Throwing out baby instead of the bath water

21st February 2003 at 00:00
Understanding School Exclusion: challenging processes of docility. By Charlie Cooper. Education Now Books pound;10.

When it comes to making pupils behave themselves, schools have always tied themselves in knots. Not so long ago we were beating children for being violent. Now there's a real live conundrum: "If the punishment for serious misbehaviour is exclusion, does that apply to truancy?"

Around 10,000 pupils a year are permanently excluded from school, and far more are temporarily suspended, sometimes unofficially, or by unrecorded agreement with parents ("I suggest you keep her at home until after the weekend. Meanwhile, come in and talk to Mrs Smith").

Whether short term or permanent, exclusion has become, for most schools, the ultimate sanction. Not that anybody likes it. Nobody will be surprised that the many people interviewed for Charlie Cooper's book - children, teachers, parents, support staff - have a downbeat view of the idea that exclusion does anyone any good. It's a "nowhere else to go" solution, and "Mr P H", a teacher quoted, speaks for many when he says: "You get to the point when you have to balance that one child's needs with the needs of everyone else in the class. That one child can make it impossible for everyone else. We can only go so far."

So, when heads and governors decide to exclude, it's usually as much to do with protecting other children and teachers as it is with punishment or rehabilitation. It may also be a way of taking the urgency out of the problem, so staff and parents can have time to talk about the child without the constant fear that he or she will do something so drastic in the meantime that all the bets are off. Another teacher, "Ms B G", says:

"Excluding a pupil is done as a breathing space to create a plan."

Nobody, it seems, believes it does the excluded child much good in itself.

As "Ms M D" says: "Just being off school doesn't change behaviour." Parents and carers, as you would expect, generally agree - they see their excluded children becoming more and more detached from the business of schooling.

"He wasn't at school from February to September," says one parent. "He had nothing, nothing at all."

That feeling of being abandoned is a frequent parental complaint. Parents expect exclusion will be followed by counselling, visits, work from school - something, at any rate. Often, there seems to be nothing. "They didn't contact me once," says one parent, "and no work was sent for her. I mean, they said work would be sent for her. But they don't care."

No doubt there are bureaucratic delays between exclusion and action, and hasty promises of help may be difficult to honour, but the effect on a family of being effectively kicked out of the system and forgotten is devastating. And, more to the point, it's counter-productive, because those same parents and carers will be expected to co-operate if and when the time comes for reintegration into school or a special unit. As another parent says: "I think to deal with kids really you need support from parents and from teachers. Really sit down and discuss what are the problems and try and solve the problems together - not just exclude them and think, 'well, that's a bad bunch'."

Of course, huge efforts are being made. The Government, aware that it can't preach "inclusion" while presiding over thousands of school exclusions, is supporting all manner of alternatives, such as withdrawal units in school, and learning mentors.

Charlie Cooper, though, cleaves to the radical view (or perhaps it's mainstream now) that such measures are mere tinkering. The real problem is that schools are given demanding and narrowly focused targets that mean children who get in the way of meeting them will inevitably be labelled and pushed out.

Cooper points to the writings of philosopher Michel Foucault, who believed society's power structures have been maintained over time through the subtle workings of institutions - including schools - which are ostensibly there for the good of the very people who are being oppressed and disenfranchised. (Hence the book's subtitle.) In other words, it's a class thing - and Cooper refers to studies that bear this out. Whether you buy into the full analysis or not, the research supporting it is interesting - and disturbing. Surely none of us in the education system can rest content with the notion that we are keeping children under control by dint of throwing the occasional one to the lions.

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