Pupils are increasingly being asked to move school rather than face expulsion, but, asks Louisa Leaman, is this in the child's best interests?
There is a new phenomenon sweeping inclusive education: "managed moves".
No, that is not yet another TV show about the property ladder, it is the new alternative to permanent exclusion.
A new report* about managed moves produced for the inclusion charity, Inaura, points out that research into the effectiveness of this approach is still in its infancy - but this has been no deterrent to the one in three local education authorities that have taken it up. The Department for Education and Skills has also jumped on the train, and since July 2004, has included limited guidance on managed moves within its policy.
The principle behind the managed move is to provide a restorative, forward-looking option for pupils at risk of permanent exclusion. The transfer of pupil from one school to another - the chance for a "fresh start" - can be negotiated between heads, provided the pupil and parents are willing. Crucially, the process has to be voluntary.
It also has to be carefully planned: learning objectives and an individual education strategy must be established and delegated before the transfer goes ahead.
The signs are encouraging: an inclusive initiative that keeps pupils in the system, and replaces punitive exclusion with something more hopeful and continuous. When carried out properly, managed moves are "easier, kinder, and more effective educationally". Yes. Managed moves are the thing.
Or are they? While encouraging the approach, the report suggests we must be cautious.
There is, it says, limited evidence about the ultimate effectiveness and fairness of the scheme: and while LEAs are seizing on the positives, one cannot help thinking that vulnerable children should not be used as guinea pigs in this experiment.
The report also reveals a lack of national regulation means that standards will be variable and the approach open to abuse: opportunists may take advantage to enhance some schools, while turning others into dumping grounds for the most difficult pupils.
To combat this, Norfolk LEA, a keen advocate of managed moves, makes schools with a high rate of exclusions accept moved children, thereby preventing a situation where certain schools take more than their fair share of the excluded.
But a tougher problem is that, while a move is a solution for some pupils, those with educational, social and behavioural difficulties (who make up a considerable proportion of the "at risk of exclusion" group) are famously sensitive to change. These young people need intensive, consistent specialist support and stability.
There is already well-established good practice for dealing with these children (such as specialist schools that link up with mainstream schools through part- time placements). Surely money and effort should be invested in developing and extending this - practice that aims to strengthen school resolve and nurtures the confidence and competency to address challenging behaviour directly - rather than push pupils through a revolving door? Perhaps money is at the root of the fashion for managed moves: they are a cheap way to tackle the blight of permanent exclusion; paying for staff training and specialist input is not.
What is more, managed moves instantly do wonders for the permanent exclusion figures - politically vital as the Government has promised to cut them.
Schools themselves undoubtedly benefit, able to do their duty without the pressure of commitment (did I mention the trial period? If the transfer goes badly, send the kid back). But what of the pupils, pushed around the plate like so many unwanted peas? The fact that a child and parents must choose to move is emphasised, but as there is no independent adviser or observer to help or check on them, there is room for manipulation.
If the managed move is to become the "next big thing", it is vital that the process is more rigorously regulated to safeguard the integrity of the service.
There should also be more chance for local authorities to share good practice: according to the report, some LEAs have set up effective protocols and infrastructure, but have yet to spread this knowledge to their peers.
And while the managed move offers potential benefits to everyone, it is perhaps more about distributing challenging pupils for the benefit of schools than it is about catering for the needs of the individual pupil.
A managed move may be less ugly than permanent exclusion, but it still struggles to address the underlying cause of challenging behaviour. There is evidence that of the many pupils "manage-moved" into pupil-referral units, few return to mainstream education. That tells us something.
Disruptive, disturbed young people need specialist support in an environment that offers the possibility of long-term stability and acceptance. Passing the problem from one school to another is simply not good enough.
Louisa Leaman is a behaviour support teacher and winner of the TES New Columnists' competition 2004* For a copy of Preliminary Assessment of Managed Moves in England and Wales or an information leaflet Managing Managed Moves, contact Poonam Pisavadia, email firstname.lastname@example.org