Dignity for pupils, peace for schools

18th January 2008 at 00:00
If schools collaborate in taking on each other's problem children, it helps heads and avoids the stigma of exclusion, writes William Stewart.

"No drugs will be tolerated in this school whatsoever. Anyone found with them with be punished with instant permanent exclusion."

It was a bold statement made during assembly in an attempt to send out a clear message about one of society's biggest problems. Unfortunately for the secondary headteacher concerned, his tough policy was quickly put to a difficult test.

The very next day a Year 11 pupil found a large wrap of class A drugs in his mother's boyfriend's house. For some unknown reason the teenager brought the wrap into school. There it was passed on to a second boy whose friend, realising the seriousness of the situation, immediately took the drugs off site.

It was too late. School staff got wind of what had happened and, although there was no suggestion that the drugs had been used, all three were permanently excluded. That included the boy who had done no more than take the drugs out of harm's way to prevent his friend from getting into trouble. He was a star of the school; he was expected to get excellent GCSEs, had taken a lead role in the school play and a peer-mentoring course, and was generally a positive influence.

However, the head felt he had no choice but to follow through with his dire threat. As a result he created a lot of bad feeling, alienated his staff and severely annoyed local authority officials, who felt he had other options.

Details have been changed to protect identities, but the above story is essentially true.

It is recounted by Adam Abdelnoor, founder and chief executive of Inaura, an inclusion charity.

He also tried to persuade the head to act differently. Dr Abdelnoor understood that it would be difficult to allow the pupils to remain in school following his zero- tolerance statement, but he argued there was another option: managed moves. The policy would have allowed the pupils to agree transfers to other schools without the stigma and disruption to their education caused by permanent exclusions.

As Pam Iles, head of St Dunstan's Community School in Glastonbury, Somerset, argues: "Managed moves are not a soft option."

Inaura believes they should be combined with restorative justice. In the case of the three drugs pupils, that could have meant public apologies in assembly or through the school magazine, explaining why they had had to leave and how they felt about it. There could also have been a requirement for the pupils to attend drugs counselling.

The school would not lose face because the pupils would not be staying, and the whole community would be very clear why. But pupils could also have avoided their education being jeopardised.

Ministers recognised the logic of such arguments when the Government published guidance in 2004, recommending managed moves as an alternative to exclusion.

And it is not only pupils who stand to benefit; there are potential benefits for heads as well. Managed moves are cheaper, less time-consuming, less bureaucratic and better for staff and school morale.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that new research carried out by Inaura has found a sharp rise in the number of managed moves over the past four years. The study of around 300 English secondaries suggests there are now at least 100 pupil transfers agreed between schools every week, spread across at least 75 local authorities, about half the total of those in England. Moreover, Inaura says that between a half and three-quarters of these transfers are successful - two out of three heads report positive experiences.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, is not surprised by the findings. "Schools have done an amazing job in this," he said. "They have been working in extremely effective partnerships to do what is best for these pupils. They don't want to put them out on to the street or in situations where they are getting virtually no teaching."

Dr Abdelnoor believes the success of managed moves will get even better. In 2005 he told The TES that managed moves would lead to the number of permanent exclusions in England being slashed from 9,880 in 2003-04 to 100 or fewer in a decade. He also predicted that the number of managed moves would increase to 15,000 a year in England by 2015.

Dr Dunford believes that is overly optimistic. On the basis of its latest study, Inaura estimates there were only 4,000 managed moves in 2006. There were still 9,170 permanent exclusions in 2005-06 (the latest year for which figures are available), a fall of 710 in two years, well behind the rate needed to match Dr Abdelnoor's prediction.

Inaura argues that managed moves are being held back in some areas by a hangover from previous government policies which emphasised competition rather than collaboration between schools. There has to be reciprocal trust if schools are going to agree to take on each other's most problematic pupils.

Dr Abdelnoor believes an impartial facilitator is vital to ensure the process runs smoothly. The Government has not included this stipulation in its guidance. He estimates that only about a fifth of local authorities have such staff.

Without a properly trained facilitator with the time to follow the process through, Dr Abdelnoor says managed moves will mean more work for heads and a greater danger of the move breaking down.

"If managed moves are carried out poorly, and especially if they are unfair, there is the danger of a backlash which could discourage their use," he writes in a new book which provides a guide on how best to execute them.

He also warns that any move must be voluntary for it to work. But none of the 14 pupils involved in managed moves interviewed as part of the Inaura research felt they had a choice in the matter.

So while progress is being made, Inaura argues there is a still long way to go. "Families and children should be treated better," it concludes. "The therapeutic benefits of a managed move are not being sufficiently valued, especially at government level. Schools and local authorities would have more confidence in developing managed moves strategically if more guidance was available."

- 'Managed Moves' by Adam Abdelnoor, published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, pound;8.50 or download free from www.gulbenkian.org.uk

The Law, page 24

A strategy for avoiding rejection

- Managed moves are designed to avoid the potentially harmful rejection of permanent exclusions that can leave pupils without a school place.

- They are voluntary agreements involving a pupil, their parents, the local authority, headteachers and other school staff to transfer the pupil from one school to another, often combined with a package of extra support.

- Government guidance has recommended the strategy to schools but says the moves must only happen with the full knowledge and co-operation of all parties involved and that parents should never be pressured into removing their pupil from a school under threat of exclusion.

- Inaura, the inclusion charity, says that as well as the moves being voluntary, an independent adviser should be involved. It wants national regulation of managed moves to ensure good practice and consistency.

In practice

An equitable arrangement

Pam Iles is a fan of managed moves, despite her school having been on the tougher end of the arrangement, writes William Stewart.

So far St Dunstan's Community School in Glastonbury, Somerset, has been involved in two managed moves and in both cases had to accept potentially very difficult pupils.

But Mrs Iles, the headteacher, believes the school got a much better deal because of the arrangements.

One of the moves saw her take on a pupil who was on the verge of permanent exclusion in another Somerset school after making a serious allegation against a member of staff that turned out to be false.

"This was a young person who had made a mistake; they knew, they were mortified, but they had to leave the school," said Mrs Isles.

"Because we could have detailed discussions with the sending school, we were in a position where we were able to agree to take the student."

The managed move was completely voluntary for all parties and involved an impartial local authority facilitator.

She points out that the pupil could have ended up at St Dunstan's anyway following a permanent exclusion, but the arrangement was better for the pupil because it avoided the stigma of exclusion and it was better for the school because it allowed a six-week trial period and a good exchange of information.

And if the pupil misbehaved at St Dunstan's, the local authority would be unlikely to send the child back to a school where things had already gone wrong. So in a way it couldn't lose.

But the arrangement did work. "The success we have seen has made managed moves well worth it," she said. "Permanently excluding a child is an admission of failure."

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