Opinion: how to exclude the whole truth

6th December 1996 at 00:00
The Office for Standards in Education's report, Exclusions from Secondary Schools, apparently shows that HM inspectors discovered the whole truth about exclusions but that someone made sure it stayed hidden.

The report offers sound if rather obvious advice. Having found that some schools operate inconsistently, schools are told to implement effective behaviour policies, provide pastoral support and meet individual needs.

Having found that local education authorities are confronted with demanding responsibilities, LEAs are told to monitor, ensure proper procedures are followed, and provide training. Having found that (as a result of Government policy, parental choice and selection) schools with falling rolls are vulnerable to an influx of other's rejects, that the domestic circumstances of excluded pupils present "a grim catalogue of misery", Government is told - nothing.

The authors seem to be aware that this grim catalogue leads to some conclusions that the Government does not wish to hear. After detailing the poverty, sickness, unemployment and abuse that typical excluded pupils suffer in their homes, the report says: "It is important to stress that many pupils face one or more of these or comparable problems without resorting to aggressive behaviour." No evidence is offered for this. Is it really true? If so, why is it important to stress it? Could it be to permit the conclusion, so satisfying for those responsible for social and educational policy, that nothing need be done. It would be very interesting to know at what point in the drafting, and by whom, that sentence was inserted.

An HMI investigation published in 1993 (Access and Achievement in Urban Education) was more forthright: ". . . beyond the school gate are underlying issues of poverty, unemployment, poor housing, inadequate health care and the frequent break-up of families . . . schools lack the capacity to carry out sustained programmes of renewal unaided".

Even if most of the schools serving these dismal environments manage to keep pupils under control, a policy that accepts these ghettos and seeks to increase their number is indefensible. To argue that this outcome is a natural consequence of parental choice is sophistry. What choice do parents who live near these schools have? What choice can parents whose children are of average ability or below have in a selective system?

The answer is none, but neither Chris Woodhead nor Gillian Shephard will say so. One of the heartening outcomes of The Ridings affair was the eventual acceptance by all parties of their share of the blame: The LEA, the head, the teachers, their union, and on local television at least, some of the pupils and their parents.

Only one voice was missing, that of Mrs Shephard, who had nothing to say about her Government's contribution to making the work of disadvantaged schools harder by encouraging selection. In an interview not shown nationally, she sneered at the idea when it was put to her by a local BBC television reporter, and pointed to Calderdale's admission that it had let the school down. So much for the rewards of honesty.

This report is further evidence that OFSTED is becoming a party-political poodle, unable to report anything that would worry the Government: other evidence includes the sleight of hand in reporting standards, the sustained attack on Calderdale education authority over The Ridings (when an LEA's work is not part of the school inspection framework), what amounted to an apology for Government selection policy in a recent article in The Times by the chief inspector, and the re-inspection of some teacher training because it wasn't found to be bad enough.

HMI have a long and distinguished tradition of reporting as they find, independently and without fear. They have been the friends of truth and therefore the friends of all who value education. Schools cannot solve social problems unaided, but in trying to they should be able to rely on HMI to report the whole truth.

Mick McManus is a lecturer in education at Leeds Metropolitan University

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