Stop the Hokey Cokey

16th June 2000 at 01:00
Exclusion policy is in a mess. Better to give schools the power and the cash they need to sort out those impossible pupils properly , says Terry Farrell

IT SEEMS that the good ship Equal Ops, long since capsized by the children from Hell, has been located by the politicians and might even be salvaged.

The level of anger that schools have felt has at last been recognised. Finally the balance may tip back, leaving the good guys to get on with learning while help is sought for those who try to plunder and pillage. So what should be the plan for John or Jane Impossible who goes through the system lighting fires, slashing others' work or teachers' tyres?

Some of these kids are beyond the ability of even the most experienced pastoral carers. They create mayhem then refuse to be referred and stomp off home or use their mobile phone - to summon wound-up parents. They deny everything and Mr and Mrs Impossible demand witnesses to alleged misdemeanours.

We are not talking here of the individual who has lost his or her temper but of the character who is remorseless. Not the sort who will respond to a spell in the day room. The outcome is going to be permanent exclusion. Then the appeals system that, to schools, appears to be designed simply to reinstate kids will operate.

Irrespective of how bad kids are they have a right to be educated. Woe betide the society that fails to offer therapy or education.

But the question is where to place these extreme children? Not in my backyard say pupils, parents, teachers and heads. Pupils hate the disruption. Parents quickly ask that their child moves out of "that class" or transfer their children to another school.

Teacher stress rises in the face of utter defiance and learning goes out of the window as they try to be therapists. Heads see one individual undermining the whole system. They must act but how? Exclusion is just an embarrassing waste if the eventual outcome is reinstatement. But these children cannot stay in school.

Schools have been inventive, creating referral rooms and staff patrols which respond to radio calls. They have also initiated learning or behaviour support.

Every teacher knows that the more orderly the classroom the more likely good learning is. If achieving that is impossible then the impact can be far broader than the disrupted classes.

The gold standard of A*-C grades slides, bringing a vengeful inspection or tough local authority response and, worse, a falling away of parental suppot and a decline in pupil numbers and hence budget. This is a familiar scenario for inner-city schools meaning they lose their middle-class leaven: the well-supported children who pull up grades.

So mentoring, after and before school language and subject classes, home school support, refugee support groups, enrichment classes and service in the community to enhance integration and cultural understanding have been developed by teachers in hard-pressed schools. Yet these schools remain the most vulnerable to the penalty culture where money is cut if targets are not reached.

Simply paying schools to help the dangerously dodgy end of the population will not work. This year 0.3 per cent of the school population is permanently excluded. The percentage of adults in prison or mental hospitals is much higher and yet there seems to be a belief that their problems do not happen to under-16s or if they do that schools should cope, keeping the disruptive in the mainstream.

The Government has deployed money through the Excellence in Cities initiative to some LEAs for learning support units. Great. This, however, is part of a bidding culture, whereby strict criteria laid down at the centre have to be met, or, as with the cash provided through the Government's standards fund to support attendance and reduce exclusions, heavy financial penalties are invoked.

The Opposition now maintains that it will provide out-of-school centres. Perhaps a better solution. But when will the Hokey Cokey in education end? It seems fashions will forever come and go as policy at the centre changes. Would it be possible for governments to change from Jagger to Sinatra, from "I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna be" to letting heads sing "I did it my way"?

Schools know what they need and, given resources, can deploy them to best advantage. The learning mentor, for example, proposed initially by Excellence in Cities as a job needing deputy head experience, can well be done as a composite job by part-timers.

It is surely on this basis that the Zacchaeus Centre in Birmingham, offering specialist schooling, and the East London Schools Fund, offering home-school support, have built their reputation. On the basis of such initiatives real progress can be built. The Hokey Cokey may be fun but it gets nowhere.

Terry Farrell is an independent consultant specialising in schools improvement and vice-chair of the East London Schools Fund. He spent 12 years as head of two inner-London secondaries

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