Deborah Orr: Exclusion just delivers children back to the source of their woes

If a pupil is beyond a school's range of expertise, there must be a safe alternative

In York and in Birmingham this week, courtesy of the law courts, yet another two appalling vignettes of "family life" in Britain have been exposed. The York trial is over, and graphic photographs of the faeces-smeared "hell-hole" in which three children were being raised have been published. The children in this case, two girls aged four and a one-year-old boy, were too young for compulsory schooling. Their parents, a 26-year-old man and a 24-year-old woman, have been jailed for three years for "cruelty, neglect and abuse".

The Birmingham trial has been delayed, after a member of the jury fell ill. The defendants in this trial, Angela Gordon and Junaid Abuhamza, are accused of the murder of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq, and the neglect of five other children who were in their care. Khyra died of starvation, and prosecution witnesses say that the other children had been so hungry when they were finally admitted to hospital that one of them tried to eat a plastic toy sandwich.

Some of these latter six children, ostensibly, were being "home-schooled". Alerted by the primary school Khyra had been withdrawn from, a social worker did try to check on the girl's educational welfare. Her knocks at the door and the windows went unanswered, and Gordon later complained that the social worker had invaded her family's privacy by peering through the letterbox.

It is fair to postulate that the nine children involved in these two cases might have been unlikely to reach their full potential at school. It is also comforting to grasp the slender consolation that the households these children existed in were among a tiny handful of the most extremely neglectful in the country. Yet a new report from Ofsted surely gives the lie to that soothing tale of exceptionalism.

In the wake of statistics from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, showing that no fewer than 41,300 children of primary school age were excluded temporarily from school in 2007, Ofsted inspectors have looked at some schools in greater detail. Their findings can prompt only one conclusion: far too many children in Britain arrive at school in no fit state to be educated at all. The sick joke is that the ultimate sanction for such behaviour – exclusion – delivers the children back to the homes at which some of their problems must surely have been incubated.

The Ofsted inspection focused on 69 schools, 30 of them with above-average rates of temporary exclusion in the four to seven age group. Nearly all of these schools, unsurprisingly, were in inner-city areas with high levels of children below the poverty line. The schools were reported as struggling to cope with the "disturbed behaviour of children from complex backgrounds", some of whom show signs of having been exposed to domestic violence, sexual abuse and parental illness. One child had witnessed his mother being killed in a refugee camp.

There has been a lot of focus on Ofsted's findings as regards "inappropriate sexual behaviour" among very young children. Such behaviour was reported at 14 of the schools examined, and in eight of the schools pupils had been expelled or suspended as a result. Two schools reported a "worrying lack of response from social workers", with one head saying she was told that a pupil was "too young" to be referred and would "probably" grow out of it.

I can't begin to imagine how it might feel, being in charge of a school where a small pupil is mounting sexual assaults on other children, and finding that the expert advice is to wait and see if the problem fades away in the future. I can, however, imagine what it might be like to be the parent of a child who has been assaulted at school in such a manner. I'd be less than keen on waiting to find out how things pan out. Either the abusive child would have to go, or mine would have to go. What sort of parent would feel any different? What sort of teacher, for that matter?

The Ofsted report suggests that teachers should keep details of every child expelled for this kind of problem and monitor any action taken by the relevant support services. I cannot begin to express how lame and pathetic such a suggestion seems. Is it not patently obvious that a teacher in such a situation should instead be free to concentrate on the pupils who remain under her care, safe in the knowledge that a child whose behaviour is unsuitable for a mainstream setting has not been "expelled", but has instead been transferred to the care of an institution which has the appropriate psychiatric, social, health and educational resources for dealing with such extremes?

There are two particularly miserable aspects to this report. The first is that it focuses on provision for the very young – those who have a good chance of recovery if intervention is swift and effective, and who are not even old enough to understand the "stigma" of being at "a special school". Teachers should be encouraged to spot problems at the earliest possible opportunity, and to feel comfortable about flagging children with difficulties for the specialist attention they need. Instead, they are encouraged to minimise difficulties and struggle on to keep challenging children "in the mainstream".

The second is that symptoms described in this investigation – sexual or violent behaviour – do indicate strongly that these children are being criminally abused, or exposed to criminal abuse, rather than "merely" neglected. Yet even this seems in some cases to be insufficient to set alarm bells ringing. To me, this speaks of a culture of pastoral care in some schools that sets the bar far too low. Neglect alone can severely damage a child. Neglect and abuse can destroy a child. Expecting children suffering in such a way to turn up at a school and function normally alongside children without those awful handicaps is surely a kind of taunting, isolating cruelty in itself.

The Conservative MP David Davis chose yesterday to advance once again his opinion that the reintroduction of grammar schools would "help the poor". He means, of course, "the deserving poor", who cherish their children, play with them, read with them, cook for them, talk with them, support them in their education, and are rewarded in return with a little Einstein, ripe for the Pygmalion treatment, and an entrée into "the elite".

Those nine children in York and in Birmingham: who believes that at 11 they would have been off to grammar school, if they had survived in their nightmarish apologies for homes, undetected in their awesome need for help and care? It's not the lack of grammar schools that has created educational failure on such a shameful scale in Britain. It's the idea that "comprehensive" schooling can be comprehensive in its ability to serve the most damaged and neglected of children.

All schools need to be able to concentrate on getting the best out of the children who attend them. All schools need to know that if a pupil's need is beyond the school's range of educational expertise, then there is a safe, alternative environment where that pupil's specific social or psychological difficulties will be better served. That's not "exclusion", it's "salvation" and the earlier such interventions can be made, the better.