At the far end of the school campus sits a small, green prefabricated building. Inside, there are a surprising number of high stools and sofas, although there is little else to mark it out as particularly special. But this squat, unassuming building represents a quietly impressive achievement.
It has become a symbol of the school's approach to exclusion. Instead of removing disruptive children from class altogether, they continue their education within its walls. As a result, not one pupil has been permanently excluded from the 2,000-strong school over the past two-and-a- half years.
"Permanently excluding a pupil can be akin to signing their death warrant," says William Cotterell, headteacher at Homewood School in Tenterden, Kent. "At the very least, it's preparing them for a lifetime of potential disaster."
The potentially devastating consequences of exclusion are well-documented. Excluded pupils are more likely to leave school without qualifications, more likely to be unemployed, more likely to end up in prison, more likely to be homeless - all at great cost to society.
Despite this grim prospect, the majority of headteachers continue to exclude pupils. The most recent figures show that 8,130 children were permanently excluded by schools in England in 2007-08. Fixed-term exclusions are even more popular: more than 380,000 were handed out over the same period, one for every 25 pupils. However reluctant they might be to use their power to exclude, many heads argue that sometimes it is their only option and is for the good of the school as a whole.
Exclusions on the decline
But the number of permanent exclusions is on the decline, falling by about a third over 10 years. Mr Cotterell argues that this could go further still. His experience, he believes, shows it is possible to pursue a policy of non-exclusion without the sky falling in. And if it works at Homewood, there is no reason it should not work in other schools.
"I won't shed many tears if we drop down the league tables a bit, as long as we are not abandoning young people," he says. "It's about being supportive, no matter what. If a pupil is challenging, alternatives need to be found. Schools are sophisticated enough to be able to offer that."
He admits that it has not been an easy path. For some parents and teachers, "nothing short of hanging" is appropriate for consistently disruptive pupils, he says. But Mr Cotterell insists the majority are supportive of the school's approach. "Schools should not just be places where the league table rules everything," he says. "They must also be places where young people learn how to be fit members of society."
But the national drop in the number of exclusions could be reversed by moves to scrap the parental right of appeal. The proposals were drawn up by the Conservatives while in opposition, and although the Government has not come up with firm plans on this issue so far, it could make it easier for headteachers to permanently exclude. And even with a falling rate of exclusion in England, it is still five times higher than in Scotland and 10 times higher than in Northern Ireland.
If the right provision is available, then a non-exclusion approach may be possible, concedes John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. But he says the vast majority of schools still believe it is, on occasion, "regrettably" necessary to exclude.
The needs of the challenging pupil must be balanced against the needs of the wider school community, he says. And while most heads recognise the desirability of retaining pupils in school wherever possible, many feel there are times when they have no option.
A range of options
"We have to assess the extent to which pupils are wasting not only their time, but everyone's time," agrees Sir William Atkinson, headteacher of Phoenix High School in Shepherd's Bush, west London. "If the pupil is undermining the learning of others at every turn and interfering with the ability of teachers to teach, then action must be taken."
Sir William actively pursues alternatives to exclusion. Pupils who are at risk of exclusion are given additional support, or the school may organise a "managed move" to another school. But he says there is a "line" that cannot be crossed and that, in the end, he may have to resort to exclusion. "We judge each case on individual merit, but if a pupil's behaviour seriously affects the well-being, enjoyment or safety of others in the school, we have a duty to take that very seriously," he says.
But at Homewood these alternatives have taken the place of exclusion completely. This means choosing from a range of options, of which the prefabricated building, known as the Life - Learning Is For Everyone - Centre, is one of the most prominent.
Rather than being sent home, which pupils can view as a welcome holiday, they continue their education at the centre and work out their behaviour problems in smaller, more manageable groups. While they are away from the main body of the school, they do not become isolated. Many will move between the centre and mainstream classes throughout the week, depending on the extent of the problem.
"We have to be clear about why we want to send a pupil to the centre and what our objectives are," Mr Cotterell says. "Parental support is key. Some parents say about their child, `I would have kicked him out by now.' We reiterate that we want to work with pupils until they get it right."
Homewood is one of four neighbouring secondary schools that have undertaken a commitment not to permanently exclude pupils. The local authority used to spend pound;600,000 a year providing education for pupils who could not attend the four schools due to behavioural, medical or mental health problems, but the schools were convinced they could use that money better themselves.
As a result, each or the four - the North School, Towers School, Ashford Christ Church and Homewood - has an on-site unit that aims to educate children before reintegrating them back into mainstream classes.
The approach is working for Thomas, a Year 10 pupil at Homewood, who was facing exclusion for wandering off site, smoking, fighting and being rude to teachers. Following a range of interventions, including a stint in the Life Centre, his behaviour is slowly modifying.
"Teachers are people like me"
"I was made to realise that all human beings deserve respect and should be treated fairly," Thomas says. "Teachers are people like me whose feelings get hurt when they are not spoken to nicely." Unacceptable behaviour at the centre led to an extra day away from his friends, "so it is a good idea to watch your lip", he adds.
As one of the four collaborating heads, Mr Cotterell believes he has a responsibility for the pupils at his school and a collective responsibility for those in the area. "If a young person is rejected by one school, he or she will have to attend another, so the burden of that young person will end up in one of the other schools," he explains.
Instead of offloading the "problem child", a voluntary managed move agreement between the four schools gives the pupils and the schools more options. While this may sound like exclusion by another name, there is a crucial difference: if, after six weeks, the pupils have settled into their new environment, they stay; if not, they can return to their original school.
"Sometimes, the threat of leaving all their friends behind is enough of a deterrent," says Mr Cotterell. "Others may just want a fresh start. Generally speaking, the transition to another school is a success."
Other weapons in the schools' armoury include early start places at college, where older pupils spend a couple of days a week working towards largely vocational qualifications. A student support centre at Homewood also helps vulnerable pupils, such as school phobics or those with medical problems, while another scheme, dubbed "Three men in a boat", sees individual pupils work with two local authority staff in nearby Ashford.
Picking up the pieces
Exclusion can cause a host of problems for the schools and agencies that have to pick up the pieces. An Ofsted report last year found that a third of schools were breaking the law by not providing pupils with the statutory 23-25 hours of education a week within six days of exclusion.
Places in pupil referral units - often the final destination of children who have been excluded from successive schools - cost about pound;15,000 per pupil per year, almost four times as much as a secondary school place. Young people who have been excluded are also more likely to end up in trouble with the law.
An Audit Commission study found that 83 per cent of boys in the criminal justice system have been excluded. Excluded children will also commit up to 50 per cent more offences in the year after exclusion than in the previous year, according to the study.
"Exclusion from school is a quiet mockery of Every Child Matters," says Carl Parsons, visiting professor of social inclusion studies at the University of Greenwich and author of Strategic Alternatives to School Exclusions.
Instead of ensuring every child is in a position to achieve in later life, permanent exclusion writes many off at an early age and robs them of their potential for success, he says.
Exclusion is an admission that some children, including those as young as five, are already beyond reach or help, Professor Parsons adds. Once they have been branded difficult, pupils are likely to live up to expectations.
"Education is a universal entitlement," says Professor Parsons. "Yet excluded pupils are being denied it. It should be part of a headteacher's professional pride to find alternatives to exclusion that make real moral and financial sense."
Critics can argue that internal referral units and managed moves all amount to exclusion by the back door, shifting pupils out of mainstream education, but Professor Parsons insists there is a vast difference. Call it what you want, he says, just recognise that these alternatives are a lot less destructive than the traditional exclusion model.
A second chance
"Kids who are at risk of exclusion are already on the edge of the criminal justice system," he says. "Permanent exclusion pushes them even closer. By trying something different, kids have a second chance to turn their lives around."
Adam Abdelnoor, who has written a book about managed moves and runs an anti-exclusion charity called Inaura, says the key difference is that permanent exclusions are enforced and purely punitive, whereas community- based alternatives are voluntary. This gives pupils at least a modicum of ownership over their future.
Like failing the 11-plus, the impact of being permanently excluded can be devastating and life-long, Mr Abdelnoor says. "It sends out the message that they are not good enough, that they are not wanted by society, that they deserve to be turfed out on to the streets," he says. "That in turn leads to an increase in anti-social behaviour. As the name implies, the hurt and stigma are often permanent."
Mr Abdelnoor does not advocate schools grimly hanging on to pupils come what may. But he insists that at the community level, their needs can and must be met. Managed moves, for instance, can help clusters of schools share the load. More importantly, they work.
Of the 250 "fresh start" managed moves in Birmingham in 2008, 50 per cent of pupils successfully settled into their new school, according to Pat Day, area inclusion manager at Birmingham City Council. Half of the remainder realised that the grass was not greener on the other side, and returned to make a success of their original school.
The other 62 could not make it work at either setting, but were still not excluded. Instead, they spent part or all of their time at one of the local authority's learning support centres.
For a different approach, Mr Abdelnoor cites one school that has a "wander card" in reception. Any pupil can fill it in to notify staff that they want to try another school. This triggers a discussion between the pupil, staff and parents, that may result in a trial period in another school, which could lead to a longer-term transfer.
"What a wonderful way for a child to let adults know that they are not happy at a school," says Mr Abdelnoor. "Some pupils will provoke the school to permanently exclude them because it is killing them to stay. This gives them a way out without the disruption."
"short, sharp shock"
It is not just when they are permanent that exclusions can be harmful. Rather than permanently excluding pupils, some heads advocate the "short, sharp shock" of a fixed-term exclusion, where pupils can cool off and reflect. In reality, pupils have a lie-in or get into further trouble on the streets, says Professor Parsons. It is their education that usually suffers.
"I have spoken to kids who say that they are constantly in trouble for being behind with their coursework," he says. "Then they get chucked out of school for three days and get even further behind. They say it's not helpful. I can't argue with their logic."
But some headteachers remain firmly convinced that exclusions are a vital behaviour management tool. Caroline Haynes, principal of Tendring Technology College in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, hit the headlines in 2008 after she handed out 478 fixed-term exclusions within one academic year. As justification, she points to vastly improved academic performance: 48 per cent of pupils got five GCSEs at A*-C grades when she arrived in 2004; four years later that went up to 74 per cent.
"No one wants a child out of school but I reject this wishy-washy, `no matter what' approach," she says. "Young people have to learn that their actions have consequences. If others see that they are let off the hook, that sends out a message that they can get away with bad behaviour. There has to be consistency and a shared responsibility between the school, parents and the pupils."
Having clear boundaries and repercussions has led to improved behaviour and fewer exclusions, Ms Haynes says. Last year, the number of fixed-term exclusions at Tendring fell to 253.
For schools that find it too difficult to keep hold of disruptive pupils, it is important the Government makes a "clear, strong statement" that it will support heads who need to maintain good discipline through exclusion, argues Dr Dunford. But he would stop short of abolishing parents' right of appeal.
"It could well lead to more parents going to the courts in an attempt to overturn their child's exclusion," he says. "This would be more stressful, time consuming and costly for heads. Natural justice dictates that some appeal mechanism should be in place and it is far better that this should not be in the courts."
At Chilton Trinity Technology College in Somerset, the senior management team decided to assess the amount of education its pupils lost to fixed- term exclusions after identifying the impact persistent absenteeism was having on academic achievement. It became clear that fixed-term exclusions were effectively giving pupils a licence to truant every time they misbehaved by sending them home for a few days, says Ben Parnell, deputy head. "We realised how nonsensical it was," he says. "We were actively driving attendance down, which drove our attainment down."
Make lessons more interesting
The school was given extra impetus to improve after it was put into the National Challenge programme, where schools with fewer than 30 per cent of pupils getting five A*-Cs including English and maths at GCSE were told to hit that target or face closure. One of Chilton Trinity's core approaches was to reduce disruption by making lessons more interesting.
As a result, it embarked on a drive to improve teaching and learning across the board, through training courses for staff and focusing on developing relationships between pupils and staff. It has had a dramatic affect on exclusions.
In 2006, pupils spent 1,270 days out of school as a result of exclusion. So far this year, just 58 days have been lost.
While Chilton Trinity's approach may seem to be pandering to disaffected pupils, it gets to the root of one of the main reasons for disruptive behaviour, says Trevor Averre-Beeson, director of education consultancy Lilac Sky Schools, brought in to help the school.
"Teachers have to accept that pupils sometimes misbehave because the lessons are, to put it bluntly, boring," he says. "If pupils are not suitably engaged, they will mess around, get told off and then perhaps storm out of the classroom. The situation can escalate quickly. Soon you have another preventable exclusion on your hands."
All pupils can behave well in certain contexts, adds Mr Averre-Beeson: they just need good, interesting lessons, plenty of positive reinforcement and a diverse curriculum that will hold their attention.
In January, Lilac Sky Schools was asked to extend this philosophy to the Priory - a failing school for boys with behavioural, social and learning problems in Somerset. Last year, the Priory had about 200 incidents dealt with through fixed-term exclusions. Since February half-term this year, there have been none.
"We need to move away from the belief that there are intrinsically naughty children in the world who need to be punished," says Mr Averre-Beeson, now executive headteacher of the Priory.
"There is a temptation to blame the behaviour rather than look at the context around the behaviour. It makes me angry when I see adults blaming feral children. Who is it who brings these kids up? Adults. And the most significant adults in a child's life are parents and teachers."
While this may seem to remove the responsibility for their behaviour from the pupils, Mr Averre-Beeson says the school still institutes a programme of sanctions. The difference is these are smaller and more manageable than exclusion. Verbal warnings or a two-minute stay behind after class help remind the pupils that their actions have consequences.
But Mr Averre-Beeson recognises that it is an uphill battle. By the time children arrive at the Priory, they have already been excluded from mainstream school and the long-term damage may already be done.
For Mr Abdelnoor, the ideal is to stop them getting to this stage in the first place. Instead of exclusion, he advocates a system based around collective responsibility. He insists that it is not about refusing to exclude pupils, but about finding solutions that make exclusion obsolete.
"Exclusion is a rubbish management tool," he says. "It doesn't work. Instead of throwing pupils into the dark unknown of the street, the community has to find a way to serve their needs."
The temptation to exclude pupils who are making everyone's lives a misery can often be overwhelming. And for some heads, the idea of removing exclusion from the behaviour management toolbox is a sure-fire route to disaster. But the experience at Homewood, and at Chilton Trinity and the Priory, shows that it can be done. With the evidence suggesting the future for excluded children is bleak, there has never been more incentive to find an alternative.
ALTERNATIVES TO EXCLUSION
- Broaden the school: Have a special provision unit on or off site where pupils can continue their education without a break.
- Build bridges: Establish managed moves with other local schools or a pupil referral unit for a 12-week trial period.
- Alternative provision: Older pupils can spend two days a week on a vocational placement at college.
- Multi-agency work: Ensure social workers, counsellors, family support workers and youth workers are on hand to work with the pupil and their family.