Gillian Shephard's promise to "flush out" education authorities who let excluded pupils "drift into limbo" was not intended to sound LEA-friendly. But, like the provisions in the latest Education Bill, it underlined the Government's acceptance of the role local authorities must play in an effective education service.
As the National Association of Governors and Managers points out in its response to the Bill, the Government has even recognised that grant-maintained schools need such a back-up service. In spite of repeated denials that the Funding Agency for Schools is the GM education authority, the apparently innocuous Clause 18 empowering the agency to provide "advice and assistance" to the governing body of any grant-maintained school is akin to the quality assurance role of local authorities. It may not be an exact parallel, but it establishes the locus of the FAS as an active, even interventionist, rescuer of faltering GM schools. And behind this quango "advice" stands the Secretary of State with powers to send in her own A-team of governors or ultimately to cease to maintain.
In the case of exclusions and disruption, however, it seems only the LEA can provide the necessary local co-ordination and support. With surveys suggesting that less than one in seven excluded secondary pupils return to school, the Department for Education clearly sees the need to strengthen local resolve to get the excluded back into the classroom.
GM schools are therefore included within the ambit of local authorities, who will have a new duty to plan arrangements for "children with behavioural difficulties", to say how they propose to advise and support schools and how they will arrange for excluded pupils to be placed back into schools or otherwise catered for. It does not create any new powers to require schools - grant-maintained or otherwise - to admit excluded pupils since they already exist, though difficult to enforce. If enacted, the Bill should encourage more authorities to insist on admissions in the teeth of resistance from headteachers and governors.
What has not gone unnoticed at the DFEE is the fact that, while permanent exclusions have increased by two-thirds in the past three years, some authorities have bucked the trend; numbers have doubled in some areas but in others held or even reduced. And once excluded, there is little guarantee that children will receive more than a few hours tuition each week.
The solution is seen as a mixture of collaboration and stick. Guidance to LEAs will encourage them to consult and support schools over behaviour difficulties and to co-ordinate measures to ensure the education of excluded pupils is not fatally disrupted, whether that entails pupil referral units or brokering reintegration. Kent (page 7) and Croydon (TES2 page 23) have shown what can be achieved by partnership. In Croydon, whatever the pressures to exclude, the professional commitment exists in both LEA and GM schools to tackle problems together and successfully.
But the Bill also provides the stick: Office for Standards in Education inspections of local authorities which are likely to home in on plans for pupils with behavioural difficulties, exclusion rates and the education of pupils other than in schools. OFSTED is about to pronounce on the causes and effects of exclusions and has already been highly critical of most of the pupil referral units it has inspected.
All part of the "flushing out" process. Now it is for LEAs to show they are up to the job of ensuring that all children receive their entitlement to a full education.