does it.

In the space of a year exclusions from the 11 secondaries have dropped from 27 to seven. It is more difficult to quantify the benefit in human terms to individual children who show signs of long-term disaffection from school and society. But a research project has gone out to tender to analyse the results and how they are achieved.

West Lothian has been given pound;54,545 as part of the Scottish Office's scheme to encourage pioneering projects to create alternatives to exclusion. But the major money has been freed in an unusual way.

Kate Reid asked schools in the east side of the authority to analyse funding claims for children with special needs in schools from the west side, and vice versa.

So practitioners in the field, rather than central office bureaucrats, assessed what resources each school should receive.

Teachers even had power to spot check each other's submissions by asking to see individual children. So any school overstating the needs of any child in a bid to win extra resources could be told: "Come off it."

Nine of the 11 schools accepted the final resource allocation as fair and independent. Two schools appealed to education officials, one successfully.

More cash was saved from other services. Excluded children who were coming towards the end of their spell in a residential school were withdrawn, and two non-residential schools for excluded children were shut down. A single unit took their place.

So, with pound;250,000 to draw upon, West Lothian embarked last August on a radically new way of dealing with difficult pupils.

The key principle is that schools handle their own through a new in-house learning support base, rather than shunt them out to establishments away from their own communities. The feeling is that exile leads to a lack of continuity and stability and creates social isolation.

Each school has taken a slightly different tack. Varying degrees of money have been spent on IT equipment, teachers and support staff. Teachers at the end of their tether with a disruptive child can now send him somewhere besides the corridor and the school gate.

The council's pupil support manager, Mary Toner, stresses that children have to be referred to the support bases. "These bases are not sin bins. They're not there for teachers trying to reduce the size of their class or to prop up a teacher who's poor on discipline. We have a referral system based on the needs of kids, not staff."

A child who blows up in class can be removed to the calm small group setting of the base. Children who have not reached a crisis, but whose needs are significant, may also be channelled through the base.

If they are totally out of control, possibly because of problems at home, they may be full time in the base. But they still do work prepared by their subject teachers so that they don't lose further ground. Other agencies such as health or social workers may be called in.

Each child's case is reviewed after a month. Then the child might, for instance, feed back into mainstream maths and physical education, but cut down to two periods of modern languages a week and spend the time in anger control counselling instead. Some may be in the base for just a day, some for just a few subjects.

Mrs Toner says the effect of the scheme is "marked". "We are very hopeful that research will show that it has impacted on the education of all children, and that ethos and morale and stress levels have altered in schools."

She points out, however, that children may still be formally or informally excluded. "If they are sent home for two to three days, it gives a message to the parents, to the child and to other children about what will not be tolerated. But exclusion will be a last resort. Before it was the only tool teachers had and it was overused."

Mrs Reid hopes that exclusions will eventually phase out altogether through proactive care of children long before they reach crisis point.

Secondary staff are now spending time in primaries, building up a relationship with P7 children and identifying those who could be at risk of going to pieces when they get into S1. In future they hope to build bridges with even younger children.

A long-term financial saving to the council is a possible spin-off from the scheme, because ignoring problems can cost money.

As a headteacher Mrs Reid fought unsuccessfully to secure pound;8,000 for a resource which she felt could have helped turn a particular pupil around. His unresolved problems later escalated until he cost the authority pound;43,000 a year.

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