Case study: an independent school

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Inclusion - and exclusion - are areas of heated debate, even in independent schools. Here, we are often mistakenly perceived as being too ready to empty out problem pupils, expecting the state sector to pick up the pieces.

The reality is that we try hard to minimise exclusions, but there are real strains in the system.

An example from my recent experience: a boy in Year 10 is consistently getting into trouble. Most of it is low-level disruptive behaviour, but it is persistent and teachers, pupils and parents are all concerned. He's been temporarily excluded twice, and his mum, a single parent, is finding it difficult to tread the line between support for the school and helping her son. The boy feels victimised and unfairly picked on by staff as he's well built and more than 6ft tall, although one of the youngest in the year.

It's easy to visualise the problems in the classroom.

One-to-one he is sensible, but strongly believes that he wants a fresh start and won't get it where he is. Could he have a fresh start at a similar school? A few calls to independent colleagues make it clear that he's unlikely to be offered a place elsewhere, even with the transfer of his bursary. I'm not surprised my calls are unsuccessful - as a fellow independent head in the Midlands says, we exclude only in extreme cases when we have to put the protection of current students before our sincere wish to hold on to and help the pupil who has got into serious trouble. It happens rarely - fewer than one pupil a year, on average, he estimates.

Which is probably how it should be in our sector. Parents are supportive and involved sooner rather than later, and class sizes are smaller than in state schools. It all helps in addressing issues quickly before real difficulties set in.

What worries him most is that it seems even harder for a child excluded from an independent school to find a place, than one for whom the LEA has responsibility. "I feel angry for these children," he says, "because my school has always tried to play its part in accepting excluded children from other schools - independent or maintained. I feel resentful that on the rare occasions when I'm looking to another school to provide the same sort of help for one of my pupils, it's not forthcoming. It turns into a game of pass the parcel."

So why are heads making sure they are not left holding the parcel when the music stops? League tables for sure, and an unwillingness to take risks when the blame culture is so pervasive. It's symptomatic of a system that talks of partnership but finds it difficult to turn that talk into benefit for children in difficulties.

A friend who works as a special needs co-ordinator in an 11-to-16 comprehensive finds similar frustrations - for different reasons. There are waiting lists for places in pupil referral units and, because resources are so scarce, local authority personnel twist and wriggle to avoid taking responsibility for a child once out of school. She says mainstream (or any) school is just not the right place for some children; but while there isn't the will to design or fund a range of suitable alternatives, the problem is simply pushed on to schools - although most of them are ill-equipped to deal with these pupils' difficulties.

So what happened to our parcel? He's still with us; my deputy observes him in classes for half a day and we've hammered out a new strategy that we've all signed up to. It's the best we could do - and probably the best solution if it works - but it's sad that no one else would consider that fresh start.

The writer is head of an independent secondary school. He wishes to remain anonymous

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