We can't just abandon difficult pupils

The fact is that the Tory proposal to herd all difficult pupils together cannot work unless investment is lavish
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The Independent Online

Some of Charles Clarke's recent pronouncements on education have been profoundly depressing. I was not thrilled by the news that head teachers would now be allowed to call in the police for random weapons searches without warning pupils beforehand. Nor was I excited by the news - implied in Mr Clarke's pronouncements - that more care ought to be taken to ensure the sort of children who might be found with weapons on them should not end up at a failing school.

Some of Charles Clarke's recent pronouncements on education have been profoundly depressing. I was not thrilled by the news that head teachers would now be allowed to call in the police for random weapons searches without warning pupils beforehand. Nor was I excited by the news - implied in Mr Clarke's pronouncements - that more care ought to be taken to ensure the sort of children who might be found with weapons on them should not end up at a failing school.

It's not that I believe in the right of schoolchildren to carry weapons, or conversely don't believe in the principle of giving a child a second chance. It's just that the stark brutality of these choices, and the hopelessness of the world they suggest, makes me want to scoop up my boys and run far, far away from state education.

It is to tap into just these sorts of hysterical parental worries that the Conservative Party has proposed the introduction of "turnaround schools". Already dubbed the new borstals, these would be schools that accepted children with behavioural problems and tackled their discipline difficulties and educational failures using "traditional methods".

The ostensible aim would be to rehabilitate each child sufficiently for him or her to be accepted back into mainstream education. The actual aim, of course, is to keep the disruptive children of the benefit-claiming underclass away from the respectable children of the tax-paying voter.

The pity of it is that this is largely what already happens. Oliver Letwin may have had to apologise when he commented that he'd rather bite his own arm off than send his child to the local comprehensive. But plenty of other parents feel the same way.

That's why people sacrifice their principles to educate their children privately, send them miles away to a faith school or a school that has a good reputation, or opt for a grammar school (to offer just a few of the alternatives to local non-selective education seized upon by Labour MPs). The schools that are not sought after are the ones servicing most of the disruptive children - something that the Labour Party is keen to tackle rather than accelerate.

Nevertheless, even Labour has had to admit that it is not always possible to keep pupils in mainstream education. To this end, scrupulously avoiding all reference to "sins" and to "bins", they introduced pupil referral units, last resort centres designed to offer support to expelled pupils while they sought a place at another school. At present, there are just 4,000 places in Prus, even though there are 9,500 permanently excluded pupils in the country.

The Conservatives deny that what they are offering is a vast expansion of pupil referral units. They point to the woeful record of these units in educating children - which are not even under any obligation to record attendance levels, let alone turn around academic achievement.

Yet when asked how they will fund the massive expansion of 4,000 Pru places into 24,000 turnaround places - 150 schools in all - the Conservatives suggest that they will be allocating £10,000 per pupil - the same sum as the Prus do at present. This is a real puzzle. In a recent survey, 31 per cent of teachers cited poor pupil behaviour when considering leaving education. How the Tories will attract and retain the calibre of teachers on budgets like this will be worth observing.

The harsh fact is that the Tory proposal - of herding all of the difficult pupils together - cannot work unless investment is lavish. The Conservative argument in favour of doing this is that disruptive pupils bring down the attainment of well-behaved children. But the same applies to disruptive children - who bring each other down even faster unless their problems really are being addressed.

I am by no means an uncritical admirer of "inclusive" education. I applaud the Conservatives for their pledge to stop the closure of special needs schools. Often, the needs of disabled pupils are sacrificed in the service of a happy-clappy idea of the world as a great-big-melting-pot that no one is actually willing properly to finance or administer. I believe in streamed rather than mixed-ability teaching, as long as it is done sensitively and invests in maximising a range of talents and not just academic ones.

I believe in the ideal of comprehensive education, but accept that the reality, for this country at this point in time, is a mess. But I look at the Conservative proposals for education, and what I see is tinkering. For a political party that is supposed to be against comprehensive education, it is pretty uncritical. Michael Howard's proposals are simply to increase the powers of individual head teachers, and to assist them in removing difficult pupils. I find myself unable to see even the smallest remnant of the rhetoric about education that the Conservatives have been spouting for generations.

One of political history's great quirks - or so we are led to believe - is that the British education system fell into the hands of a bunch of loony-lefty, child-centred, anti-intellectual, all-shall-have-prizes education destroyers at the very time it was being administrated under an 18-year reign by a succession of Tory governments which believed in privatisation and control by markets alone.

Oddly though, during that time, the radical reforming governments of Margaret Thatcher did nothing to challenge the march of "progressive" education. They simply slashed budgets and watched as things got worse, then talked of issuing education vouchers that never ever materialised.

Here again, we find ourselves listening to the ideas of a Thatcherite minister who offers nothing radical at all except a map to remove the most vulnerable and troubled of young people from the schoolrooms of the swing voter. I'm no conspiracy theorist, but I find myself wondering if the Thatcherite agenda is not the total destruction of state education.

Because it seems to me that if the Conservatives really believe what they are saying about disruptive pupils, and what they have always said about the superiority of selective education, then they would be promising right now to do what they did not do during their 18 years of power, and bring back grammars. Can they believe this would not be popular? When even a Labour government with a massive majority can't get rid of the grammars that are left, I doubt it.

The Tories, far from seeing lack of Labour-voting attainment as a problem, believe the problem is now quite different. The days are gone when an expensive education could get their children into Oxbridge. Their problem now is to look as though they champion the old paternalistic idea whereby the brightest of the poor would be raised up by their betters, while in reality they are watching their own wealthy backs. I'm not against giving special education to difficult pupils. But that education has to be particularly good and very carefully planned.

If the Tories were proposing a massive expansion of state boarding schools in the countryside where disruptive pupils could get some rest from the home influences that were troubling them, along with the best of psychological, medical, and educational help, then I'd believe their professed motivations. But what they're really asking us to do is to throw people on to the scrap heap, while telling ourselves that it's all for their own good.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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