Are you a keepemin or a kickemout?
The conflict between the "keepemins" and the "kickemouts" is hotting up. In some places it amounts to a "dirty war" and as usual the first casualty seems to be truth, killed by flying soundbites. How often have you heard the argument that "schools must retain the right to decide on permanent exclusions to protect teachers from assault by pupils"? It is used to support the view that the rights of schools to exclude should not be reduced. In fact, barely one in 80 pupils is excluded for physically assaulting teachers. For the other 79, there is little real opportunity to challenge unfair decisions, although everyone agrees that exclusion should be avoided if possible. So what is possible?
The Government has set its sights low. It is looking for a reduction in permanent exclusion rates over the next two years of one third, or about 4,000 pupils annually. It amounts to asking each secondary school (on average) to hang on to one pupil each year who might have been permanently excluded - surely not a huge demand. But every permanent exclusion happens, presumably, because the school governors believed they had no other choice.
Where can alternative strategies can be found? Well, there's Newham for a start. In 1998, the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions identified Newham as having the second highest level of urban deprivation in England, with high unemployment and poor housing. By 2006 a projected 55 per cent of its population will come from ethnic minorities (the highest proportion of exclusions involve children in these groups). And yet Newham has one of the lowest proportions of its children in special school and the lowest exclusion rate in London. In fact, Langdon School has not permanently excluded anyone for three years. Unless Newham kids are peculiarly well behaved something special must be happening both at school level and at local education authority level. Eleven out of 13 Newham schools also earned a progress mark for improvements in their GCSE results last year. Could this have something to do with the way the staff relate to their pupils, and how schools manage behaviour as well as learning?
We don't have to generalise from just one LEA. If you compare exclusion rates with GCSE pass rates LEA by LEA across England, a clear trend can be seen: as GCSE pass rates go up, exclusion rates come down. The figures fly in the face of the claim made by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers that "one target is knocking out another. Targets for GCSE test results are being made more difficult to achieve by insisting on these exclusion reduction targets". In the light of Newham's performance, a more realistic interpretation is that schools which manage learning well also manage behaviour well.
The NASUWT is not alone in suggesting that difficult children are kept in school at the expense of those who are well behaved. This myth is virtually guaranteed to trigger the anxieties of parents, and ensure that self-interest is on the side of the kickemouts. In fact, inclusive policies are more economical in the short term, and more likely to break the cycle of social failure, reducing youth crime and delinquency, so as to encourage a better quality of life for the whole community over the longer term.
Inclusion is first and foremost about whole school management and the promotion of an ethos which benefits every single child. Those who are at risk of exclusion will find their way back from the cliff-edge, those who are less ostentatiously disaffected will become better adjusted, the fearful majority will be less stressed and work harder, and the high flyers will find it easier to contribute to a thriving school community as well as achieve their good results.
Vanessa Wiseman, head of Langdon School, says that her school does not have a "no permanent exclusions" policy. But she and the governors simply do everything possible to avoid taking this step, and have done so successfully for three years. But the credit should not go entirely to the staff and governors. The pupils themselves have achieved this, in co-operation with the adults around them.
The traditional view of teachers as powerful figures dispensing knowledge and instruction to obedient children has an attractive, even romantic, aspect. But in today's raucous, fast-moving, push-button environment a different approach is more effective. The keepemins have learned another kind of power - based on relationship, transaction and skilled communication. These skills are good for all children, and it just so happens they make exclusions more avoidable, too.
What does it take to make a kickemout into a keepemin? Personalities are important in the school relationship, and style too. Pupils are far more likely to co-operate with teachers they like - those who are firm but fair and with a sense of humour. It's important not to lose sight of the individual pupil-teacher relationship, and the value of little details such as a well-aimed and well-timed smile. Every teacher should be willing to learn the social skills which enable the best teachers to cope with the worst pupils - to understand for instance the power of projecting a sense of "approval", and how this differs from well-earned praise.
But when the Office for Standards in Education inspected Newham schools they concluded that their success had been achieved by a determination not to accept failure, imaginative leadership and the careful targeting of funding towards inclusive priorities. Keepemins are fuelled by this powerful mixture of idealism and pragmatism. It's a choice that professionals can make, and one which generates a rich reward in self-respect and personal development.
Adam Abdelnoor is a chartered psychologist specialising in working with excluded children and the management of change for inclusion. His book 'Preventing exclusions' is published by Heinemann on November 5.