Children need help at all ages and stages

8th February 2013 at 00:00

It's shocking to learn that children as young as five are being excluded from school, and that youngsters in the most deprived areas are six times more likely to be suspended than their better-off peers (News Focus, pages 12-15). Teachers can almost predict the families and the children that will live these problems. It's like a never-ending cycle of despair.

Last month, MSPs on the Scottish Parliament's justice committee called for a national policy on exclusion, so that figures could not be massaged or measures taken to conceal underlying problems. But for the children at the centre, that's not really the issue.

They may be the bane of many a teacher's life, but with futures frequently blighted by poverty or family circumstances, the urgent priority for them is help - at all ages and stages.

One expert at the committee inquiry said early intervention was not always the answer, as many young people who went on to offend were not necessarily known to the services at an early age. But early intervention in family learning centres in the poorest areas of Glasgow is helping many.

Another said money was not necessarily the problem either - that it took creative approaches to tackle these issues. But one thing is certain - support assistants and multi-agency working help.

Support assistants provide a vital presence in the classroom in the face of difficult behaviour, so it is worrying that they are disappearing as councils cut their budgets. Evidence to the committee revealed a "time out" room for disruptive pupils that could not be used because there was no one to supervise it - a false economy that will no doubt rebound on exclusion and budget figures.

Multi-agency working has not always been easy, but as efficiency measures bite, councils are indeed being driven to find creative solutions, many with great success. Projects such as Apex Scotland's partnership with Dunfermline High, where there was a 52 per cent reduction in exclusions in one year, are clearly paying off and are set to spread in Fife and beyond.

Over the years, initiatives such as restorative practices and Being Cool in School have paid off. Unicef's UK Rights Respecting Schools has also shown that positive approaches to behaviour can improve children's attitudes and prospects. Teaching children about rights helped to reduce exclusions and compensate for educational disadvantages, according to an evaluation study by Sussex and Brighton universities in 2010.

The answer, surely, lies not so much in redefining policies as in money for resources and in multiple sensitive approaches to help children at all ages and stages. If that means calling parents sometimes - in the interests of the child and not sweeping the problem under the carpet - to say "wee Jimmy's having a bad day" and sending him home informally, then so be it.

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