I work with excluded students, and over the past couple of weeks I've been out and about observing the teaching of some of my team. We work in whatever location we can find. Although homes restrict the potential for social interaction, at least the student feels secure and you can guarantee a table and chairs. The village library is less welcoming. There may be more books than you can shake a stick at, but the opportunity for dialogue is restricted when you're surrounded by the local newspaper readers' club, angered at your intrusion into their den.
It takes a great deal of effort to forget that people are wandering about and aware of what you are doing. When my own children were younger and watched Blue Peter, I used to wonder how easy it was for the presenters to perform; to act the fool for millions of kids you couldn't see in front of technicians you could see. Now I find myself doing it daily. Making the dopey aside to elicit a response; the exaggerated gesture to explain some facet of today's topic. All in front of the newspaper readers' club.
But just because the kids are excluded doesn't mean they should be denied your best skills to impart knowledge and encourage learning. And if they learn best by doing, then we have to find a way of offering that opportunity - even if it must be modified to satisfy the surroundings.
I help key stage 4 children with exam choices. GCSEs are often inappropriate as they've missed out on coursework, and we are denied the necessary facilities. I have even had a student whose previous school destroyed all his work when he was excluded.
Alongside this, we try to get extended work experience, careers guidance and some type of vocational learning opportunity through local colleges.
Sadly, all these groups seem to work in a different world from the one we inhabit.
I was at a meeting last term planning for the next academic year. Bids for places would need to be made between February and Easter, ready for September 2003, we were told. I asked for some leeway as I don't know who I'll be teaching next week, never mind six months ahead. We have to respond to the flow of kids coming out of schools; we can predict trends but not numbers.
One head's response typifies the reason why so many kids are excluded for, apparently, no more than questioning the words and actions of their teachers. Why should I have leeway? The provision of extended work experience placements to excluded students, in his opinion, was rewarding bad behaviour.
Against this background, I continue my observations. I can see my team becoming as demoralised as the kids we teach. As the number of excluded children rises, we must find a way of supporting the staff who work with them - work that is often seen as a backwater of education provision. I've been to one pupil referral unit where most of the staff had moved sideways rather than upwards to join the team. This doesn't make them any worse as teachers, as my observations are proving, but does raise doubts about the status of the work.
I remember talking to a head of department about a recently excluded student and explaining the programme we were putting in place. "Oh," came the puzzled response, "is that what happens to students after they get excluded? I'd never thought about it."
While many of the children have severe learning gaps, others are bright and capable of good academic results. I'm not advocating positive discrimination that would reward bad behaviour, but there must be some way of ensuring they get a fair crack. I believe that making teachers see this type of work as a beneficial step in their progress, and a more flexible approach to including excluded kids in authority-wide programmes, would go some way towards this.
David Watson works with excluded students in East Anglia