Save us from the kids from hell

12th January 1996 at 00:00
How do schools deal with pupils their teachers cannot control? Carolyn O'Grady explains the role of exclusion orders.

John, a Year 10 pupil, was permanently excluded from school for carrying a meat cleaver into the building with intent to use it against another pupil. In Year 9, Paul, who had a long history of aggressive behaviour, was first temporarily excluded. Then he returned to school and received a statement after assessment, but a few months later he was excluded permanently.

John and Paul are two children whose situation is described in a survey of local education authority policies on exclusions, published last summer. The survey by Canterbury Christ Church College showed that the number of pupils permanently excluded in England had trebled in the past three years to more than 10,000 a year.

Of these, half were in their final two years of compulsory education; more than 80 per cent were from secondary schools. And 4.1 per cent of that total were excluded from special schools. Most were boys - other reports have added to the continuing evidence that pupils of African and African-Caribbean origin, especially boys, are also disproportionately represented in the statistics. And most, if not all of them, will have been excluded because schools felt unable to cope with their aggressive or violent behaviour.

The reasons are complex and by no means entirely to do with schools: research studies have drawn attention to a dramatic rise in psychosocial disorders among children throughout the western world since 1945. But changes in education, the financial cuts, local school management and a more competitive environment have also undoubtedly had an effect.

Why should schools carry on wrestling (sometimes literally) with disturbed pupils at a time when they face bigger classes, receive less support from local authorities and are less able to pay for the extra staffing bills that such children create? Why accept a child excluded from another school when he or she will almost certainly depress performance table scores and risk attracting bad publicity?

It seems schools are increasingly unable or unwilling to contain and help these children. They are often not receiving the co-ordinated support from outside agencies, for example, social services, which might help them do so. According to Tony Booth of the Open University's education department, the situation might be worse as the official statistics do not take account of informal exclusion - for instance the pupils who are just told to go away or truants who are not followed up. Traveller children and pregnant schoolgirls (pregnancy is not supposed to be a reason for exclusion, but there are signs that it may sometimes be) are also not considered, he says.

Attempts to stem the tide have focused mainly on tightening procedures and encouraging schools to keep disruptive young people on their rolls. Set out in DFE Circular 1094, guidelines emphasise that schools need to intervene promptly and effectively whenever there is disruption in order to keep pupils in school if possible.

Children can be excluded either permanently or for a maximum of 15 days. In the case of a permanent exclusion, parents have a right to appeal and the local education authority has the duty to consider whether it should stand. The authority and governing bodies have the power to direct the headteacher to reinstate.

So what happens to a pupil permanently excluded? Three main possibilities exist - some children may experience more than one. Pupils can be found an alternative school or, on appeal, return to their original school: the Canterbury survey suggests that this happened for 27 per cent of primary pupils but for only 15 per cent of secondary (though these figures, the survey's authors admit, understate the numbers considerably). Second, they can enter pupil referral units (PRUs), educational facilities set up by most LEAs for excluded pupils and other categories of out-of-school children. Third, home tuition can be organised.

In those authorities surveyed, one-quarter of excluded primary pupils attended PRUs while nearly 40 per cent received home tuition. The corresponding proportions for secondary pupils were 39 per cent in PRUs and 27 per cent receiving home tuition.

Some authorities view the behaviour of these pupils as evidence of a special educational need and, if the child doesn't already have a statement, will assess him or her, following the same procedures as if the child were in school.

Provision is set out in the statement. It is PRUs, however, which accommodate the largest proportion of permanently excluded pupils, though usually through part-time provision. Most pupils will be from Years 10 and 11, for LEAs report that it is becoming increasingly difficult to return young people nearing the end of their compulsory schooling.

Many local authorities are now emphasising the cost-efficiency of keeping the children in their own schools and have tightened up procedures. Imaginative schemes have developed in some areas. In Staffordshire, for example, a county council hotline has been set up to tackle primary school exclusions. Headteachers call if they feel a child should be excluded, and specialists will visit within two days. So far the service has managed to keep most pupils at risk in schools.

In Gloucestershire, an education and social support team made up of teachers, social workers and others with education welfare officer training offer support and counselling to pupils and their families.

This sort of inter-agency co-operation with schools is increasingly being recommended. But though schools with disruptive children can apply for behaviour support services such as educational psychology, educational social work and additional teaching, budgets are at present so tight that authorities have difficulty providing on-going help. Often, too, agencies are not geared up to work in a co-ordinated way.

Therefore, it is still the individual teacher who has to bear the brunt of unacceptable behaviour. Carl Parsons, director of the Canterbury survey, has this advice for those confronted with persistently aggressive and perhaps violent children: * Don't take it personally; often the child's problems don't have their roots in the classroom * Seek help from the head, who can make contact with educational psychologists and social workers * Don't be alone, other people are there to help and they ought to be helping.

"The key thing is not just to keep a record of misdemeanours but also to record what has been tried. And try not to hate the little sod, or big sod," he adds.

Perhaps, another point should be made: never think that these children are irredeemable. Take John, mentioned earlier. He found a full-time place in a Tower Hamlets PRU (see story, right) and has been entered for four GCSEs. He is expected to get E grades. He did outstanding work experience and is now described as "charming, non-aggressive and mature".

And Paul? In an imaginative scheme developed by Kirklees Authority in which the PRU works closely with schools on the reintegration of pupils, he attended a unit following acceptance by an alternative mainstream school. He was visited at the unit by a teacher from the receiving school and is now being gradually reintegrated.

National Survey of Local Education Authorities' Policies and Procedures for the Identification of, and Provision for, Children who are out of School by Reason of Exclusion, commissioned by the Department for Education. Survey conducted by Canterbury Christ Church College, July 1995; Outcast England: How Schools Exclude Black Children, published by the Institute of Race Relations, 2-6 Leeke Street, London WC1X 9HS; The Experience of Excluded Primary Schoolchildren and their Families. Social Policy Research Findings No 63, free from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Homestead, 40 Water End, York YO3 6LP

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