One of the unfortunate by-products of the system of subjecting schools to relentless external monitoring is an obsession with academic results to the exclusion of almost all else. Some schools end up subordinating almost everything to the goals of passing Ofsted examinations and to bettering their positions in league tables. Most schools do so in an honest, transparent manner but it is not surprising, although it is worrying, to learn that some less scrupulous head teachers abuse strict exclusion procedures to weed out those they consider undesirable.
Just how widespread this phenomenon is has yet to be established. But an important study by the Children's Commissioner for England says some heads openly admit having flouted strict exclusion procedures by sending children home for unrecorded "cooling off " periods, pressurising some to move to different schools and refusing to allow excluded pupils to return until their parents have attended a meeting. The apparent reasons for these actions were also sometimes quite trivial, such as a pupil failing to wear the right uniform or wearing jewellery, which suggests a hidden motive – a determination to get rid of certain children by hook or crook. This behaviour is simply illegal. Schools are allowed to exclude pupils but it must only be used as a last resort, reasons should be clear and all exclusions should be officially noted.
It is important to note that most schools in this country are inclusive in practice as well as in theory, which means that they have accepted a difficult commitment to work with even the most disruptive elements. The overall number of permanent exclusions from school is falling, numbering 5,740 in 2009/10. The number of fixed-term exclusions is much larger but most of these are for very short periods; the average length is only two-and-a-half days.
Even within the arc of this generally encouraging trend there are disturbing imbalances, however. Boys are still almost four times more likely to be permanently excluded than girls and children eligible for free school meals – the poorest, in other words – are also four times more likely to be excluded than the rest. Some ethnic minorities feature very disproportionately among the ranks of those permanently excluded, starting with children from Black Caribbean, Irish Traveller and Roma backgrounds. What is of greater concern still is the possibility contained in the report that many exclusions are unrecorded. The Children's Commissioner, Dr Maggie Atkinson, believes the evidence her study has uncovered is "the tip of an iceberg", the assumption being that for every head teacher who has admitted bending exclusion procedures, others have done the same without admitting it.
Schools deserve sympathy for wanting to protect the most willing learners from the disruptive behaviour of others. But as Dr Atkinson pointed out when beginning the Schools Exclusion Inquiry last summer, exclusion remains a last resort for good reason. Schools that jettison difficult pupils may think they are doing their teachers, pupils and their position in the league tables a favour. But, as Dr Atkinson said, they are helping to ensure that these children will never get an education anywhere else or find a job. Forty per cent of those aged 16 to 18 and not in education, employment or training have been permanently excluded from school. By excluding pupils, schools are passing the buck – and to no one in particular.
Dr Atkinson wants the Government to take measures to stop illegal exclusions. This may be difficult. Teachers may feel reluctant to shop their heads by coming forward as whistleblowers and too many parents remain ignorant of their rights. But she is right to put the spotlight on an unacceptable abuse of school rules.
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