Since when was reducing exclusions bad?

6th August 2010 at 01:00
Ministers' strange behaviour plans, and gloomy response to schools' successes, are worrying

English schools are in danger of alienating their new political masters. Having failed to apply for academy status in the numbers anticipated by the Education Secretary, they are now revealed to have made a 20 per cent improvement in a vital area. Official figures released last week by the Department for Education showed a dramatic fall in the number of pupils permanently excluded from school in 200809.

Normally one would expect such a significant improvement to be greeted with ministerial praise, but the silence has been almost deafening. Unfortunately, schools have had the temerity to make this improvement under the last Government. One can only speculate how different the official reaction will be if there is a similar fall in exclusions in 201011.

Pessimism towards state schools appears to be the new party line, and the 'Eeyore' position of the DfE is disappointing, but hardly surprising. The behaviour of the young is a topic on which it is extremely difficult to have an intelligent, evidence-based debate. During the election campaign, the Conservatives argued that there was a crisis in behaviour in our schools, caused by teachers and heads lacking the powers needed to impose discipline. No supporting evidence was ever produced. Repeated Ofsted findings that teachers are doing a good job in the great majority of classrooms, and that standards of behaviour in schools are generally good, received scant regard.

The reluctance at the DfE to base policy on evidence is worrying. It is only as a result of objective analysis that strategies for improvement will be identified. Far from regarding the fall in exclusion numbers with suspicion, ministers should be congratulating schools and using their experience to plan for even better outcomes. In the absence of DfE insights, one might suggest some reasons schools may be increasingly successful in avoiding permanently excluding children:

- The growing awareness of the link between the quality of classroom teaching and behaviour has led increasing numbers of schools to develop effective teaching and learning policies, resulting in better and more consistent practices.

- The 'Right to Discipline' enshrined in the Education and Inspections Act 2006 confirmed the powers of teachers and made pupils, parents and schools more aware of their responsibilities as well as their rights.

- The increasing use of parent support advisers after 2006 has enabled schools to work much more effectively with pupils and their parents to prevent problems from escalating.

- The focus on schools working in closer partnership has provided headteachers with better support and advice than they have ever had before.

The ministerial explanation for the fall in exclusion numbers is different. There has been dark muttering about managed moves, and the DfE appears to have tried to question the accuracy of its own statistics. It is hard to understand this aversion to managed moves in some right-wing circles. Carried out well, managed moves represent the best in behaviour management, being of minimal cost and often highly successful. What do the opponents of managed moves want to happen to the children concerned? Are young people not to be given a chance to learn from their mistakes in a new setting? As to the accuracy of the statistics, one must wonder why the DfE published them if it believed that they were wrong.

It is early days, but ministerial thinking on behaviour and discipline appears far from coherent. What does the Government want, or does it indeed know what it wants? Are schools to assume that to achieve the approval of our leaders they must exclude more children? The Government failure to initiate intelligent debate on the fall in exclusion numbers comes soon after the confused reaction to Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke's questioning of the sense in constantly increasing the national prison population.

Last month we saw similar confused thinking when Nick Gibb, schools minister, announced his four big ideas for raising behaviour standards - a non-earth-shattering collection of the sensible, the strange and the silly. Teachers welcomed the sensible proposal to allow them anonymity at the initial stages of investigations against them after pupil accusations of misconduct. They were happy with the changes to the power to search pupils.

The strange announcement was that teachers would be free to use restraint to maintain classroom discipline. This displayed a surprising ignorance of the fact that teachers have had the legal power to restrain children since 1996. More worryingly, it showed a lack of understanding of the circumstances in which it is appropriate for a teacher to restrain a child. One hopes that this does not represent a desire to return to the days when "a good clip around the ear never did me any harm".

The silly proposal was that teachers should no longer be obliged to notify parents before keeping children in detention. This is a non-issue and the proposal, if implemented, will harm school-parent relations and worsen behaviour. In my work with teachers on behaviour, nobody has ever complained about the obligation to give parents warning of a detention. The proposal is potentially damaging, as it encourages teachers to behave discourteously to parents who will rightly be angry when, having worried for an hour that their child has had an accident, they learn they have been in an unannounced detention. It is essential that adults behave well when teaching children to show good manners.

Schools have real issues that need consideration. They do not need ministers to act like modern-day Don Quixotes, spending time identifying imaginary problems which can then be charged on their threadbare nags. AA Milne and Cervantes may constitute excellent summer holiday reading, but neither made claim to being an educational thinker, or a researcher. Ministers clearly require a more balanced reading list. They could start by looking with an unprejudiced eye at the initiatives of the last 10 years. If some need to be dropped, others offer great promise and are worthy of continued support. Schools do not need more radical change. Children and teachers need less politics and more genuine commitment to their welfare.

Sir Alan Steer, Former headteacher and government behaviour adviser (2005-2010).

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