Don't turn away the difficult children

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Schools must take their fair share of challenging pupils whatever the effect on results and league-table standings, writes Janet Dobson.

This month, the Government expects every local Admission Forum to have in place a protocol for sharing hard-to-place pupils between secondary schools. All schools are supposed to co-operate: community and faith schools, foundation and voluntary aided schools, grammar schools and academies. Even city technology colleges are being strongly encouraged by the Department for Education and Skills to play a full part. But will they all join in?

According to the guidance, the protocol should cover looked-after children and, from 2007, pupils excluded from other local schools. It may also cover a range of other possibilities, including children attending a pupil referral unit and needing to be reintegrated back into mainstream education; children of refugees and asylum seekers not in accommodation centres; homeless children; and children with unsupportive family backgrounds, where a place has not been sought.

It will be surprising and unprecedented if some schools are not dragging their feet on the grounds that a "good" school should not have to take in children who may present difficulties. The usual argument is that they will disrupt teaching and destroy excellence. Some heads express sympathy for other schools which are overwhelmed with children needing extra support but say that it is their governors who are unwilling to co-operate. Their governors want nothing to do with children who may bring down the school's exam results and league-table position.

All this begs a number of questions. First, what is a "good" school? Is it one which has enthusiastic teachers who generate interest even among the least motivated? Is it one with a stable and structured learning environment where everyone knows the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and generally stays within them? Is it one where the needs of each individual pupil are assessed and the organisation of teaching and learning planned accordingly? Is it one which strives to develop the potential both of those keen to work and those keen to avoid it? If these are the characteristics of a good school, then it should be the ideal setting in which to place a child who needs stability and support.

Or is a good school one which seeks to recruit good pupils: that is to say, children who are making good progress at secondary transfer, who have a good attitude to studying, good parental support and a good night's sleep before each school day? It seems more often to be schools of this type which are reluctant to take in children with difficulties. Yet, given their usual intake, they should have some capacity to provide special help for children with greater than average needs.

What options does a local education authority have when it comes to placing pupils who are out of school? Let us imagine a small authority with 10 secondary schools and 50 children needing places. If all schools agreed to participate, there could be an allocation of five children per school, with the actual placement done with regard to the needs and preferences of those concerned and the provision available in different schools. This would represent an average of one child per year group, not an unmanageable number. Alternatively, the LEA could (if permitted by higher authority) educate them in some form of separate provision with burgeoning numbers accumulating over time, a growing army of pariahs kept separate from mainstream society. Or it could resort to the traditional method of shunting them all into one or two schools serving the poorest neighbourhoods, schools already struggling to educate the least advantaged.

By no means all the children in the groups cited above present schools with challenging behaviour. The common factor for the great majority is that they are coping with difficult circumstances in their home lives which have led to one or more of the following: missed periods of schooling, erratic attendance, a falling-behind in learning, an expectation of failure and a feeling of being unwanted. Schools cannot cancel out the problems that children face elsewhere but they can nevertheless provide a place where they experience success, a feeling of self-worth, the perception of a better future and the means to get there.

There is a minority of children who are too disturbed, and disturbing, to be taught in any mainstream school, good or bad. But children who are judged capable of succeeding in an ordinary school should have the chance to do so, in the company of their peers. Segregation is likely to have bad long-term consequences for everyone.

The Government is to be applauded for taking a strategic approach to this issue. "Good" schools which sail by and ignore such children must share responsibility for the failure of those schools which sink while trying to carry too many.

Dr Janet Dobson is a senior research fellow in the Migration Research Unit at University College London.

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