Reasons behind exclusions are ones to watch
Every week, I meet young people who have been unfairly excluded by schools. A typical case this year involved three Year 11 boys who were expelled as a result of an incident in which they had been throwing snowballs at each other.
A passer-by was struck and decided to retaliate by attacking the smallest boy in the group. The other two boys intervened to protect him and the man reported them to the police for assault.
The slow workings of the legal system mean that six months later the boys still have not been convicted of anything. But the headteacher decided to exclude them anyway. When asked for his reason, he cited witness statements - but we don't know what the witness statements said because, so far, he has refused to produce them.
The appeals hearing over the boys' exclusions has yet to be concluded because it has been adjourned five times, and will now not take place until all the boys have finished their external examinations. Fortunately, we have been able to organise adequate teaching for them in the meantime and have no doubt that they will do well, despite the school's obduracy.
I could describe dozens of similar cases. Sometimes, when I and colleagues have got involved, we have helped to change the minds of the appeals panels and the young people have flourished after being given a second chance. On other occasions, appeals panels have backed the exclusions, to our great disappointment. This happened in a recent case in which three Year 11 girls were expelled after an apparent fracas involving boys from a nearby school. The head and appeals panel failed to consider what the girls had said in their defence - that the boys had threatened and verbally abused them.
The figures for exclusions are staggering. In England, there are some 7,000 permanent and about 350,000 fixed-term exclusions (up to a maximum of 45 days) every year.
And then there is the matter of discrimination. Black students are three times more likely to be excluded; children in care eight times; and children with statements of special educational needs between three and four times. Putting all those figures together would suggest that a statemented black child in care would be up to 96 times more likely to be excluded. That giant figure may not be statistically accurate, but would not surprise me in the slightest.
Once many of those thousands of young people are excluded, they never return to full-time, mainstream schooling, so they are set on the slippery slope of delinquency, youth detention, crime, incarceration, anti-social behaviour and future unemployability.
This is the situation as it now stands, where pupils can appeal their case to an independent panel. But it horrifies me to think what will happen if the appeals panels are abolished by the new Government.
It is not that I think the panels currently do a great job; too frequently they make mistakes and, in my view, they too often tend to side with the headteacher. Contrary to the myth, they overturn very few exclusions: less than 1 per cent of the total number of excluded pupils are returned to schools because of their decisions.
Yet the appeals panels do give pupils and their families a chance to make their case, and may make heads think twice before an exclusion. A faulty safeguard is better than none at all.
The Conservatives repeatedly talked about abolishing the panels in the run-up to the election, but seem to have become silent on the matter since forming the coalition Government. I can only hope they have listened - not just to groups like ours, but also to the headteachers' associations, which have called for them to remain, and former headteacher Sir Alan Steer, who has commented that it is vital to keep them "in the interests of natural justice".
If the new Education Secretary Michael Gove is really concerned about behaviour, then he should look at the reasons behind exclusions. In our experience, they tend to be because of incidents involving violence, drugs or sex. But schools do not properly consider the context when gathering and considering the evidence.
We live in a society full of pressures and temptations created by adults, but when young people succumb to them, they are the ones who are targeted. For example, students are excluded permanently for letting off fireworks during the excitement leading up to Bonfire Night, yet no action is taken against the manufacturers and retailers.
Teenagers are often accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour when their nerve-ends are almost raw as a result of what they see on television and can access on the internet.
The drugs scene is also badly dealt with, despite the experienced services that can be enlisted to assist with individuals and school communities.
Pupils can also be caught up in the game-playing that surrounds the school admissions system, which is designed to promote the myth of choice to parents. So we see schools accepting a fair spread of ability at admissions time and then offloading many through exclusions shortly after the beginning of the academic year in September. This trend may escalate as more schools take up the offer to become independent of their local authorities.
It can be extremely hard for teachers to work with pupils who do not want to be in the classroom. Every day, 50,000 students absent themselves from school; 9 million secondary half-days are lost through truancy, and 3 million from primaries.
But even more alarming is the fact that teachers' sickness absence runs at seven times the rate of student truancy. What does all this say about schools and society? Clearly, it is not just the pupils who can feel disillusioned and alienated.
A crippling combination of prejudice, destructive stereotypes and low expectations can send pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds into a downward spiral. We urgently need to find ways for schools to tackle this problem, not magnify it. Instead of punitive procedures, our efforts should be focused on rehabilitation. We cannot afford to waste more time, money and young people's futures.
Gerry German, Director, Communities Empowerment Network.