Trying to keep all the sheep within the fold

14th February 1997 at 00:00
Why are more pupils being suspended? And why are they more likely to be black? Neil Merrick reports on the efforts of one authority to find the answers

It is not every day that schools turn down the chance to receive extra money. Yet when Croydon Council offered a Pounds 3,000 cash bonus to any school that could successfully reintegrate a child who had been permanently excluded elsewhere, headteachers said they would prefer that the local authority spent the money on support services to help pupils with behavioural problems.

The bonus scheme, part of a package of measures developed by the south London borough to reduce pupil exclusions, has been put on hold. Meanwhile, Croydon is pressing ahead with other programmes that have already helped it to buck national trends and reduce the number of permanent pupil exclusions.

Malcolm Peckham, Croydon's education officer for schools, was shocked when he arrived in the borough in 1989 and found that 167 children had been permanently excluded in that year. During the next three years, a period coinciding with the introduction of local management of schools, the number dropped to 120 - but then it started going up again.

He finds it difficult to explain why this happened, although money became tighter during the mid-Nineties and central services were squeezed. What is certain, he said, is that Croydon, the largest London borough, has never been less than open and honest about exclusions and that the schools and the authority's officers are determined to tackle the issue.

"We have nothing to hide," he said. "We have been publishing exclusion figures for about 10 years. We have broken them down into permanent and temporary exclusions and by ethnic background and type of school."

The exclusions drive involved all types of schools: primary and secondary, state and grant-maintained (GM) schools. Croydon has 10 grant-maintained secondaries while it runs 11 itself. Three out of its 100 primary schools have also opted out. "Heads of GM schools have been brought up with the same policies and are working together with heads of LEA schools," said Malcolm Peckham.

A council working party set up in February 1994 was told to produce a strategy on tackling exclusions, partly by using the network of community groups and local authority support services. These include the council's behavioural emotional support team and specialist groups such as the African Caribbean support team.

The strategy involves parents as well as teachers. A colour leaflet was printed explaining the exclusions procedure to parents and warning their child's place in school might be at risk. The special needs information service runs a telephone hotline to answer parents' queries.

From this term, teachers will be able to refer to a guide on managing behaviour produced by special needs experts which includes suggestions on how to deal with disruptive children. The council provides training for teachers and learning support assistants, who are often a key to effective learning support in the classroom. "Heads don't just want Mrs Jones from down the road," said Malcolm Peckham. "They want Mrs Jones who is trained and has already worked with behaviour support."

The main objective is to motivate pupils so that they realise their full potential and are less likely to misbehave, thus reducing the need for disciplinary sanctions. "Youngsters must be interested and have the desire to learn and acquire appropriate knowledge," he said. "We are trying to establish a blame-free environment where there is greater awareness of the need to praise children and criticism is constructive."

Nationally, according to Christchurch College, Canterbury, the number of permanent exclusions has risen from about 8,000 in 1992-93 to 13,400 in 1995-96. In Croydon, following the steady drop in the early Nineties, numbers rose to 179 in 1994-95 but last year fell again to 158. "With the exception of a small blip, we have been going against national trends since the start of the decade," said Malcolm Peckham.

Last month, Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, told the annual conference of the Society of Education Officers that local education authorities should help schools through behaviour support planning. Croydon could well be a model for this. The Education Bill before Parliament will require schools and local authorities to publish plans for dealing with behaviour problems.

Ian Wilson, head of Woodcote high school and chairman of Croydon Headteachers' Association, agrees that his council's strategy appears to be working. "We feel that there is a greater recognition by schools and LEA support services of the need to intervene early before the situation develops into one where exclusion is the only option," he said.

Heads had rejected the bonus scheme because schools preferred to see the money spent on support services, including educational psychologists. "That way it would benefit more pupils," he said. "There were also doubts about the bureaucracy involved and the fact schools would have to give the money back if a pupil was excluded again after a few weeks."

Croydon runs a total of three referral units for children who have been permanently excluded but aims to operate a revolving-door strategy by reintegrating them back into mainstream education after two terms. Last year LEA secondary schools accepted 20 children who had been permanently excluded while grant-maintained secondaries took eight.

Mr Wilson said the units adopted a "realistic attitude" towards reintegration by accepting some children are more likely to move back into mainstream education than others. Sometimes pupils are registered at both a school and a unit for probationary period. "It's leading to a decrease in secondand third exclusions," he said.

Chris Heasman, head of Kingsley infants school, said local management of schools had allowed Kingsley to employ more learning support assistants who successfully work in partnership with teachers. "We have tried to get the curriculum right for children so that they gain a sense of achievement and self-worth," she said. During her eight years as head at Kingsley, Chris Heasman has never permanently excluded a pupil. When a child was temporarily excluded last year for violence, there was no parental appeal because, she said, the parents were aware of the rules of the school.

"Everyone works together here. Parents are included in the partnership and support what the school is doing," she said. "The child has come back and is really prepared to work and have another go at behaving."

Croydon is opening a family centre at Beckhampton school, which already caters for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Parents will be encouraged to attend with their children. Such centres are popular in countries such as Denmark.

B ut Malcolm Peckham accepts there is still plenty of room for improvement. He is particularly disturbed that black children continue to account for a disproportionate number of exclusions. About one-third of pupils who are permanently excluded in Croydon are Afro-Caribbean - a percentage which has hardly changed since 1993-94. Yet black children make up less than 15 per cent of the local school population.

"I'm very disappointed we have not made further progress in this area, " he said. "We are conscious of the problem and are looking at issues such as the appropriateness of the curriculum."

David Gillborn, a lecturer at London's Institute of Education and an expert on exclusions, said teachers nationally are sometimes hastier to exclude black pupils. There was no evidence to suggest that black children are less motivated than their white counterparts; if anything, the opposite was probably true, he added.

Two years ago, David Gillborn was invited by Croydon to study its exclusion figures. In spite of the fact the borough is more affluent than many in London, he found that black children were over-represented among pupils who had been excluded in the same way as they were elsewhere.

Nevertheless, he paid tribute to Croydon's efforts to reduce exclusions among pupils in general. "It's clearly takes the problem very seriously and the commitment goes beyond just rhetoric," he said.

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