Gordon Brown declared last week that school discipline was one of his main priorities. In response, the former Department for Education and Skills reported that "schools are using temporary exclusion as a short, sharp shock for lower-level misdemeanours". I beg to differ.
In the real world, the misdemeanours are frequently serious. On my patch, for instance, they have ranged from a Year 3 pupil peeing in another child's shoe (three days) to climbing on to a school roof and throwing assorted missiles at cars and passers-by (35 days).
And where is the short, sharp shock? Regulations surrounding fixed-term exclusions are about to change. It will now be the responsibility of parents to provide education for children excluded for up to five days. Can anyone really see this happening?
On the other hand, something tells me that in future, schools will only rarely exclude for more than five days because pupils must be provided with work by the school. This creates an even greater workload for teachers, and parents are seldom prepared to collect or supervise the work.
Bureaucrats think that parents might be made to take time off work to supervise their excluded children, but often they are not working anyway, especially in deprived inner-city areas. A pupil can be suspended for up to 45 days per year in one stretch or cumulatively. The only curb on fixed-term exclusions is the 45-day limit, which often triggers a permanent exclusion.
It is usually the same pupils who are excluded for days and weeks here and there, which means the figure of nearly 44,000 from primary schools alone (and you can multiply that figure by at least five in the secondary sector) represents not the number of children but the number of exclusions. Even so, fixed-term exclusions are increasing in number, and it increasingly happens to children at a younger age. Some 200 primary pupils are sent home every day.
So what's to be done? Getting parents to shoulder responsibility for their wild children is an uphill task. Many excluded pupils come from dysfunctional families the reason they have not learnt acceptable behaviour in the first place. Parenting classes have been suggested, but the very parents most in need of support are the ones who refuse to turn up. If they bother to attend meetings, they are often in denial ("He's always good for me at home" in response to "Why do you think Darren spits at teachers and constantly tells them to f*** off?") or angry at the inconvenience of having to attend, and the implied criticism of their skills as parents. ("Teachers always pick on him. It's your job to sort him out. You're paid for it" when it is pointed out that he kicked someone in the face.)
No resources have been identified to support new initiatives for managing fixed-term exclusions. The regulations are changing not as a result of caring about the quality of the education this needy group receives but because pupil referral units, where they were supposed to be admitted temporarily, are bursting at the seams with permanently excluded young people.
Like binge-drinking, ill-discipline in our schools reflects society at large, with no quick-fix solutions. Extracting disruptive children from their home environment for 25 hours a week in school is not enough to give them a new set of values and code of behaviour. The most extreme cases who are excluded won't even get that. I think a new kind of residential institution for the permanently excluded is the key, offering 24-hour care, supervision and inspiration. Pupil referral units could then oversee fixed-term exclusions.
My solution is not a cheap option, but what exists isn't working. I believe it could be an investment to protect future generations who want to learn, to protect teachers who want to teach, and turn unsocialised children into responsible citizens.
Myra Robinson is an educational consultant for children with bevaviour problems