Leading Article: Getting children back to school

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The Independent Online
"SOCIAL EXCLUSION" sounds like one of those phrases dreamt up by the European Commission bureaucracy and translated into English from the French via Danish. Which is, more or less, what it is. It was Euro- code for unemployment and poverty before being stolen by the tone-deaf wordsmiths of New Labour. Linguistics apart, however, the Prime Minister's Social Exclusion Unit is a bold attempt to cut across departmental lines and tackle the causes of inequality.

Today sees the unit's first report, concerning schools. For those who do not have the time to read the whole thing, Tony Blair provided a short summary in yesterday's News of the World. (At a rate of 1.5 articles per week since the election, he is surely the most prolific journalist prime minister ever.) His account, as with so much of Blairism, is a series of sensible ideas which add up to rather less than an attack on deep causes, in this case of truancy and - that euphemism again - exclusions (these used to be called expulsions, but this was presumably thought too direct). Children who bunk off school usually do so because they think it offers them little, and they are usually right. Mr Blair points out that truants are more likely to leave school without qualifications and to be out of work at 18: it is precisely because many of them can see what is coming that they do not see the point of school.

Giving police the power to arrest truants is all very well, but it can only make sense if it can be shown that attending school is in the child's best interest. Mr Blair mentions in passing "making lessons more interesting and work-based", but a great deal more thought - and resources - needs to be devoted to basic literacy, numeracy and life-skills training for those who are heading for trouble. As for court orders requiring parents to escort their children to school, in any situation where this might be necessary, such an order is almost bound to be counter-productive. Symbolically, it might serve as a reminder that parents bear the primary responsibility for their children's education, but it should also be remembered that school is not compulsory in the United Kingdom and that it is up to parents to decide how their children should be educated.

School expulsions are a different matter, although they are linked, in that some schools are quite happy if some of their more difficult pupils "disappear" during the day. The sharp rise in expulsions this decade has been driven by exam league tables and the growing power of schools to select their intake. Schools urgently need performance indicators which do not give them an incentive to dump time-consuming, low-achieving pupils. But they also need more staff if they are to take disruptive pupils out of classes. And, where pupils are expelled, more resources are needed to ensure that they are efficiently educated out of school and not left to roam the streets. More money is not the answer to everything, but the beginnings of social exclusion at school age cannot be tackled without it.

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