Government rhetoric may focus on the need to keep pupils in education, but more than 12,000 children were not welcome when English schools opened for the start of the academic year last week. Wendy Wallace on the pupils who didn't go back after the holidays.
For teachers and children in England, September means a return to school. It is a month of mixed emotions - excited anticipation countered by a large dollop of apprehension, the real start of the year. But for thousands of children in Britain, last week had nothing to do with new shoes and the pride of going up a year, but brought just more of the same - more mornings in bed followed by afternoons on the streets.
According to the Department for Education and Employment, more than 12,000 children of school age in England are out of school because they have been permanently excluded.
David's case typifies the lot of families, usually those already under maximum stress, that find themselves having to cope with a child on permanent school holiday. David - a well-dressed, wary-eyed seven-year-old - has been exhausting his mother since he was born. "He didn't sleep much, he always wanted to be played with and picked up," she says. He is still a handful.
On the day The TES visits, glass from the bottom of the front door is lying in jagged shards on the mat, the result of the previous evening's over-excitement. David has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which was diagnosed earlier this year and is now more or less controlled by medication, although he still "has his moments", his mother says.
Today he is lying on a pillow on the floor, watching Sweet Valley High on television. A shy boy who loves jigsaw puzzles and football, he was enthusiastic when he started at the local primary school at four - and a bit scared, remembers his mother. He found getting on with other children difficult, and responded badly to instructions. She was repeatedly called into school and told he was being spiteful and disruptive. "I felt he needed someone there to help him do the work," says his mother. "But his teacher said he'd get there."
Eighteen months ago, aged six, he was permanently excluded at the start of the summer term following an incident in which he was seen "strangling"another child. "I was a bit upset," says his mother. "You don't expect that sort of thing to happen to children that age."
She seems conscientious and loving but her concern now is as much for her own survival as David's education. She has another, younger, child. The children's father has not visited since May. David wakes at six or seven in the morning and doesn't sleep until 11pm, and she dare not let him out of her sight.
The exclusion has come close to breaking her. "It's been really hard," she says. "All day you have to do things with him and keep him entertained, whereas before I'd be getting a break while he was at school." She apologises for being a bit woozy, as she gets back underneath the duvet on the couch. She feels suicidal and the doctor has doubled the dose of her antidepressants. "I'm at the end of my tether," she says. "I can't seem to pull myself together."
David is slowly being reintegrated into school. Four local schools turned him down, (one saying it didn't take excluded children) but another a half-hour walk away - and with a nurture group to help children with emotional and behavioural difficulties - has taken him on. From this term, he will be able to attend school five mornings a week, having been in for three hours a week for the past year.
But after four terms out of full-time mainstream schooling, David has found his reading and writing are way behind his younger sister's. His self-esteem, fragile from the outset, has taken a further pounding.
David is just the kind of child who, according to Education Secretary David Blunkett, should not be thrown out of school. David's mother had requested that the statementing process begin, and David was already on stage 3 of the code of practice when he was ejected. With rates of permanent exclusion of statemented children seven times higher than for those without statements, the DFEE advises that "other than in the most exceptional circumstances, schools should avoid permanently excluding pupils with statements".
The Government is also particularly concerned about primary school pupils missing school. It says: "The Secretary of State expects that most primary-aged pupils excluded from school should be re-integrated within one term."
Lateesha, 14, has little in common with David, except the rarity with which she smiles. But as with David's situation, her permanent exclusion from school has done nothing to help an already precarious home life.
Lateesha came to live with her mother and four siblings in London last year, after being brought up by her grandmother in another part of England. Six months after starting her new secondary school, she was permanently excluded in February of this year, following a violent incident involving a large group of girls, in which a pupil was beaten up. Lateesha denies involvement, although she had already been the subject of a catalogue of incidents at school. "I like school work but not the people around," she says.
Relations at home, already difficult, deteriorated further once Lateesha had no school to go to. "She was getting on my nerves, being at home, idle, with nothing to do," says her mother. Lateesha moved on again, to her father's household, and the three hours a week of home tuition organised by the local authority fell by the wayside.
When, after three months, life at her father's wasn't working out, Lateesha came back to her mother's. Now, hunched and unresponsive in her puffa jacket, she just seems miserable.
Her mother's frustration with her immaculately groomed but sullen daughter is apparent, although she stuck up for her in the exclusion meeting and still believes she was treated unfairly. "She was with her grandmother for 10 years and she's been spoiled," she says. "Lateesha thinks I'm being hard on her but I've got to be."
Like a disproportionate number of excluded pupils, Lateesha is black. She complains of being "treated differently" from white pupils by some white teachers - kept waiting for help, for instance - and recounts various incidents which have lodged in her mind as examples of racial prejudice against her.
With her fragile pride, she resented being humiliated at school. "There was an assembly for all the bad kids and this teacher tried to force me to take my socks off in front of everyone. I would have done it if she'd talked to me quietly but everyone was laughing at me. From then on I hated her. And once a teacher gets on my nerves I get on theirs, every lesson." Lateesha says in one breath that she's longing to get back to school, and in the next that she doesn't care.
Lateesha and her mother are in touch with Vince Padi of the African and African-Caribbean People's Advisory Group (AACPAG), a charity supporting families with children struggling in or out of school. With good relationships with local heads, a mentoring system and a Saturday school to provide tailored teaching, AACPAG can help families and children who might otherwise be defeated by the system.
The two groups of children most at risk of exclusion, says Vince Padi, are the very intelligent - "bored out of their ears" - and the struggling "who haven't grasped the fundamentals".
Much of the Government's strategy for reducing exclusion rates - by one-third by 2002 - rests on roping in more parental support, for instance through the home-school agreements that have become mandatory this term. But, says Vince Padi, home visits over the past five years have shed light on uncomfortable truths for policy-makers. "Eighty-five per cent of our clients come from single-parent homes. The mother is lumbered with three or four jobs, and has to support the child. She doesn't understand the homework. There's nowhere to sit, or study, and you can't hear yourself think. She asks: 'have you done your homework?' But that's not support."
AACPAG has a parents' forum, where parents - who tend to feel as personally hurt by exclusion as their children do - can talk over education issues and offer mutual support.
Not all the children out of school this autumn have been formally shown the door. Some have simply slipped through the unreliable net at the bottom of the education system. Camila Batmanghelidjh runs an un-orthodox and thriving youth club in south London called the Arches, funded principally by charitable donations. Of the 300-plus children who walk through the gates each week, all, she says, have emotional and behavioural difficulties. Many are out of school, and 20 attend the part-time classes on offer in one of the club's railway arches during term-time afternoons.
Pupils range from Lemuel, the rangy 17-year-old leader of a local gang, to a nine-year-old who looks only six and whose parents are heroin addicts. In this school community, everybody has special needs and nobody is afraid to say so.
Lemuel tips back his chair, unselfconsciously holding a pink hardback copy of Disney's Cinderella. He casts his mind back to the end of his school career. "I got kicked out, then I was accepted back, about seven or eight months later. I was fighting a lot. I went back, had an incident with this boy, then I never went back after that." He was 14 then, he thinks. At school, he remembers "getting puzzled and frustrated, because I couldn't do it". But, he says: "Since I've been here, I've improved in myself. Before, I couldn't even say my ABC. Now I can see I need these things in life."
His friend Leon was excluded from one secondary school then taken into another. He recognised its shortcomings even before it was officially judged a failing school and closed down this summer. "It was a stupid school for stupid people. People walking round smoking weed," he says, with surprising heat. He left before taking his exams.
Samantha, 13, hasn't been to school for almost a year. She dropped out before Christmas because she was being bullied - "teachers just told us to stop arguing" - and was meant to be moving out of London. With her family? She screws up her thin face. "Would you call it a family? It's all everywhere."
Since the abortive move, she has not found another school place. Her friend dropped out in similar circumstances, as did her younger sister. "I need to get into school because otherwise I'm not going to know anything for my SATs," says Samantha, swinging her foot agitatedly and scratching her arms. She reels off a list of names of children on her estate who are not in school. "Everybody's in the same boat really," she shrugs.
Joshua, aged 10, is another Arches pupil. Excluded from his primary school two years ago for punching a teacher in the face, he says not being at school is "wicked". His favourite activity - apart from intense and accomplished drawing, which he does non-stop while talking - is playing "smash the trolleys", a form of bumper cars in which you first steal your supermarket trolley.
For Camila Batmanghelidjh, who sees more than most of children failed by the system, it's a familiar story. "The reality is that many children are out of education," she says. "There are too few resources to meet the level of special needs." As a psychotherapist, she says that for children failing at school it is logical not to attend. "The children are not stupid. They know when they're failing, and can't access a secondary curriculum. Psychologically, it would be mad for them to attend."
Exclusions expert Professor Carl Parsons, of Canterbury Christ Church University College, has mapped exclusions for the Government in recent years. His most recent survey suggests a slight downward trend in the number of children excluded, with funding for behavioural support services and other preventive measures apparently having an impact on schools' ability to retain their most challenging pupils. But it is symptomatic of the plight of these children that nobody really knows how many there are. Carl Parsons's surveys of LEAs have consistently found higher numbers of excluded children than the DFEE's own figures acknowledge. While the department recorded 12,298 permanent exclusions in the school year 1997-98, the Christ Church team documented 13,041. With different legislation and official guidance, Scotland and Northern Ireland have much lower exclusion rates.
"Permanent exclusions remain a significant cost to the public purse for poor returns," he says, "and more evidence of links with subsequent criminal careers is emerging."
All children's names have been changed. A conference on "Staying Power, Challenging Alternatives to School Exclusion" will take place on September 22-23 at the University of Warwick. Further details from: 01722 339811. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org