WEWILL by now have digested the first report from Tony Blair's social exclusion unit. The usual suspects, acting almost as parodies of themselves, have condemned the recommendations on truancy and exclusion. They would, wouldn't they?
However, where wiser counsels prevail there is a recognition that for the first time in decades a serious problem is being taken and tackled seriously, with the Prime Minister in the driving seat. This is the leadership we have been crying out for and it ought to be a cause for celebration.
A one-third reduction in exclusion and truancy by 2002 is targeted. I hope this goal will be achieved and bring about all the related benefits. I welcome this landmark report and the Commission for Racial Equality will do all in its power to support its implementation.
Ministers ought to pay particular attention to whether or not the over-representation of ethnic minorities among those excluded - African-Caribbean boys are excluded at six times the rate of their white counterparts - falls along with the overall reduction.
The social exclusion unit rejected the recommendation from the commission and others that there should be a specific target to eliminate ethnic-minority over-representation in exclusions. The implied logic is that this will be addressed indirectly. I believe that is a mistake. I hope I am wrong. Time will tell.
When I made my presidential speech to this year's North of England education conference I urged the Government to abandon "colour-blind" policies and tackle specific ethnic-minority educational needs. The desire to meet these needs is there; but the policies needed to meet them might not be.
Some eyebrows have been raised at the role given to the police in returning truants to school. It is difficult to see what other agency could undertake this important task. The real question may be about the nature and quality of that to which truanting pupils are being returned.
If schools are failing to engage the interest of their pupils, and if the gulf between peer group culture and school is absolute, no amount of coercion will either keep children in school or persuade them to learn while there.
Simply returning pupils to the site of the problem will not solve it. Short-term solutions must be implemented alongside thorough examination and reform of how schools work, the nature of the curriculum, the skills of teachers and the capacity of schools to face up to racism successfully.
Why should a pupil want to be at an institution in which they are not respected and in which their safety is not assured? That is the experience of many young people from ethnic minorities.
The social exclusion unit was established to forge "joined-up policy". Its first report has gone a long way towards doing this. However, more "joining up" is needed if we are to see the end of racial disadvantage in education.
Recent Research on the Achievement of Ethnic Minority Pupils, the 1996 report from the Office for Standards in Education, found high levels of racial harassment in schools, widespread negative racial stereotyping of pupils by teachers, and serious underachievement by pupils from both African-Caribbean and Bangladeshi backgrounds - as well as the figures quoted above on exclusions.
The Department for Education and Employment must now begin to forge the connections necessary to respond to this. It should also act to ensure that the Teacher Training Agency reverses its lamentable failure to deal with these issues in setting standards and a curriculum for initial teacher training. We also need an inclusive national curriculum appropriate for a multiracial Britain in the 21st century that values differences and respects diversity as well as raising standards for everybody. And we want an OFSTED able and willing to use school inspections to evaluate equality outcomes consistently and rigorously.
The truancy and exclusions report veers towards addressing race issues covertly. It seems the DFEE too is sliding back to being coy about race. It is one year since ministers decided to maintain the existence of the ministerial advisory group on raising the achievement of ethnic minority pupils, but still the training agency, QCA and OFSTED are failing to deliver. Unless they do, some root causes of truancy and exclusion will be left unaddressed. Vital connections will not be made.
Racial exclusion had better begin to shout its name, before its intractability undermines the whole edifice of policy aimed at ending social exclusion. After all, what is so special about race that we cannot just face up to and deal with it? Answers on a postcard please.
Sir Herman Ouseley is chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality