Editorial: Even excluded pupils have a right to learn

15th August 1997 at 01:00
If the statistics were better, we could have a competition to see how long in the new school session it takes for the first pupil to be excluded. Perhaps fortunately, the Government's attempts to make sense of who is sent home and why will not allow the equivalent of betting on the fastest goal of the season. But the national guidelines announced last week may go some way to resolving the difficulties councils have had in complying with officialdom's previous efforts to understand what is going on in schools.

Ministers in the last government were concerned that despite school attendance registers no one could say how many pupils were not at their desks on any one day and how many absences were legitimate, how many unauthorise d. Compiling national statistics was the obvious first step. But experience soon showed that one council's approved absence was another's unauthorised, and the honesty of all headteachers in presenting school figures was not too closely examined. So among the raft of annual tables from the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department, those on attendances and absences were the least credible.

The present Government has followed its predecessor in looking for ways of encouraging better attendance and discipline. Today's culture is to be of praise, not blame. But for pupils' self-confidence to be boosted, they have to be in class. If the pattern of exclusions varies greatly between schools of similar catchment, then questions have to be asked. Otherwise the work being done by the likes of Cameron Munro and the Scottish Initiative on Attendance, Absence and Attainment will have less than universal application.

Exclusion as an ultimate disciplinary sanction (hopefully, it is always ultimate) confronts schools with opposing duties. One is to educate all pupils entrusted to it. Sending a disruptive child home is clearly a withdrawal of education. Most exclusions are brief, a rap on the knuckles for parents as well as the offender. But in the absence of appropriate places where a pupil can be sent to cool off or begin to sort out their problems, there are too many tales of exclusions that last weeks and months. Stressed teachers understandably do not rush to point out the failing of duty involved and therefore the urgency of reimporting a persistent trouble-maker.

They are also aware of their other duty, which is to the rest of a class who want to get on with their work and have been prevented from doing so. In these litigious times, a pupil or parent could instigate action if the school failed to create a learning environment by not removing a persistent source of disruption.

Parallel problems face other social services. The rights of individual tenants have to be balanced against a community's demand for peace and freedom from bad neighbours. This week powers were given to warn headteachers and others about a known paedophile in their area. But sitting alongside society's desire to protect children are the rights of any citizen not accused of an offence, however despicable their past.

Long-term measures to encourage better attendance at school and to find a setting in which a disruptive child can continue their education will not solve immediate moral dilemmas. On one point society needs to be adamant: mob rule cannot be tolerated in any form, whether driving a paedophile from their home or pressurising a school to expel a pupil.

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