Exclusions drama turns into a crisis for blacks

10th October 1997 at 01:00
There are ways to counter the soaring number of ethnic minority pupils being excluded, argues Audrey Osler

The education minister, Estelle Morris, acknowledges the problems of racism, social exclusion and educational failure faced by ethnic minority pupils and assures us that these are challenges the Government does not shy away from (TES, September 26).

Yet education policies targeted at all pupils living in deprived areas may not be effective, as Ms Morris seems to suggest, in meeting the needs of ethnic minorities.

Her claim that black pupils are three times more likely to be excluded from school than their white counterparts is a serious understatement of the position of black Caribbean families, for whom soaring exclusion rates amount to an educational crisis.

Black Caribbean boys are around six times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than white boys, according to statistics from the Department for Education and Employment. Once excluded, a pupil has only a 15 per cent chance of returning to mainstream education.

Although the overall number of girls excluded is relatively small, black Caribbean girls are also particularly vulnerable: they account for 8.8 per cent of excluded girls, although they form only 1.1 per cent of the total female school population. There are real disparities in exclusion rates between boys and girls and among ethnic groups.

As Sir Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, points out, with an estimated 10,000-14,000 permanent exclusions in 1995-96, schools are dumping the equivalent of the population of a small town each year. This suggests bad practice and possible unlawful discrimination in managing behaviour in schools.

The good practice guide Exclusion from School and Racial Equality, published by the CRE last month and based on research by a team at Birmingham University, highlights several ways in which schools and LEAs can address this serious problem. With the support of the Prince's Trust, it is being distributed to all secondary schools.

We found that schools which had successfully reduced exclusions had involved pupils as well as parents in discussing good behaviour and discipline. They had effective structures for involving children in management and decision-making, such as school or class councils.

Yet many schools which have successfully cut their exclusion rates have not been able to address the over-representation of particular ethnic groups. It is only when the needs of such groups are tackled that progress is made.

Strategies include developing partnerships with ethnic minority and other community organisations; developing mentoring programmes; teaching pupils how to respond to racial harassment; and discussing racism and inequality within the curriculum. Many schools do not realise the ethnic disproportion in their exclusions until they examine the relevant ethnic monitoring data.

Some teachers acknowledge that they feel ill-equipped within the multicultural classroom. One primary teacher spoke for many in admitting: "Expectations make a big difference . . . we do tend, however well intentioned, to see a black boy and think they are going to be trouble."

With schools under pressure to perform well in league tables, it is easy to understand how some may choose to rid themselves of pupils who present problems.

A number of schools are not using exclusion as a measure of last resort, in keeping with Government guidelines. For instance, we found examples of neighbouring schools, working in equally difficult circumstances, one with an extremely high exclusion rate and the other with a minimal number. Parents need to recognise that a high exclusion rate may indicate a school which is experiencing difficulties rather than one with strong discipline. Our research confirms that efforts to reduce school exclusions will only be effective when there is good leadership at all levels.

It is encouraging to hear Education Secretary David Blunkett has launched a Pounds 21 million package to tackle poor attendance and behaviour problems, and it is to be hoped that some of this money will be directed to addressing racial inequalities. Behaviour management training needs to include an examination of equal opportunities, pastoral care and teacher expectations, as they relate to children from diverse ethnic groups.

The evidence suggests that the Government will only achieve educational success for all as outlined in the recent White Paper, Excellence in Schools, if it directly challenges racial discrimination in education.

Adopting strategies to improve literacy and numeracy, and promote zero tolerance of under-performance does not mean that inequalities in achievement between ethnic groups will be reduced or that the numbers of black Caribbean children excluded from school will fall.

We are delighted that Estelle Morris has endorsed the CRE's good practice guide and recognises the importance of building upon good practice at school and local authority levels.

School exclusions are rising most dramatically in the primary sector. Ms Morris should make sure that every primary school has a copy of Exclusion from School and Racial Equality. The costs of distribution would be relatively modest and the potential benefits, particularly if backed by local training programmes, considerable. The average public cost of each permanent exclusion is calculated at Pounds 4,300 a year.

There are many ways in which central government can support initiatives taken at LEA and school levels to promote the achievement of all our pupils and outlaw racial discrimination within education. Most do not require huge sums of money. They include:

* making sure that schools which accept excluded pupils are given the money to successfully re-integrate the children;

* ensuring that sufficient education provision is made by LEAs for children out of school;

* monitoring fixed-term as well as permanent exclusions by ethnicity and gender;

* reviewing the legal framework for exclusions to ensure that children have the right to be represented at appeals procedures;

* including racial equality as a management issue on headteacher training;

* addressing racial equality issues within training programmes for existing teachers, particularly those which address behaviour management and curriculum leadership;

* ensuring equal opportunities issues are central concerns within initial teacher training, alongside numeracy and literacy.

Tony Blair claims that education is social justice. To make this a reality for all our children, schools need to be supported by Government policies which specifically seek to eliminate racial discrimination within the education service.

Audrey Osler is senior lecturer in education at the University of Birmingham. She directed research into Exclusion from School and Racial Equality on behalf of the CRE, from whom both the research report and the good practice guide are available.

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