An isolation incident

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Matthew Beard looks back on a week of often emotional debate about excluding difficult children

In a week when most children were reluctantly heading back into school, the issue of keeping some of them out has risen up the political agenda.

In its quest for tougher measures to exclude disruptive or violent children, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, and its media-wise general secretary Nigel de Gruchy, took to the road.

On Monday Mr de Gruchy travelled to West Yorkshire where he scored an early victory. Under threat of NASUWT strike action, the mother of 13-year-old Sarah Taylor, the alleged assailant of a male teacher, agreed to withdraw her daughter from the Ridings School in Halifax.

Then Mr de Gruchy and his entourage set off for their next battle. For the first time, the threat of strike action as a last-ditch way of removing unruly pupils loomed over a primary school.

At Manton junior school in Worksop, seven NASUWT teachers and two from the National Union of Teachers have refused to have contact with 10-year-old Matthew Wilson, who they claim is guilty of "12 months of chronic bad behaviour".

Matthew was sent home from school on disciplinary grounds four times. Then the headteacher, Bill Skelley, permanently excluded him, only to be overruled twice by the governors. A head usually expects to be backed by governors in cases such as this, but Manton has highlighted strained relationships, especially in primary schools - a trend also identified in today's TES survey (page 6).

Led by Eileen Bennett, a retired civil servant, the governors believe the boy needs to remain at the school among his friends and with his brother. They fear Matthew, who lives with his mother, Pamela Cliffe, on the tough Manton estate near the school and has endured several traumas over the past year, is being made an example of.

Mrs Bennett refuses to "sacrifice" him, insisting he is "no Al Capone". She claims the NASUWT has exaggerated his bad behaviour and is confident "they've got nothing on him".

But Mr de Gruchy is still holding his trump card - "a catalogue of disruption almost by the minute" compiled by Matthew's teacher - which he has threatened to play if his conditions are not met.

Caroline Morrison, a parent governor with two children at Manton, claims the NASUWT is motivated by a desire for publicity in a quest for more units for disruptive pupils. "I'm not against these units," she said. "They are useful in the same way that we need prisons for some sections of the community, but they should be a last resort and certainly not for a 10-year-old."

Sitting in Mrs Morrison's front room, Mrs Bennett said: "We're not running scared of the unions. We care about Matthew and all they care about is using him to put pressure on the Government for reforms. They're the real bullies. "

Mrs Morrison claims their case has popular support on the Manton estate. One mother said: "Disruptive pupils are the topic of the moment, and they want more help from the Government, don't they? So they have started this circus. "

At an impromptu press conference held in the school hall on Monday night, Nottinghamshire's chair of education Fred Riddell announced that Matthew would be kept away until Monday while a solution was sought.

Matthew's return depends on the union agreeing to his being taught in permanent isolation. Mr Riddell, who has acted as mediator, said the cost of the supply teacher, up to Pounds 14,000 a year, would be met from the school budget.

Mr de Gruchy waited outside under his union-issue umbrella to deliver his hardline response to the cameras. "Isolation is isolation and that means no contact whatsoever with the members of the NASUWT. It means that the arrival and departure of the child will have to be strictly controlled."

This strict isolation is exactly the kind of punitive segregation Mrs Bennett and the governors wanted to avoid. And it has emerged that Matthew's mother is unhappy with the deal, reviving the spectre of a strike.

In Nottingham alone there are more than 3,000 children with emotional and behavioural difficulties in mainstream schools. Mr de Gruchy believes that this, coupled with the increasing number of pupil exclusions, highlights the need for the Government to set up more pupil-referral units.

He also believes that heads are the best qualified to judge which pupils should be excluded. For this reason he wants the appeal system, which gives the local authority and its independent appeal panel the last say, to be abolished.

The governors who have blocked Matthew's exclusion, have, says Mr de Gruchy, acted "perversely". Their suggestion that a 10-year-old cannot be a thug is "dangerous nonsense".

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