For 'community' read 'the streets'

3rd February 1995 at 00:00
Paul went to a children's home at 12 because he was excluded from school for "intolerable" behaviour and his alcoholic mother could no longer cope with him. There was no children's home in his London borough so he was sent to one in another borough. The nearby school accepted him reluctantly - "not another of your difficult kids" - and within a month he was out again.

The school set him work to do at the home, but Paul was full of anger at his rejection. His behaviour went from bad to worse and much of his time was spent on the streets. After six months, the LEA provided two hours' a day at a tuition centre where he did surprisingly well. He hoped to go back to "proper school", but no school was willing to have him. Now, at 14, he is again spending much of his time on the streets, getting deeper into crime and vandalism and on the verge of being thrown out of the children's home. What then?

That there was a rise in exclusions as a result of the Education Reform Act has been known to those of us who work with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties for at least three years. Detailed proof is now coming in.

In November, the Family Policy Studies Centre showed that exclusions from primary schools because of difficult behaviour had gone up by 1993-94 to between 7,000 and 8,000, from 3,000 two years earlier. Now the Association of Metropolitan Authorities has reported that headteachers have reduced their "tolerance threshold" for bad behaviour because competition for pupils is increasingly intense.

It is no use blaming schools. If they are to be attractive to parents, what incentive do they have to put up with the damage that one seriously disturbed child can do in a class? Or to admit a child who is not even from their area?

The special needs code of practice says all the right things about managing difficult children better, early identification of difficulties, planned programmes, regular monitoring, parents as partners, always working to keep children with special educational needs in mainstream - in the community. And many schools are looking seriously at their practice.

This is admirable, and many children will benefit. But there are some children who have had such a damaging start in life, who go home to such appalling circumstances, that they need more than the best mainstream school can provide. One result of increasing teachers' awareness of children's difficulties is that they get better at identifying those whose problems are beyond them. What happens then?

Public policy is to provide care in the community. What does that mean for our most disadvantaged children? Between 1980 and 1990, says the Department of Health report Children in the Public Care, the number of children in residential care declined by nearly two-thirds to 13,200. Thousands of children with long records of delinquency used to be placed in approved schools, or community homes with teachers on the premises. Their descendants are now kept in the community. This may be the right thing for most children, but for some "community" has come to mean the streets rather than school.

Children in serious difficulties need to move quickly and positively to somewhere special. Last year's FPSC report, Excluding Primary School Children, says that excluded children often wait for a whole term for home tuition, which they then receive for three hours a week on average. This is partly a matter of money; not only must there be good resources, but school staff need time and expertise to negotiate transfers. But money is not the only issue.

As teachers become more aware of the crippling effects of bad homes on learning, social workers need to have a better understanding of the role that education can play in their clients' lives. To quote Children in the Public Care: "Children . . . are likely to come into care already educationally disadvantaged. Care authorities should do all that a good parent would do to ensure that children's educational needs are met." That is not happening for Paul, nor for many more. "Keeping children in mainstream" is beginning to sound as flawed as "care in the community".

This week's AMA review of special educational needs states that local authorities are beginning to recognise the consequences of excluding more pupils. Good. Official policy is that agencies must work together for children in need. Perhaps this will now happen.

Marion Bennathan is chair of the Association of Workers for Children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties.

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