The latest government guidance to schools and LEAs aimed at preventing social exclusion puts an unfair burden on teachers battling against disruptive pupils, warns Phil Sanderson
LAST TERM, our headteacher permanently excluded Mike, a persistently disruptive pupil. Our governing body upheld the exclusion. The parent and the local authority opposed it.
An independent panel backed the LEA and ordered us to reinstate Mike. The grounds for this decision? The final incident was not judged to have been serious enough. It was insufficient that Mike had been excluded nine times in three years, the last incident involving drug-taking.
No, the message to his peer group was clear. No matter how badly you behave, as long as you don't actually assault someone they can't throw you out.
Mike revelled in this. Reinstatement was his "coronation" as king of Year 10. Within days, he was excluded again. Then, surrounded by an awe-struck crowd, he repeatedly threw stones against a laboratory window in which a detention was being held. Fortunately the glass held. On being tackled by staff, Mike was openly abusive. The police were called but by then he had escaped.
The outcome for the school was positive, though. Again, the head, with the governors' backing, sought permanent exclusion and this time there was no objection from LEA or parent.
What this sequence of events did was to explode the myth that we had hitherto believed, namely that conscientious documentation of serious misbehaviour would ultimately lead to permanent exclusion. Within weeks, we read of Government action to make it harder to remove disruptive pupils from classrooms.
The declared aim of Social Inclusion: Pupil Support is to reduce exclusions by one-third by 2002. In the accompanying letter to headteachers and chairs of governors, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State claims that "it will support teachers and headteachers in making their own judgments". Our head made a professional judgment. His decision was overruled. Within days, he was proved to have been right.
For permanent exclusions to be upheld, there will now need to be proof of a Pastoral Support Programme (PSP) having been implemented - more bureaucracy and delay. The description of a PSP reflects what happens already in most schools before a pupil nears permanent exclusion. Precise behavioural targets are set and overseen by a member of staff.
One difference is that a 16-week programme is suggested. There is no mention of what to do if the programme fails before the 16 weeks are up! A second difference is the stipulation that an LEA representative and outside agencies should now always be involved.
There could be a ray of hope here in that the Government circular to LEAs, Social Inclusion: the LEA role in Pupil Support states that an LEA should help a school by "supplementing the school's budget so it can buy the extra support outlined in the PSP".
Another positive strategy in both circulars is the use of pupil referral units. Hopefully, their numbers will now increase, and they do offer reintegration as a genuine outcome for some pupils.
So Social Inclusion: Pupil Support is not all bad. As well as the few items covered here, it contains a lot of sound common sense on handling disaffection, poor hehaviour and poor attendance but none of it is really new. The big worry has to be the exclusion issue, the raison d' etre for its publication. If the recommendations are followed, then there will be more, not less, disruption.
Does anyone really know just how many hours of a child's education are lost by being in the same class as just one persistently disruptive pupil?
How many staff are lost to the profession through career moves or early retirement as a result of having to deal with such pupils? How many others find their teaching stilted and spoilt by spending so much time on ensuring that discipline is maintained? How many never even join the profession when faced with the spectre of more and more such pupils?
Does continually forcing disruptive pupils back into mainstream schools really help them to develop properly? Surely there needs to be a greater recognition of the need of so many pupils for the special help that ordinary schools cannot give and which these children need if they are ultimately to take their place in mainstream society.
One part of the government guidance requires LEAs to provide full-time education for all permanently-excluded pupils by September 2002. Fine, but let us see an increase in the number of places in schools specialising in correcting behavioural difficulties rather than a large-scale push to reintegrate all such pupils into mainstream schools.
Yes, we as a society should be working towards preventing social exclusion, but is a simple target of reducing school exclusions the right way to go about it? I think not. Parents must be made aware now of the likely repercussions of Social Inclusion. Probably only they, as the electorate, once they have been alerted to the threat to their children's education, can bring sufficient pressure to bear to get this policy changed.
Dr Phil Sanderson is head of science at a North-east 11-18 comprehensive