Pay later on exclusion orders;Last Word

24th April 1998 at 01:00
On the same day that the Children's Society revealed the massive increase in school exclusions, Sandra Robbins was sitting in the front room of her council house, eyes welling, saying she was at the end of her tether. The whole thing was "doing her head in".

"You ring up and they aren't in, and they put you on to someone else, and they tell you that the person you have to speak to isn't in the office, and someone'll let you know. And then you wait and wait and wait and nothing happens."

Last November, her middle child, nine-year-old John, was permanently excluded from school. (Names have been changed but everything else is, unfortunately, true.) He was left to kick his heels for three months, then the local education authority got around to arranging two short sessions of tuition a week - "a few sums and some dot-to-dot pictures", says Sandra scathingly.

For the rest of the time, he is at home, bored witless. He can't ride his bike because the neighbours don't like it. He can't play at the pond because it's too dangerous. He doesn't go to bed at bedtime because he isn't tired. He follows his mother from room to room so that "by the weekend, I'm absolutely finished".

His school is undoubtedly relieved to be rid of a child whose behaviour tested everyone to the limits - but the problem doesn't end there. John was two academic years behind his peers when excluded, and had difficulty relating to other children.

Five dejected and solitary months later, his problems are certainly worse. He is on anti-depressants. His mother used to have a cleaning job but she couldn't take John with her so now she's on income support: "I've worked on and off there for 23 years, but now I've lost everything."

Her lips tremble, her earrings shake. Every day with John is an eternity, but no one else seems to feel much urgency. A dozen calls to the local authority on her behalf get nowhere. The switchboard is down; the files are unobtainable; the offices are being reorganised; people are out, they are sick, they are on leave.

Only after the press office is roped in, and the questions sent "upstairs", is it possible to establish that John is to be integrated, "very gradually and with lots of support", into a special school after Easter. Even then, there's no timescale. A return to full-time schooling overnight, says the authority, would be too great a shock for the system.

Why should we care? Most of us don't. As parents, our main concern is that children like John should not be in the same class as our children. Yet the number of Johns is mushrooming. Last year, nearly 400 children of his age were permanently excluded from primary school - a 30 per cent increase over the year before. Overall, permanent exclusions have risen by a staggering 450 per cent since the early 1990s.

We have to care, out of self-interest if nothing else. The Johns of this world are our neighbours and should they slide into a life of crime, as many do, we will be the ones carrying the cost, plus the pound;500 or so a week it takes to keep a child in a young offenders' unit.

Current wisdom says that schools are too quick to offload disruptive children in order to look good for the Office for Standards in Education - and that the best way to deal with such children is to support them in the mainstream, but John's case puts question marks over both those things.

Integration is a nice idea, but the costs to everyone can be devastating. John did have support in school but not enough. What he clearly needs is a specialist environment where his complicated problems can be addressed.

Even his mother, who resolutely refuses to accept that he was seriously disruptive in school, says that he is never happier than when he comes back from his brief hour-and-a-half at special school. "They treat them so different there. He's like another boy."

As to whether the rise in exclusions is due to schools wanting to look goodIwell, John, according to his teachers, hit and hurt and screamed and finally flung a chair across the room at someone's head. At that point, was it really OFSTED that his class teacher was thinking of before all else?

Teachers have to cope with what society dishes out to them; and society should face up to the fact that if the needs of such children are ignored when they are young, then it will pay ten times over when they are older.

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