Gender statistics on exclusions are masking a more complex picture, writes Audrey Osler
As exclusion figures rise, teacher unions declare many Welsh schools are battlefields, with alarming numbers of violent students all too ready to take up arms against their teachers and classmates (TES Cymru, March 24).
The solution of teachers' union the NASUWT Cymru is to exclude more young people and put them in pupil referral units (PRUs) where, presumably, they can continue to vent their aggression.
A headteacher told me recently that a small minority of his staff were calling for the expulsion of the dozen or so most difficult students. He predicted that if he kicked out the identified trouble-makers, the same teachers would be back a term later, calling for the removal of more.
PRUs are small institutions with generous teacher-pupil ratios and staff dedicated to working with young people in difficulties. It is not clear whether the NASUWT wants more PRUs to accommodate the violent masses, or how it would finance them. Nor is it clear what it proposes for its members who work in them.
Perhaps they have signed up to a working life characterised by violence.
Our research, conducted for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and focusing on girls' experiences of exclusion, suggests that the problem is more complex than headlines about youth violence would have us believe.
It is widely claimed that girls are benefiting from education and outperforming boys at all levels. Girls are judged less susceptible to behavioural difficulties. Yet improvements in girls' average GCSE results hide a number of deep-seated problems.
In Wales, exclusion rates are rising faster among girls. For both permanent and temporary exclusions, the number of girls affected, though small, rose significantly in 20045.
Although there is no official data on why this should be the case, education social workers, school psychologists and young people identify greater inconsistencies in the way girls are treated. If a girl behaves aggressively, there is often a lower tolerance level. As one PRU head expressed it, girls do not lend themselves to being "lovable rogues".
One reason why girls are less likely to be excluded is that heads know there are few alternatives. Teachers and social workers are reluctant to refer girls to placements where the curriculum is often aimed at boys, focusing on their traditional sports and interests, such as car mechanics.
Some choose not to send a vulnerable girl to a PRU where there she may be the only female in a group of 10.
Different behaviour patterns go a long way towards explaining the permanent exclusion rates. Girls report that when they get into trouble, rather than respond aggressively, they tend to adopt tactics such as apologising, crying or otherwise showing remorse.
Anna, who attends a PRU, said: "Girls apologise and well, they can act innocent. When they put a foot wrong, they say, 'Oh I'm sorry I didn't mean to do it, I'll never do it again'. But with boys, they say, 'Yeah so what?'"
Around half of the Welsh students excluded in 20045 appear to have had some special needs. Sam, a special needs student herself, described how bullying, absenteeism, unidentified SEN and, finally, pregnancy and motherhood, combined to exclude one of her classmates.
She said: "She started to get bullied because she was very big built and they used to call her fatty and everything, but she wasn't. Then she started skipping days off school. They just thought she was skipping days off because she didn't like school.
"I think she missed maybe 20 science lessons, then it was whole days, weeks and months. Then she left because she fell pregnant and then that was it.
"She's trying to get into college but she hasn't got any GCSEs and it'll be hard because she's got the baby. She's dyslexic as well, but she's not statemented. She just thought she was thick."
The growing number of girls excluded for disciplinary reasons is just the tip of the iceberg. Many girls, like Sam's classmate, exclude themselves quietly. Some attend school but opt out of learning. Others start truanting and then stop coming altogether.
Young people are all too readily blamed for society's problems. There is little recognition that many of those excluded for disciplinary reasons (as well many self-excluders) may be failing to cope with family breakdown, bereavement or the academic demands of school. Unidentified special needs contribute to the problem.
Exclusion rates differ considerably between schools with similar student populations. Schools which involve young people in decision-making are less likely to encounter behavioural problems.
Rather than continuing to label students as violent and advocating further exclusion from the mainstream, perhaps it is time to start learning from those schools that have started to work with pupils to improve the school community for the benefit of all.
Audrey Osler is professor of education and director of the Centre for Citizenship and Human Rights Education at Leeds University. Her book Girls and Exclusion: rethinking the agenda is published by RoutledgeFalmer
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