Despite the mantra of inclusion, it is the most vulnerable pupils who have been hit by the new freedom to exclude, says Iain Nisbet
The Scottish Executive's statistics on the number of exclusions from school during the academic year 2003-04 were published two weeks ago. They showed an overall increase of 7 per cent in the number of exclusions, following the abandonment of Executive targets to reduce these numbers midway through the year.
Astonishingly, this news has been greeted with widespread approval from politicians and teaching unions alike. Why on earth should the news that our schools are excluding more children be greeted as good news?
This disturbing increase comes hot on the heels of comments by Professor Sheila Riddell of Moray House Institute that too many boys, looked-after pupils and children from deprived homes are being excluded ("Exclusion hits the vulnerable hardest", TESS, February 11).
The popular perception that indiscipline is rife in Scottish schools makes it easy for politicians to hail the increase as evidence of a zero-tolerance policy towards violence in the classroom. However, where the casual observer might see recalcitrant delinquents behind the statistics, on closer inspection they tell a quite different story.
Pupils who are entitled to free school meals are four times more likely to be excluded than pupils who are not. Pupils looked after by the authority are five times more likely to be excluded. Pupils with special educational needs in secondary schools are three times more likely to be excluded.
Poverty, social need and disability are three of the most reliable indicators for likelihood of exclusion. Scotland's most vulnerable children are also those most likely to be excluded from school.
And what awaits these pupils? In most cases, nothing at all. Every exclusion from school imposes a legal duty on the authority to provide alternative education "without undue delay". Most exclusions last for at least a week and yet, in more than 92 per cent of cases, no alternative provision is made - not even homework is sent. This wholesale disregard for the legal responsibilities which accompany an exclusion cannot inspire any confidence that headteachers or authorities are taking the effects of exclusion on pupils seriously. This is cause for concern, not celebration.
Clearly there is a place for exclusion in the array of disciplinary sanctions available to schools. But it is supposed to be used only as a last resort. And if the concern is indiscipline, why is exclusion so often used in circumstances where it will have no effect on a pupil's behaviour, or even make it worse?
Too often, disabled pupils are excluded for reasons related to their disabilities. Too often, pupils are excluded for minor or trivial incidents that should be handled without resorting to the nuclear option. Too often pupils who are not engaging with school are excluded with no alternative provision, return to school having missed a week's lessons and become even more disengaged than before. Too often heads exclude pupils with special needs simply in order to communicate to the authority that their school lacks resources or personnel.
Parents and older pupils have a right of appeal against exclusion. Many pupils are unaware of this. Many parents see no point in an appeal which is incapable of restoring to the pupil the lessons lost to them. Few have much confidence in the impartiality of the education appeal committee.
In the absence of an effective remedy, and now in the absence of ministerial encouragement to reduce reliance on exclusion, headteachers have carte blanche. That freedom has seen decisions that range from reasonable and necessary to unreasonable, unnecessary, counter-productive and damaging.
It is difficult to see how the Scottish education system can adhere to the national priority of inclusion, while at the same time lauding an increase in exclusion - especially when the vast majority of those exclusions unlawfully deny young people access to any alternative provision.
Iain Nisbet is head of education law at Govan Law Centre.