When school can do no more

25th November 1994 at 00:00
Seven-year-old Martin was not constantly bad, but he was unpredictable. After other parents took pupils away, his school told him he had to go. Elaine Williams on the rise in primary exclusions and the children who fall into a policy vacuum.

Martin was seven when he was indefinitely excluded from his primary school for repeatedly stabbing another child with a compass. When his temper was roused, "he would plunge the nearest object into the nearest person," according to his headteacher. Although the boy was not "consistently bad" his behaviour was unpredictable. "That is where the danger lay," says the head who runs a tough junior school in Kent.

Other children were terrified of him. "We had parents ringing up threatening to take their children away because of the fear factor." Some acted on their fears - four children were withdrawn because of the disruption to their schooling.

"The local authority advised us to lock up our Stanley knives," according to the head. "But how can you assume that every potential weapon is safe and secure?" Martin was referred to a behaviour guidance unit with plans for a gradual re-entry back into the school. But he never returned - over a three-year period his behaviour was never deemed to have improved enough.

Thomas, a boy in the same year group was permanently excluded a year after Martin, for "refusal to co-operate with teachers, cold-blooded stealing and suspected arson". "On one occasion," says the head, "he left the classroom, went to a phone box and summoned the fire brigade." This eight-year-old was permanently excluded when the head found his classroom teacher trying to retrieve him from the roof.

Thomas had previously been given a fixed-term exclusion and placed back in the school with a full-time classroom assistant. But as time went by the local education authority "systematically reduced" the assistant's hours.

"The authority claimed that the system was working and that Thomas was adapting, but he was simply being contained. As the support reduced, his behaviour worsened," says the head.

Both boys were from split families, subject to poverty, violence and "woefully inadequate parenting". Their impact on the school was even greater because there were at least two other extremely challenging junior boys. Staff were losing hours each day trying to sort out fights and trace stolen goods. The school began to haemorrhage pupils as parents became concerned for their children's academic progress.

Staff felt they had failed professionally in having to exclude such young children, but with classes of 30, the school could not cope unaided. The head is deeply concerned at what he perceives as growing numbers of very young disturbed children.

On the other side of London in a suburban primary school "a frightened and angry nine-year-old" was expelled last term after a long-suffering teacher "had finally put her foot down". Luke had been moved around the school to try and minimise his effect on any particular class, but in the end one teacher refused and the governors agreed things had gone too far; the school could do no more for him.

Luke came to the school after his mother had fled with her children from a violent husband to a refuge. From the beginning he had refused to sit still in school, attacked other children with pencils, swore and ran away. Whenever his teacher switched her attention elsewhere, he would be disruptive.

In a school with a severely cut budget, classes of 30 and no classroom assistants, coping with Luke proved impossible. "We didn't have a single resource to deal with him," said a governor after his exclusion. "We all knew that he was frightened. He would turn up to school late, without any breakfast. We didn't want to exclude him. He was a bright child who loved stories. We really tried hard. You don't want to say that you cannot redeem a child. But other children were greatly distressed by his behaviour."

Luke was excluded a month ago on the grounds that he was a danger to himself and to others, but as yet, no alternative provision has been made.

Like other primary children excluded from school - the numbers are growing - there is a real danger that Luke will lose the habit of going to school and that mainstream schooling, in reality, will be denied to him while he is still only nine-years-old.

Government statistics for 1992-93 show more than 1,000 primary children were excluded permanently or indefinitely but independent researchers argue that this is an underestimation, that numbers are growing and that schools like Luke's and Martin's have a reduced ability to cope.

Most of these children are boys. Most are excluded for persistently aggressive and violent behaviour. For many, school may have been the one place of stability, the one place which offered consistency and purpose in daily life.

Many are members of families in difficulty. Once out of school for any length of time they become extremely vulnerable, open to neglect, boredom, loneliness, abuse and crime.

In effect, they fall into a policy vacuum. Outside agencies are slow to provide support services. Educational provision, mainly in the form of a few hours of home tutoring, is inadequate and often inferior - an average of three hours a week after an average delay of 14 weeks. They become "debris outside the system", says Carl Parsons, author of a newly-published report The Experience of Excluded Primary School Children and their Families.

"The prospect of what these children might become, and what might happen to them, without appropriate provision, is frightening," he says.

Although permanent exclusions from primary schools account for less than 15 per cent of the total, these children, says Parsons - reader in teacher education at Christ Church College, Canterbury - "are of an age, state of dependence and vulnerability that the duty of care for them in modern society, wherever that care comes from, is undeniable."

Children who present extreme behavioural difficulties at primary school age are not doing so out of choice, he says. They are usually propelled by a difficult environment.

"Excluded children have pressing needs which school, and sometimes family, are unable to meet; they appear unprotected by law, largely excluded from a remedy through statementing for special educational needs and catered for by other agencies only at the speed that resources will allow."

The report, published by the Family Policy Studies Centre and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, will undoubtedly inform the intense debate surrounding the escalating numbers of children excluded from school. Placing the child in the context of family as well as school, it undertakes a revealing costing exercise, showing that it is far more cost-efficient and "20 times" more effective to support the child within school, than it is to exclude them and bring other agencies into play.

Taking 11 case histories from two metropolitan authorities and one county, the report reveals the cost-shunting within and between un-coordinated agencies that follows exclusion. The cumulative effect of a child being excluded, coupled with a delay in finding replacement education, may bring about the need for other agencies - social services, health services, social security, the police.

In the 11 cases studied, costs ranged from minimal, in the case of a mother content to keep her child at home, to the child whose exclusion and suspicion of sexual abuse led to heavy demands on social services.

Five of the children had experienced the divorce or separation of their parents. In two of these cases the mother had remarried. Six of the children were living in lone-parent families. More than half the families were receiving support from social services, two for parenting skills. Carl Parsons believes this to be fairly representative of the backgrounds of excluded children.

The report estimates that the average annual cost of a primary school child in England in 1991-92 was Pounds 1,412.23. In one case where the child was excluded for almost two years, the annual total cost to agencies was almost three times that amount. For another, excluded for less than a year, the cost amounted to more than Pounds 4,500.

These sums do not take into account "the long-term recurring costs that may ensue if substantial intervention is not provided early", says Carl Parsons. Secondary school was also likely to suffer, crime a distinct possibility.

Systems of reporting and recording exclusions vary widely from authority to authority for 1991-92 national estimates have ranged from 25,000 to 60, 000 exclusions of all kinds. Department for Education figures report 3,833 permanent exclusions for that period, of which about 570 were from primary schools. But new figures released to the TES show that the number of permanent exclusions is rising inexorably. Interim findings from the University of Portsmouth's social services research and information unit, undertaking a current study into exclusions, shows that there were at least 1,300 permanent exclusions of primary children in 1993-94.

Based on extrapolations from returns from 36 local education authorities (one- third of the total), the study has revealed that in the autumn term alone of 1993, there were 3,671 permanent exclusions in England and Wales. This is only 200 less than the number officially recorded for the whole of 1992. Out of this figure, it estimates there were as many as 418 permanent primary age exclusions in that autumn term.

Although the primary figures are small, they represent an escalating and deeply worrying national problem. Three trends are indicated.

First, schools managing their own budgets and having to publish league tables are increasingly reluctant to hold on to difficult children, costly in time and resources. Second, there appears to be an increase in deeply disturbed children and third, a chronic lack of co-ordination between agencies is revealed.

The Portsmouth researchers interviewed one head, thoroughly exasperated by lack of information: "Many times I have been concerned about children, only to find that social services are working with them . . . They are not obliged to tell us . . . We may be giving children and families different messages. "

Carol Hayden is research fellow and head of the Portsmouth project, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and is not due to report until next September. Schools need to be kept informed and they need support, she says. "When a primary school makes an urgent request for help it needs to be taken seriously, in order to avoid the costs, both economic and social, of a permanent exclusion."

The 1993 Education Act, in force from September, removes the category of indefinite exclusions (it was felt many schools were abusing this category to avoid having to record permanent exclusions), tightens up procedures with regard to statementing in a code of practice and introduces pupil referral units.

However, since none of these measures is statutorily binding, observers feel they will have little effect on stemming the tide of exclusions. Pupil referral units are often too distant to benefit primary children and schools deprived of the "indefinite" category of exclusion are more likely merely to discourage difficult children from attending.

Carl Parsons says that schools tend to rely on normal disciplinary procedures which are usually inadequate and inappropriate for children eventually excluded. Heads and teachers should, he says, be trained to give diagnostic support in such cases.

Schools with disruptive children can apply for behaviour support services such as educational psychology, educational social work and additional teaching, funding for which is still available centrally in most places, though amounts vary from authority to authority. However, schools are rarely given long-term support.

"Budgets are tight, so authorities will have difficulty in offering on-going, consistent help," says David Whitbread, under-secretary for education at the Association of County Councils. "Funding has fallen in real terms."

Some authorities delegate funds for additional educational needs to individual school budgets which are weighted for pupils with problems. "However, this only works if the problems are consistent with the forecast," says Mr Whitbread. "If a school has an exceptional year with the number of problem children, it can find itself in trouble."

Statementing, which does bring with it LEA financial support, is lengthy and costly in itself. However, accurate diagnosis and suitable support within school could very much lower the long term financial and social costs to society.

Dr Marion Ward, an education professional whose son Christopher has been excluded from three mainstream schools, the first one at the age of six, is extremely bitter at the treatment meted out to him.

Adopted at the age of five after having been in care, she acknowledges that he has been aggressive, has lacked concentration and has been subject to temper tantrums. However, Christopher was only properly assessed for educational, rather than emotional and behavioural need after a long and litigious battle with the education authorities.

It transpired that Christopher, a child of above-average intelligence, suffered from both a visual defect and severe dyslexia. He is now in a school with proper dyslexia support.

Throughout his schooling his parents had resisted schools bringing in untrained classroom assistants. "They took the attitude, 'he's been in care, he's been adopted - poor little boy'," says Dr Ward. "They thought he needed love and kindness, hugs and kisses, when what he needed was appropriate educational support. Most of the time it was just a holding operation. They didn't bother to teach him anything. His behaviour grew out of anger and frustration. "

Christopher, now aged 10, says teachers set him "the easiest stuff they could find. All the other kids were doing interesting things - I used to tell them the answers - but I had to be on my own, doing things that were really easy."

Although the Wards' case is atypical, it highlights the approach that schools take to difficult children. Exclusion is used as a tool to protect the vast majority of well-behaved pupils whose education suffers as a result of the disruptive behaviour of a few.

John Vickers, headteacher of Byng Kenrick Central School in Birmingham, is also a member of the city's exclusions committee.

Schools, he says, are caught in the midst of badly co-ordinated legislation. "There is an assumption that a successful school will not have problems. A school which tries to tackle the problems of disruptive children positively is foolish to itself." Schools could not risk gaining a reputation for taking on difficult children and so alienating other parents.

Carl Parsons is now seeking to work with five local education authorities willing to establish inter-agency support for children at risk of exclusion, in order to monitor a "co-ordinated strategy".

"It's a fine line between keeping a child in school and kicking them out. We are not looking for a cure for misbehaviour, but if children can be contained within school then they have more of a chance of keeping friends and managing relations with their families. They tend not to be so alienated."

Some names in this article have been changed.

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