Are Britain's schoolchildren more trouble than they used to be?

New research by the 'Independent' shows exclusions soaring above the worst predictions. What is happening in our schools? Fran Abrams and Kevin Ashton report
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The Independent Online
Concern over the number of children expelled from school has been growing for some time. In 1990, schools' inspectors noted that the total number of permanent exclusions was as high as 2,900 per year. By the 1992-3 school year this had risen to 6,700, and two weeks ago a head teachers' leader confidently predicted that the figure was now above 10,000.

But even this latest figure may have been an underestimate, according to the findings of a survey by the Independent among 36 local education authorities - one third of the total number in England and Wales.

Our figures show that there were more than 11,000 permanent exclusions last year in secondary schools alone. This year the figure could top 14,000 if the findings are representative. Among the 31 local authorities which provided information for the first two terms of this year there were 2,718 permanent exclusions from secondary schools. If this were replicated across the country, and if it continued at the same rate until the end of the summer term, there would be 14,200 cases in this academic year.

A further rise was to be expected this year because schools can no longer exclude pupils "indefinitely", so they are more often forced to exclude permanently. A National Union of Teachers estimate puts the number of short-term exclusions - restricted to 15 days per child in a term - at more than 100,000 per year.

Are children more trouble than they used to be, as many of the teachers' unions would have us believe? Are unco-operative, rude and sometimes violent parents forcing schools to exclude pupils because they have nowhere to turn when they offend?

Have restrictions on the sanctions available to schools contributed, with the cane defunct and detention in decline, because parental permission must be sought 24 hours in advance? Or are growing pressures on schools making them less tolerant?

While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence - nursery schools which have to exclude toddlers, a rising number of disputes in which staff refuse to teach a particular child - academic researchers have failed to detect a rising tide of violence. In 1992, the Scottish Council for Research in Education questioned 1,000 teachers and 400 heads: just one in five teachers and one in 50 heads thought behaviour was getting worse.

Perhaps there is some truth in the theory that parents now want rights without responsibilities, though parents' representatives tend to take umbrage when the possibility is suggested. But some schools say that there have always been inadequate parents and that the blame for rising exclusions cannot be apportioned to them alone.

A more plausible explanation says schools simply do not have the time to be flexible with badly behaved children any more. The demands on them are certainly escalating: they must have policies on everything that moves and must compete with their neighbours.

Evidence that exclusions are rising fastest in primary schools, which are smaller and therefore less well-equipped to cope with such pressures, certainly seems to support this theory.

A report from Birmingham City Council last week suggested that some pupils enjoyed being excluded because it enhanced their macho image.

Steve Colwill, president of the Association of Educational Psychologists, believes the truth lies in a mixture of all the theories: "There is no doubt in my mind that schools are excluding more pupils because for whatever reason they are less tolerant. Schools are right that children are presenting more serious disaffection and more serious behaviour difficulties. But it would be wrong of them to say it wasn't partly because they want to build good reputations for themselves."

The figures, worrying as they are, mask harsh realities. Although local authorities are responsible for these pupils, they often find themselves on the streets with little hope of fulfilling their academic potential. A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, published last November, found that on average they missed more than three-quarters of a year's schooling. The majority came from families with a range of problems but co-operation between education authorities, health and social services and the police was poor.

There has been much talk about this phenomenon, but until now there have been few real solutions. Birmingham's report contains a number of practical responses. It calls for a network of "neighbourhood education centres", providing a cooling-off period for both pupil and school. It suggests limiting the number of excluded children that any school should have to take, thus preventing them from becoming repositories for trouble-makers. It also suggests appointing advocates for difficult pupils, formal agreements between schools and parents and extra money to support pupils with behavioural problems.

Its summary is a salutary one: "If we allow the problem to grow, we are creating a 'fifth column' in our midst which will threaten all our future prospects."