Governors have been told to challenge
exclusions. But, while some welcome the new rules, others resent doing what they see as social work, writes Laurence Pollock
FOR the Government, the link between exclusions and youth crime or anti-social behaviour is all too obvious - half of all school-age offenders, says the Audit Commission, have been excluded at some point.
Slashing expulsions is therefore a central target in ministers' battle against social breakdown.They want permanent exclusions reduced by a third by 2002. And, with tough new guidance on exclusions from the Department for Education and Employment, governors will face some hard choices as a result
Social Inclusion: Pupil Support (DFEE circular 1099) is the blueprint for the new approach. It challenges the dramatic "pack your bags and go" image of the traditional expulsion. Instead it sees permanent exclusion as a regrettable final act in a lengthy attempt to retain a troublesome pupil. The document is packed full of case studies illustrating different techniques. But it also lays down a series of tight procedural hoops through which headteachers must jump before their decision to exclude can be confirmed by governors.
The most recent figures for permanent exclusions show a slight dip - down 400 in 199798 from the previous year's 12,700. The Audit Commission estimates temporary or fixed-term exclusions are running at around 150,000 a year. But even if the problem is not increasing, it is still an acute one. In 199596 the Metropolitan police arrested more than 700 excluded children, some of whom were multiple offenders.
The DFEE claims it is putting substantial resources into funding and sponsoring new approaches to problem children, such as mentoring. It points to increased cash help for local education authorities to tackle truancy and exclusions, up from pound;66 million to pound;140 million.
Schools minister Jacqui Smith comments: "Many exclusions can be avoided if problems are tackled quickly. Heads and governors, of course, continue to have the right to exclude. Last year saw a positive fall but there is still room for improvement."
It is hoped that improvement will come with the help of governors, who are are expected to play a key part in assessing and, if necessary, challenging heads' decisions at discipline committees where pupils can speak and parents can bring legal representatives. A DFEE spokesperson acknowledged that this could make proceedings longer and more legalistic.
The guidance stresses: "The discipline committee should satisfy itself that all possible strategies to improve a pupil's behaviour were tried and have failed." If they are not satisfied, it says, the pupil should be re-instated.
The new regime is unlikely to prove troublesome to governors and staff at Langdon comprehensive in the London borough of Newham. With nearly 2,000 pupils, it is a showcase for inclusion and has not permanently excluded anyone since 199596.
As soon as a child is in danger of exclusion the head asks a panel of governors to examine alternatives.
These include a sanctuary room, mentoring and very clear preventative policies. Current targets include reducing temporary exclusions, which mostly last one or two days. All this is against a background league-table performance which has seen the pass rate for five A*-C grade GCSEs rise from 23 per cent seven years ago to 43 per cent this year.
Barry Hersom, the deputy head, says: "You have to 'fight to get excluded' from the school."
Governors at Langdon take a critical approach to exclusions. Chairman of the governors David Benn stresses that they are "more alert" and "have a clear idea of what kind of school they want".
It may seem like a win-win situation, but there are factors which governors in other authorities may feel do not apply to them. Langdon is not succeeding by itself but reflects active policies across the education authority, which have helped Newham cut permanent exclusions in secondaries by more than half since 199394.
The authority has also adopted an inclusive philosophy with many more special needs pupils being placed in mainstream classes. The result has been more creative thinking about how to deal with behavioural issues.
Nevertheless, Langdon has held back from describing itself as a non-excluding school - an acknowledgement, perhaps, that the ultimate deterrent might be needed in some circumstances.
And Newham, which has instigated training for governors in how to handle exclusions using the new guidance, is recommending that no governor sits on a discipline committee until they have been on a course. Governor education co-ordinator Myanah Saunders says: "The guidance sits slightly uncomfortably, but governors want to be supportive of the scheme. We have to impress on governors the natural justice that underlines it."
She says training for heads is also essential, if they are to understand the role of governors - a possible recognition that, used wrongly, the new rules could be a recipe for conflict between head and governors.
This is a major concern of Sandra Mohamed, assistant education officer for governing bodies at Waltham Forest, north-east London. Her department sent out a briefing to every governor on the implications of the guidance, which included a checklist for discipline committees.
"The governors have to get evidence from the head for exclusion and if they can't see it then they must challenge the head's decision. This is not about confirming a decision, it is about scrutinising it," she says.
The guidance might also throw up divisions within the governing body. Peter Morris, chair of governors at St Bede's voluntary-aided Catholic middle school, in Bedford, believes there could be clashes between governors and chairs who have been party to the head's original decision to exclude.
Both he and headteacher Gerry Chapman are deeply sceptical about the guidance, believing the inhibitions on exclusion are too great.
"At open evenings parents have said they like to hear we have a strong policy on discipline. When the new guidance was explained to governors, the two new parent-governors were horrified," says Mr Morris.
Mr Chapman is also emphatic that any drugs offence must result in exclusion. Indeed, it is significant, perhaps, that Langdon's last permanent exclusion was drug-related. The DFEE would only say that in these cases a judgment "must be in the light of circumstances of the individual case".
Mr Chapman zealously defends his right to exclude: "I accept we have to do something with those excluded but I firmly believe we have to protect other children and their parents."
St Bede's highlights the problem of schools who resent taking on the role of social worker as well as educator. This is the view of Fran Hollis of Information for School and College Governors, and an executive member of the National Governors' Council.
"As a school governor I am there to improve standards of education. We are not a social services institution trying to teach children how to behave. If they want us to do that they must provide us with social services support."
At a local level these concerns are understandable. Areas of good and successful practice are commendable. But the national target of reducing permanent exclusions by 4,000 in three years looks implausible in the light of the Audit Commission's recent report, Missing Out on truancy and exclusions.
It found one third of authorities do not even know where pupils are six months after a permanent exclusion. Thirty per cent have no guidelines for dealing with attendance and fewer than a fifth monitor the progress of children with special needs or those looked after by local authorities - two of the groups most at risk of exclusion.
Given this lack of support from their authorities it's unsurprising that many governors feel they can't solve other people's problems. Without serious leadership, the breakthrough in exclusions the Government seeks will not be possible.
In the short term that could mean egg on political faces. In the long term it may condemn thousands of vulnerable youngsters to tragic adult lives.
Copies of "Social Exclusion: Pupil Support" (DFEE circular 1099) are available from DFEE publications, telephone 0845 602 2260.
EXCLUSIONS: FACT FILE
Ministers want permanent exclusions cut by a third by 2002.
Permanent exclusions numbered 12,300 in 199798 - down 400 from the previous year.
Fixed-term exclusions are running at an estimated 150,000 a year.
Under new Department for Education and Employment guidance, exclusions made by headteachers must be ratified by new governor discipline committees.
Governors must be satisfied that headteachers have tried everything they can to keep a pupil in school - or else overturn the exclusion.
Audit Commission research found a third of local education authorities had lost track of permanently excluded pupils after six months.
Less than a fifth of LEAs monitor the progress of special needs and looked-after children - both groups at high risk of exclusion.