News Analysis: School exclusions are up - to the delight of ministers

Agreement between teaching profession and Government that progress is being made after years of see-sawing in rate of pupils thrown out
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The Independent Online

You might have assumed the Government would be worried at the news that school exclusions had risen for the first time in five years.

You might have assumed the Government would be worried at the news that school exclusions had risen for the first time in five years.

Far from it. Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, is said to be "relaxed" about it.

While expressing anxiety about the rising levels of violence and disruption in schools, teachers' leaders were also prepared to offer a guarded welcome to the increase in exclusions. They saw it as a sign that they have been given their freedom to rid schools of unruly elements again after years in which the pressure was on them to keep as many as possible in the classroom.

So there was almost a tangible air of relief alongside the ritual warnings of a fall in standards of behaviour yesterday as the Department for Education and Skills announced that 9,210 pupils had been expelled from school in 2000-2001 – 11 per cent more than the 8,323 in the previous year.

A close analysis of the figures shows there are some worrying trends.

The most alarming is that the rise in primary school exclusions is greater than in secondary schools – 19 per cent compared with 10 per cent.

Admittedly, the figures for primary school exclusions are still small in comparison – 1,460 compared to 7,410 in secondary schools – but they do show that nearly 100 five-year-olds were excluded from school last year.

The story in yesterday's Independent of Wharrier Street primary school in Walker, Newcastle, where the headteacher excluded 12 pupils at a stroke, highlights a worrying trend that teachers have detected of even the youngest pupils showing them little respect. Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, admitted this "does not bode well for the future".

Figures also show that black Afro-Caribbean pupils are three times as likely to be excluded as white pupils (38 per 10,000 pupils are expelled compared to 13 per 10,000) and 12 times more likely to be expelled than Indian pupils, only three out of 10,000 of whom face expulsion.

These figures are, however, an improvement on earlier ones cited by Ofsted, the Government's education standards watchdog, earlier this year which showed black pupils were four times more likely to be excluded than white pupils.

Ironically, yesterday's figures meant the Government had missed its first key education target for 2002 – reducing school exclusions by a third from their all-time high of 12,700 five years ago. (It had met it a year ahead of schedule last year but then performed a policy U-turn as teachers' leaders claimed it had been achieved against a background of allowing violent pupils to remain in class and disrupt lessons for others).

To make sense of this see-sawing in exclusion rates, one has to go back to the mid-1990s when they increased threefold in the course of about five years. One of the reasons, according to experts, was the introduction of exam league tables. Some heads were just ditching their more troublesome pupils in the hope of a better showing.

The knock-on effect was that neighbouring schools were reluctant to take these pupils in for the same reason. Many of them ended up congregated in the schools with the worst performance records who could not say no to local authority pressure to take them in because they had surplus places.

Others, of course, ended up on the streets. Nominally, they were receiving home tuition but in many cases this amounted to little more than two hours of education a week. Even if they were in a pupil referral unit – or "sin bin" as they are dubbed – they could have been receiving as little as 10 hours' tuition a week.

David Blunkett, when he was Secretary of State for Education, became alarmed at this – especially when it was coupled with figures showing some of the biggest increases in crime, particularly street robbery, related to offences committed by 11 to 14-year-olds, which includes the age group most likely to be excluded from school.

So the pressure was put on schools and appeals panels to reduce the number of exclusions – to the extent that 36 per cent of those parents who appealed against their child's expulsion in 1999-2000 were successful. Put another way, there were 317 pupils expelled from school who were sent back into their classrooms.

It led to teachers' unions resorting to industrial action and threatening to refuse to teach classes if a violent or disruptive pupil had been returned to them. A U-turn was necessary to restore order to the classroom.

It came in the shape of a policy statement by Mr Blunkett. He announced there would be no more targets for reducing exclusions and coupled it with a massive increase in the number of pupil-referral units, from 420 in 2000 to 1,000 in 2002. The new policy is very much in line with other European countries, especially France, whose caretaker right-wing government under the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, announced yesterday the creation of 100 intermediate classes in which up to 8,000 pupils prone to violence could be taught.

Mr Blunkett's initiative was followed by guidance to headteachers and appeals panels that they should exclude certain categories of pupils – bullies, those who had threatened violence and (from this week) drug dealers – even for a first offence. Appeals panels were told they should not normally overturn a school's decision.

Yesterday's figures show that message is beginning to get through – the number of successful appeals has gone down from 36 per cent to 31 per cent (although that still means about 300 pupils a year returned to the classroom). The figure is likely to drop again next year as the impact of the new guidance covers a full year for the first time.

The Government has also set itself a new target of promising a full-time education for every excluded pupil from September 2002 in the new wave of "sin bins" being set up around the country.

The indications are it is likely to meet these targets – a survey by The Independent of local education authority budgets earlier this year showed the biggest growth area was in providing education for excluded pupils. But it has to be pointed out that the rise in exclusion figures, which dates back to April last year, comes a full 12 months before the new provision will be fully available.

To sum up, there is agreement between the teaching profession and the Government that the policies are on the right track at last. It just may be a little time before they come to fruition and ensure the bulk of excluded pupils are offered the opportunity of a full-time education rather than falling all too easily into a life of crime on the streets.