No breather in battle against bunking off

24th April 2009 at 01:00

If we cannot improve the attendance and behaviour of some of our more belligerent pupils, the knock-on consequences for their well-behaved peers and for education standards in Wales will be massive.

As chair of the National Behaviour and Attendance Review, I am so pleased that Jane Hutt, the education minister, has found a budget of Pounds 1 million to support our proposals. Some will be used for teacher training and development schemes to tackle bad behaviour - this is a good starting point.

The Assembly government's action plan has eight key fields: attendance, behaviour, children and young people's rights, early intervention, literacy, multi and inter-agency working, school effectiveness, and training and development.

It was interesting to read the recent TES Cymru survey of headteachers, which found - as did our review - that heads believe developing a national strategy to train all teachers in behaviour management is of paramount importance.

For now, the government will produce guidance, entitled Behaviour in Schools: Safe and Effective Intervention, which will advise staff on physical intervention, on new powers to promote good behaviour and discipline, and on legislation to enable searching pupils for weapons without consent. The latter will require very specific training as no one wants to put teachers in dangerous situations.

The government will also conduct a review of education provision outside schools, including the use of pupil referral units and equivalent organisations. In addition, it will commission research to assess the funding implications of the exclusion regulations that we proposed. This will include some research being undertaken by the children's commissioner into the extent of illegal exclusions. A review of the use and impact of parenting orders will also take place.

But my work is not done. Over the next 12 months, the minister has asked me to analyse why attendance and exclusion rates vary so much between individual schools and, particularly, local authorities. Some of these differences border on the inexplicable. For example, some authorities with a high proportion of pupils from deprived backgrounds achieve rates of school attendance above the national average and have low - even zero - rates of permanent exclusions, while for others the reverse is the case. Why? Similarly, exclusion rates from a small number of schools are well above national norms.

It also remains unclear what is happening to some permanently excluded pupils. The latest government statistics reveal 24 per cent of them were provided with home tuition while 22 per cent transferred to another mainstream school. But what happens to the other 54 per cent?

It may be that we need to think about including a "managed moves" column in official exclusion statistics (where a school and local authority seek alternative provision for a pupils with attendance or behavioural problems). But at present there are so many variations of the practice. The government now intends to produce guidance on the effective use of managed moves as one means of avoiding permanent exclusions. At the same time, local authorities and Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate, will be asked to work with schools with high exclusion rates and to help eradicate the practice of unlawful exclusions. Part of the philosophy underpinning our review was to encourage schools and local authorities to intervene much earlier in cases of non-attendance and poor behaviour, in the hope of preventing persistent truancy and fixed or permanent exclusions.

Literacy is also being targeted. In-service training materials are being sent out to promote whole-school approaches. The government will also continue to provide strategic intervention grants for catch-up programmes, centres of expertise, initiatives aimed at improving basic skills outside the formal curriculum, and for young people at key stage 4 who have become disengaged. It also intends to revise attendance codes, not only to ensure greater consistency between schools and local authorities, but also to remove barriers to more inclusive practices.

But all this will take time. Some of our recommendations can be introduced immediately; others will take longer. Some will require new guidance, possible new legislation and changes in existing practice within schools and local authorities. The key will be the capacity of authorities to manage and improve attendance and behaviour better than they have to date. While the number of permanent exclusions in Wales showed a slight reduction in 2007-08, we still have far too many primary and secondary pupils on unauthorised absences, managed moves or fixed-term exclusions. Evidence shows that the link between these pupils and adult crime is overwhelming, which means a substantial drain on the taxpayer. This is one reason why we need to make earlier interventions work more successfully.

Hopefully, the foundation phase will address some of these issues, but as the government keenly promotes its school effectiveness strategy, it is worth remembering that no strategy can succeed if pupils continue to bunk off and behave badly.

Ken Reid Deputy vice-chancellor of Swansea Metropolitan University and chair of the National Behaviour and Attendance Review.

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