Step back from the edge

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Children at the Margins: supporting children, supporting schools. Edited by Tom Billington and Michael Pomerantz. Trentham Books pound;17.99.

Audrey Osler reviews a valuable contribution to the debate on exclusion in all its forms.

Children at the Margins sets out some progressive and ethical approaches to the issue of exclusion. Such approaches, based on research and real-life examples, and involving young people in decision-making, are needed more than ever. The Conservative party is proposing "turnaround schools", which would double the number of children removed from mainstream schools, further isolating those already at the margins of society. Excluded children and their families would lose any right of appeal.

Rather than blame young people for society's problems, Tom Billington and Michael Pomerantz, together with a group of educational psychologists and a representative of a parents' organisation, discuss children's rights in education. They examine a wide range of issues, including the experiences and needs of children and young people in care, multi-agency working, nurture groups, the needs of disabled children, ADHD and psycho-stimulants.

The accounts are accessible, which is not always the case in edited collections. My only criticism is that some sections feel a little formulaic, as contributors position themselves in the research. Each writer echoes an important point made by the editors: that these are the accounts of adults reflecting on children's experiences.

Children at the Margins sets out to support the development of practices that prevent social exclusion and enable young people to participate in decision-making processes that affect them, in keeping with the Government's obligations under the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This right is not yet properly guaranteed in English education law, but there are ways in which teachers and other professionals can support young people's participation.

Drawing on his experience as an expert witness to the courts regarding the care, custody and protection of children, Billington records some of the dilemmas faced by professionals in determining the best interests of Callum, a vulnerable boy at the centre of a bitter custodial dispute whose preferences are not easily reconciled with the (sometimes conflicting) professional judgments of those taking decisions about him. The chapter highlights the key role played by Callum's learning mentor and reminds teachers how stability and support at school can be critical in a young person's life. It demonstrates the important contribution schools and teachers can make in supporting young people in serious difficulties, especially when there are additional school-based problems, in this case, racist abuse.

Another chapter discusses the effectiveness of nurture groups, examining some of the dangers inherent in separating very young children from their peers and labelling their families socially inadequate by seeking to provide at school those elements judged to be missing from their home life.

Challenging the cosy consensus that researchers and professionals have built up about the benefits of this approach, Brian Willis, a senior education psychologist in Doncaster, seeks to learn more from children's own perspectives. While these are mostly positive, he cautions against seeing nurture groups as a solution for all children with additional social needs.

The contributors discuss children's responsibilities as well as their rights. They reflect on children's abilities to make decisions about their behaviour or learning. These are illustrated by Pomerantz, in his account of a project in Derbyshire that set out to examine why able secondary students might be underachieving and identify what could be done to reduce this underachievement.

Working with a small group of "able underachievers", he set out to tap their energy and increase their contribution to school life. The students met fortnightly for nine months and prepared to research aspects of learning and teaching. As well as describing the group sessions, Pomerantz notes the mutual respect and co-operation shown by students. Their main focus was negotiation and preparation of a "student teacher day", when they would teach their peers and show the whole school community the active teaching and learning methods they would like to experience more frequently (the day included a biology field trip).

Government rhetoric acknowledges the importance of giving children a voice, with a range of agencies, including Ofsted and the Department for Education and Skills, starting to recognise children as stakeholders whose opinions should be sought.

Lynn Turner, a senior educational psychologist in Leeds, looks at the practicalities of working in this way with young people attending school in a deprived area. The students were invited to imagine they were reporters on a local paper writing a piece on student behaviour and how it might be improved. Their insights, covering such areas as teaching and learning, bullying, school facilities and relationships, deserve to be read and considered by all schools interested in improving behaviour management.

The number of children facing disciplinary exclusion is again rising, forcing the Government to rethink policies that made it relatively easy for some schools to exclude those considered more trouble than they were worth.

New plans will limit the number of previously excluded children that schools have to admit. Local admissions forums will share the allocation of hard-to-place and excluded students between schools. Schools will be expected to work together and to co-operate with local education authorities to make provision for those at risk of exclusion, sharing responsibility for them. Some schools with relatively little experience of children in difficulties will have to take them on.

As Children at the Margins confirms, students subject to disciplinary exclusion form just a small proportion of those who are fully or partially excluded from schooling as a result of difficulties including violent or challenging behaviour, truancy, educational or social needs, family upheavals, poverty, racism, bullying, caring responsibilities and pregnancy.

Such children are known to be vulnerable to long-term social exclusion.

Children at the Margins does not provide simplistic solutions to the problems of educational and social exclusion but, by considering the voices and experiences of young people, offers some fresh insights into complex issues. It is a useful contribution to a wider debate about the way we conceptualise childhood and engage with children and young people.

Audrey Osler is professor of education and director of the Centre for Citizenship and Human Rights Education at Leeds University

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