Miracle workers?;Opinion

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Having apparently brought peace to Northern Ireland, the Government must be tempted to believe that it can work miracles. If Belfast's warring factions can be persuaded to shake hands, surely every other seemingly intractable problem can be remedied? David Blunkett certainly seemed optimistic this week when he announced that "school exclusion and truancy are not insoluble". We must hope he is right.

But how much faith should we place in the remedies offered by the Prime Minister's social exclusion unit? Some of the proposals engender a terrible sense of deja vu; but closer inspection reveals that these are radical plans. The promise that excluded children will receive "full-time and appropriate" education within three weeks is very significant. At present, such children wait 14 weeks on average - for perhaps one hour's tuition a day.

But the prospect of police officers arresting truants, OFSTED inspectors being despatched to schools with the highest exclusion rates, and parents of non-attenders being fined pound;1,000, is disturbing. Those who propose such "solutions" have often failed to grasp the underlying realities.

Truancy and the overt forms of disaffection that lead to exclusion are usually two sides of the same coin - flight or fight. They also tend to be manifestations of a huge array of personal, social and academic problems that panda cars and truancy pagers cannot address.

Parents must take much of the blame for high truancy and exclusion rates, but schools should also accept responsibility. Some, for example, have signally failed to meet the challenges posed by African-Caribbean pupils - even though, as a new MORI poll shows (page 1), these young people often have positive attitudes towards learning.

Teachers need more training in conflict resolution, and more help from educational psychologists and pastoral staff. And while the promise of a free hamburger may indeed have a miraculous effect on some children's attendance, what troubled pupils really require is: more opportunities to succeed in school; help in using their leisure time constructively; and at least one staff member that they can genuinely relate to.

However, none of this comes cheap. If the Government is serious about reducing exclusion and truancy rates, it must give schools and children much more long-term support than has ever been offered before.

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