Let a fair hearing be the judge

28th September 2001 at 01:00
A research study on school exclusion reported this week. Gwynedd Lloyd, Joan Stead and Andrew Kendrick summarise what they found

SCHOOL exclusion continues to be controversial. The Scottish Executive is moving away from reduction targets while still emphasising policies of inclusion. Many councils in Scotland have established policies and procedures designed to reduce exclusion and to encourage more effective inter-agency working to support children and young people in their family and in their local school.

Most pupils who are excluded temporarily in Scotland return after a short period and are not excluded again but a smaller number are excluded for longer periods and not readmitted. Our study, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, looked at inter-agency working to reduce serious school exclusion in three Scottish councils. We interviewed young people, parents, school staff, other professionals and senior personnel in each authority (150 people). School and local authority policy documents were analysed and school-based inter-agency meetings observed.

School-based inter-agency meetings were important in avoiding and reducing exclusion from schools. They operated in several different ways with strengths and weaknesses in each. Case-based meetings involved most participation by young people and parents or carers whereas combined case and strategic planning meetings fostered positive working relationships and wider creative approaches but reduced full participation by young people.

Irregular attendance by key personnel, especially social workers and mental health services, was an issue. Staff participation in meetings increased awareness of the roles and responsibilities of other professionals and fostered shared values; there were still some barriers to working together, such as different professional terminology, confidentiality issues and departmental priorities.

This study suggests that many young people can be helped to deal with difficulties at school and in their lives. Support was most effective when it was built on the individual circumstances and views of the young people - the right help at the right time. Being flexible, imaginative and just not giving up were central to success.

The style in which support was offered also affected how it was received by young people and their families. Most saw support as helpful where professionals were informal, equitable and non-judgmental. Their professional status as a teacher or social worker, for example, was seen as less important. Young people felt supported when they were dealt with as human beings, not as problems requiring solutions.

Some with very complex difficulties were seen as "high maintenance pupils", continuing to need a considerable level of support. Pastoral care staff in the schools and the inter-agency meetings were still trying to find appropriate support, still "hanging on in there", often when school colleagues were pressing for more punitive measures. For the pupils with the most difficulties the schools, and often the parents, felt that success was sometimes simply keeping in touch, being willing to keep trying. Training for teachers doing this kind of work seems a priority.

Our study suggests that the varying rights and responsibilities of pupils and parents are confusing. Now would be a good time for the Executive to start again, to recognise that a simpler system of decision-making with a common legislative and policy framework could really contribute. Scotland was innovative 30 years ago in implementing the hearings system, which includes families in a process that makes decisions based on the welfare of children.

Now could be the time to extend this model into a wider structure that is clear, participative and deals with the needs of all vulnerable children, rather than one which depends on a confusion of overlapping labels.

Gwynedd Lloyd and Joan Stead work at Edinburgh University. Professor Andrew Kendrick is at Strathclyde University. Their report, "Hanging On In There", is published by the National Children's Bureau and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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