Surely, we can't just write them off

14th March 1997 at 00:00
The Education Bill should have the interests of excluded children, as well as the teaching unions, at heart, writes Rachel Hodgkin

The Education Bill currently passing through Parliament is revealing a disturbing attitude to some of our most troubled children.

Until protests from those outside the education system persuaded the Government to reconsider, children excluded twice from schools were to be called "disqualified persons" under an almost unnoticed measure in the Bill.

According to the Department for Education and Employment the term was "just a drafting necessity", a handy label to describe a category of children, no offence intended. At a second reading on February 10 in the House of Lords, however, Lady Warnock said: "We should be ashamed to have legislation that contains such clauses about 'disqualified persons'." And Lady Ramsay added: "What civilised society would brand a child a 'disqualified person', however many times that child has been excluded from school?" What does the Government know about excluded children? That most of them, unsurprisingly, are boys. That three-quarters of them have unmet special educational needs. That an astoundingly disproportionate number of them are in care.

The DFEE estimates that a third of children excluded from secondary school, and three-quarters of children excluded from primary school are in care, although overall just one in 200 children is in care. And it has been known for a long time that black pupils are also over-represented in the exclusion figures.

Most of these excluded children are having to tackle a school curriculum that can only humiliate and frustrate them. They are often children who have been abused or neglected at home, or whose families have collapsed under some crisis (children are no longer taken into care for offending). They are children struggling with clashes of culture and unintended racism.

Excluded children are, in short, primarily the casualties of a mismanaged adult world. These are children whose behaviour in school, however horrendous, is both explainable and remediable.

No one denies that teachers are operating under increasingly stressful conditions, or that seriously disruptive pupils may have to be removed, at least temporarily, from classrooms and schools. But the idea that these Education Bill measures will improve the situation is misguided and absurd.

A report on exclusions by the Office for Standards in Education, published after the Bill, concluded: "Much more might be done, by both schools and LEAs, to avoid exclusions I Schools and LEAs vary considerably in the rate of exclusions, and the extent of that variation cannot wholly be attributable to differences intrinsic to the intake of the school or the population of the LEA area I The rise in exclusions continues nationally, but it is neither ineluctable, nor irreversible."

What are the remedies proposed in the Education Bill? The parents of these twice-excluded pupils are to lose their rights to choose a school. How this will improve things is obscure. The most optimistic reading is that it will prevent schools like The Ridings in Halifax from being over-burdened with excluded pupils.

The downside is that those pupils will be kept out of school, often with only a couple of hours schooling a week - mouldering at home or getting into trouble on the streets. Both the Home Office and the Audit Commission have identified exclusion as one of the main factors in juvenile offending.

The longer a child is out of school, the less likely he or she is to return. The Education Bill gives schools new powers to "temporarily" exclude pupils for up to nine weeks at a time, instead of the three-week termly limit at present.

Exclusion appeals, rarely attempted, and even more rarely successful, will be further weighted in favour of schools. Parents may be required to sign documents about their child's behaviour as a condition of entry - a questionable form of selection that is likely only to make the parent more alienated and hostile.

What we will get is more acrimony between parents and schools and, in the system generally, a greater division between well-managed schools and ones with poor discipline, more children being denied an appropriate education, more crime and more unemployable children.

The Bill's negative and punitive measures did not originate in the DFEE. The education minister Eric Forth commented in the committee: "Many, if not most, of the proposals in this part of the Bill are very much in response to requests by teachers through their unions and other organisations. Indeed, some union representatives claimed that they virtually drafted this part of the Bill. "

In corroboration, John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, observed in interview: "Much of the new legislation on school discipline came out of our briefing papers."

The Government that declared war on the unions now sees fit to swallow union policy without reference to anyone else. Even education welfare officers were not consulted.

Unions, quite properly, represent their members' interests, but these are not the interests of all teachers, nor of education, let alone the interests of this group of troubled and troublesome children.

The Government must be given the credit for refusing some of the unions' demands. At one point last spring the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) were calling for a return to "indefinite" exclusions, abolition of exclusion appeals and the power to exclude a pupil whose parent behaved threateningly.

In the criminal system this would be like the police calling for the right to lock up suspects indefinitely, the abolition of defendants' appeal rights and the power to punish innocent people for crimes committed by their relatives.

In fending off these breathtaking demands, however, it seems the Government felt it had to give in to the less draconian, but still deeply misjudged, measures that now appear in the Bill.

This happened after the Government had OFSTED's findings, so it knew that the finger of blame could be pointed as much at schools and LEAs as at feckless parents and hooligan children.

The Government should also face up to the connection between the rise in exclusions and its introduction of a detailed centrally prescribed national curriculum, school-managed budgets, market competition between schools with league tables based on narrow criteria of success and a protected opted-out sector, whatever benefits may be claimed for these reforms.

What should have been done? The Government has put two positive clauses into the Bill, requiring schools to draw up behaviour policies and requiring LEAs to publish plans for dealing with children with behavioural difficulties.

Much can be developed from these. A dozen organisations, including the National Children's Bureau, have formed a "children's consortium" around this Bill which has plenty of other ideas.

For a start, LEAs should be placed under a duty to provide excluded children with full-time education (at present the duty is only to offer part-time education). Schools should have to conform to legal grounds for exclusion, keeping these to genuine last-resort cases.

The connection between misbehaviour and learning difficulties must be made: all children at risk of exclusion should have an education plan proposing positive ways of overcoming their learning difficulties. School behaviour policies, anti-bullying policies and home-school liaison policies should be developed by the whole school, and pupils, parents and staff included in the process. Resources should be moved from expensive off-site provision into schools so that problem children can get the help and concentrated attention they need without rejection.

These are the ideas of advocates for children, particularly disadvantaged children. Of course other views must be taken into account. Weighing up all available perspectives, arguments and evidence is the task of sound government. Unfortunately, this has not been a feature of education administration for many years, nor does it appear immediately likely with a change in government.

Tony Blair has promised a radical education Bill in the first Parliament after the election. This means a White Paper within weeks of gaining office, with a Bill drafted in as little time after that. In the circumstances the chances seem slim of getting policies that might turn excluded children into well-qualified persons, rather than disqualified persons.

Rachel Hodgkin is principal policy officer of the National Children's Bureau

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