Karen Thornton reports on a new OFSTED report into improving pupil behaviour and attendance.
BLACK pupils are excluded for longer periods than their white classmates accused of similar offences, according to a new report from the Office for Standards in Education.
Mike Tomlinson, the chief inspector, conceded racism could be a factor, but said there was no evidence in the report, on improving behaviour and attendance in secondary schools, to prove this.
Given that many schools were not even aware of the problem because they had not analysed their own data, inconsistencies in applying behaviour policies could also be at fault.
As revealed by The TES last December, inspectors found that teachers were often unsure how to handle the "challenging behaviour" of black pupils.
Some ignored minor misdemeanours for fear of being accused of racism, making more radical action necessary later when bad behaviour escalated. Difficulties arose particularly in the hazy area of what schools call "defying teachers' authority".
Parents and pupils found it easier to grasp swearing as an offence when it was called swearing - rather than consistently challenging or defiant behaviour. Black pupils might be excluded for five days, when a white pupil might only get three.
"(This difference) does give black parents and their children the impression they have not been treated fairly," said Mr Tomlinson, at the report's launch this week. However, the stance towards black and white pupils accused of more serious offences such as violence and intimidation was much more consistent.
The report says good teaching - including both behaviour management and lesson content - is essential if the needs of pupils most at risk of disaffection are to be met. Strategies to improve attendance and behaviour achieved most when joined with efforts to improve attainment, and consistent policies.
But Mr Tomlinson said that teacher shortages in some shools - including the 10 with above average exclusion and truancy rates featured in the report - made the job harder.
"It's an issue for many schools. As the situation worsens, this problem of consistency of treatment becomes threatened," he said.
His colleagues cited one case where long-term staff absences and high turnover had led to the breakdown of pastoral support and a consequent increase in behaviour problems. However, parents and society must take some responsibility for pupils' bad behaviour, said Mr Tomlinson.
"Where parents condone unauthorised absence, don't get children to school on time and exercise no control over behaviour, then it's little surprise that the challenge is even greater for the school".
Improving Attendance and Behaviour in Secondary Schools, see www.ofsted.gov.uk or telephone 020 7241 6800 for copies Leader, 16
* UNDER THE EXCLUSION MICROSCOPE
Whalley Range high school in Manchester is a model of the way a school in challenging circumstances can make a real impact on behaviour, attendance and attainment.
The alma mater of schools minister Estelle Morris was one of ten schools with above average rates of exclusion and truancy inspected by OFSTED for its attendance and behaviour report.
The multicultural girls' school was given an endorsement by Mike Raleigh, OFSTED's head of secondary education, who said its rapidly improving standards were down to the quality of relationships with pupils and consistency in policy, planning and practice.
"Five or six years ago, there was a great deal to be done in this school. Now it's a very good illustration of the basic messages in this report, about what schools can do," he said.
In five years the school has halved authorised absences and slashed unauthorised absence from 1.4 to 0.4 per cent.
Exclusions have also been cut significantly, thanks to a pastoral support system and staff expertise in counselling pupils.