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What's wrong with time out of school?;Platform;Opinion

Children whose lives are too unsettled to attend classes regularly are excluded by an inflexible system, says Betty Jordan

THE RECENT Shelter report, Growing Up Homeless, which focused on the effects of homelessness on children's schooling, revealed little that was not already known to those who have been closely involved with other groups that experience major interruptions to schooling. What was welcome was the carefully researched evidence on the inadequacy of the existing comprehensive system to support pupils' diverse lifestyles and learning needs.

Despite greater achievements by many more pupils, only piecemeal support is offered to some of our most vulnerable learners. They and their families are effectively excluded from the usual home-school liaison and opportunities which school boards offer for relaying parental concerns.

Several years of research I have undertaken into travellers in Scottish schools reveal a bleak picture of few pupils achieving their academic potential, with many feeling rejected and marginalised. Schools were designed and continue to function for a settled local population, where regular attendance is equated with academic success.

Yet it is known that effective learning can take place outwith the school walls and without the daily direct mediation of a teacher: France, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and increasingly the African countries make use of various forms of open and distance learning approaches for many pupils who cannot or do not wish to attend a school regularly.

In Scotland, the best we can offer is only minimal tuition (one to five hours a week, often from a supply teacher), largely on a grace and favour basis since there is no statutory entitlement.

Paradoxically, the new Prince's Trust-funded schemes have enabled some very successful after-hours out-of-school initiatives for a range of pupils. A few local authorities, usually with scattered and often weather-bound communities, have produced distance learning materials in a few subjects, but nothing has been embedded within the education system.

Yet there are many pupils who experience periods of interrupted learning from a variety of causes, some social and cultural in origin: for example, travellers, families who return to Indian and Asian continents to maintain and confirm family links, children from separated and divorced families, Bamp;B and homeless families, children who are cared for and suffer frequent moves; the social and emotional, such as carers of a sick or dependent adult or sibling, underage pregnant schoolgirls and young mums; some physical and medical, such as school phobics, children with chronic illnesses, and so on.

An unspoken code appears to ascribe value judgments on absences, so that pupils and their families are categorised as "deserving" or "undeserving" and awarded attention and support accordingly. Travellers as a group are not viewed as "deserving". Yet there are limiting parameters such as staffing ratios, class sizes, timetabling and length of day, weekly and yearly patterns. Could these could be removed?

There are glimmers of imaginative response at local authority and school levels, such as Glasgow's curriculum proposals to support early initiation into the adult world of work to counter disaffection in pupils who gain little reward from a nine to four paper-based academic curriculum.

Video-conferencing is used in Argyll and Bute to maintain pupil links with home and school in adverse weather conditions; the young mums' unit in Edinburgh's Wester Hailes supports girls into parenthood; and in Glasgow Eastbank Academy uses technology to give tuition through distance learning during the travelling season. The challenge is to integrate these initiatives into regular provision for all pupils.

Scottish Office ministers are focusing on social exclusion, reducing absenteeism and raising school achievement. They have earmarked millions of pounds and invited applications for funding which show imagination and flexibility to support pupils who will leave school with little prospect of work, far less the ability to learn rapidly, retrain and adapt to changes in society.

The New Opportunities and Excellence funds are carrots to effect some changes. But an analysis of the recent much vaunted "special needs" paper shows little awareness of the reality for some learners. Why do children with chronic illnesses receive a separate section while travellers and other pupils with similar needs for out-of-school learning are dealt with under "other issues"?

The prospect of one-stop community schools offers opportunity for a genuine comprehensive system and challenges traditional concepts of school learning. A community-focused approach, rather than one based only on the 5-18 age-group, could encourage more flexible pedagogy and delivery. A model that encourages independent learning rather than providing mechanisms to combat personal distresses could offer a one-stop partnership approach for the homeless family or the traveller family.

Adults and children find support to learn within their social circumstances, maintaining electronic contact with the base school, accessing temporary tutoring and renewing learning materials.

Community education and social work staff, in partnership with teachers, could offer practical support and guidance to families by contacting non-attenders at an early stage and following up "missing" families across council boundaries.

All this could be achieved provided we accept that the purpose of the comprehensive system is not just to ensure "locus integration" but to work fairly with families in educating children.

Betty Jordan is director of the Scottish Traveller Education Programme at Moray House Institute, Edinburgh University.

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