From The Editor - Schools aren't at fault, but nor are they off the hook

16th March 2012 at 00:00

The saddest thing about reading the stories of excluded children is the awful sense of inevitability (pages 26-30). Angry children from chaotic backgrounds develop into teenagers who cause havoc in school and grow up to disrupt society. Exasperated teachers adopt a series of measures, few of which work because most challenging children's problems stem from outside school not within it.

Of the 37,000 children currently excluded and placed in pupil referral units or alternative provision, two-thirds are boys, most have special educational needs and many are likely to be known to social services and the police. Almost 90 per cent of young offenders were excluded at one time or another. Failure, it seems, is predictable. Or is it?

One of the most striking findings of last week's report by Charlie Taylor, the government's behaviour adviser, was how patchy alternative provision can be. Some providers are excellent; others do little more than keep pupils off the streets. Some local authorities offer exemplary services; others not even the statutory minimum. In some areas, the interested partners share and plan; others make North Korea look like a model neighbour.

In fact, one of the most appalling things about much provision for expelled pupils is how frequently responsible parties don't share crucial information. Records are incomplete, histories have gaping holes, appointments are missed and assessments are often shallow or inadequate for a child's needs. If excluded children feel like society's losers, bureaucracy, in its unthinking, petty way, manages to be just coordinated enough to underline how rejected they really are.

The tally in wasted lives is incalculable. The cost to society of the criminal careers too many descend into must be enormous. And lest we forget, they are usually victims as well as perpetrators. How many of the kids targeted by sexual and violent predators are from the ranks of the excluded?

The country's response to the problem, despite some worthy exceptions, is on the whole lamentable. There clearly are sane suggestions between hand-wringing and incarceration, but for the most part they seem to elude us. To judge by our interviews with expelled pupils, a lot of them blame the way they were neglected and misunderstood at school for their current predicament. Many teachers will find their accusations hard to accept. But frankly, they don't need to accept them.

It doesn't matter where the fault lies. Emotional deprivation and dysfunctional homes damaged most at-risk children before teachers got to take the register. We can agree that it is unfair to ask schools to solve problems not of their making. We can also accept that it's understandable if teachers are only too relieved to see the back of pupils who refused to be taught and made life impossible for those who wanted to learn.

But there is a difference between accepting fault and realising responsibility. Schools have a duty to do their best by all pupils, however difficult. And if the best isn't available in school, they are obligated to find it elsewhere. Responsible schools do not dump pupils, they place them. In fact, exemplary provision, according to Mr Taylor, develops when local schools act in concert to shape, monitor and commission it. Unfair as it may seem, schools cannot be spectators in this difficult performance, they are required to take a starring role.

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