What is the point of no return?

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Although exclusions should be used as a last resort, they are on the increase. Jonathan Croall explains what happens to these pupils, and reports on one school's efforts to avoid the problem.

Discipline and pupil be-haviour have been much in the news. Whether it was the threatened teacher strike at Manton Junior School in Worksop, or the alleged breakdown of order at the Ridings School in Halifax, the thorny issue of exclusion was invariably at the centre of such stories.

Even though it only affects a tiny minority of pupils, the national picture on exclusions gives cause for concern. Just before Christmas the Government published figures for permanent exclusions during 199495, based on returns from schools. This suggested numbers had stabilised at around 11,000 pupils.

But figures published simultaneously by Carl Parsons of Canterbury Christchurch College, this time for 199596 and based on returns from local authorities, produced a figure of as many as 13,581 permanent exclusions, an increase of 11 per cent on his 199495 figure of 12,458. Three-quarters of the local authorities for which there were figures for both years, reported an increase.

Many explanations have been offered for this deterioration. They include the growing strain on children's family relationships; the refusal or inability of parents to exercise control over their children; and the increased pressure on schools to get rid of pupils whose presence adversely affects their reputation or their position in the league tables.

Exclusion is supposed to be a measure that schools use sparingly, in response to serious breaches of school policy or the law. It is meant to be a last resort when all other possible measures have been tried to keep a child at school. In practice there is considerable variation in its use.

In Exclusions from Secondary Schools, published last November by the Office for Standards in Education and based on visits to 39 schools, the inspectors reported: "Some schools were far too ready to exclude pupils; others did so with extreme reluctance, often at some cost to staff and other pupils."

Schools were found to use exclusion for a variety of offences. The most common include verbal abuse to staff, violence to other pupils, persistent breaking of school rules, disruption in class, and criminal offences - usually theft or substance abuse.

Under the terms of the Government's Circular 1094, exclusion should only take place if the school has taken all reasonable steps to avoid using it, or if allowing the child to remain in school would be seriously detrimental to its education or welfare, or to that of others at the school.

Exclusion can be for a fixed term, which must not be for more than 15 school days in any one term; or permanent, after proper procedures involving the head, governors, parents, pupil and (where relevant) the local authority have been followed. These include the family's right to appeal.

Once permanently excluded, a child may be allocated a place in an alternative school; be offered a place in a pupil referral unit (PRU), with a specially tailored curriculum and the likelihood of more individual attention; or be granted home tuition facilities.

These are the official alternatives. The reality is less clear cut. First, an alternative school, especially one within reasonable distance of the child's home, may be hard to find. Many schools, even if they are not full, are reluctant to take excluded pupils, and may have to be directed to do so by the local authority. Grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools are particularly likely to refuse them a place.

Second, the pupil referral units run by local authorities vary tremendously in their ability to handle such children. While they've often proved effective in meeting their emotional and personal needs, the teachers have been criticised for having low expectations of their pupils.

Many PRUs are also chronically under-staffed and poorly re-sourced, and have to cope with an unreasonably high proportion of statemented children. They also tend to have a poor record in achieving their basic aim of re-integrating children into mainstream schooling.

Third, home tuition often takes weeks or even months to arrange, which means children miss out on significant chunks of their education. Tuition may also turn out to be grossly inadequate: in some authorities excluded pupils are sometimes receiving as little as four hours' tuition a week.

As both the social and financial costs of exclusion become clearer, many schools are doing more to retain difficult children. Some, such as Peers School in Oxford (see case-study), are able to use support teachers and on-site counsellors; others can call on the service of educational psychologists or outreach PRU staff.

While class teachers are not directly involved in decisions on exclusions, they need to be aware of the school's behaviour policy, and of what sanctions and rewards are considered appropriate - whether, for instance, the school uses a referral system, report cards, detention, or "internal exclusion".

The Ofsted inspectors reported that many newly qualified teachers found it hard to distinguish between poor behaviour and that caused by the kind of emotional disturbance which requires treatment. Others struggled with difficult pupils because they had not had adequate training in managing their behaviour.

However, improved training of this kind is one of the aims of the Government's controversial Education Bill now making its way through Parliament. One of its key measures will allow headteachers more flexibility by enabling them to exclude pupils for 45 days in any one year rather than 15 days in one term.

Schools will also be able to detain a child at school on disciplinary grounds without parental consent, and be able to refuse to take any child already excluded from two or more schools, even if there are places available.

But they will also be required to prepare and publicise a written statement of general principles relating to behaviour and discipline - a document which could be particularly useful to newly qualified teachers working in schools where these are not formally spelt out.

'Exclusions from Secondary Schools 199596', Ofsted Pounds 6.50

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