Leading Article: The right balance on school exclusions

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FEW TASKS are less enviable than that of teachers faced with a seriously disruptive pupil. To exclude such difficult children without sufficient grounds - simply, for example, to eliminate a potential threat to the school's reputation - risks setting those concerned down the long road that ends in permanent unemployment or some form of corrective or penal institution. Yet to lean over backwards to accommodate the very difficult, as some conscientious headteachers do, can put the education of many other children at risk.

If the child is a bully, others may be traumatised, and even teachers may be at risk from violence. If he (and most are boys) disrupts classes, the progress of many children may be set back, and the additional stress on teachers already stretched by the demands of the curriculum may be intolerable.

So it would be unwise to rush to judgement in the case of Isa Stewart, the 10-year-old boy whose behaviour has led to a two-day closure of his school in Handsworth, Birmingham. Isa was expelled in January by the school's governors after a playground incident. His mother appealed to the local education authority, which ruled against the school. The school in turn appealed to an independent panel, which instructed it to take the boy back. The school's teachers reacted by confining the boy to a corridor, and are now appealing to the Secretary of State, John Patten. Although an organisation called the African People's Education Authority is leading protests on the boy's behalf, racism does not seem to be the main issue: 90 per cent of the school's pupils are Afro-Caribbean or Asian; the headteacher has been there for 19 years; and this is, significantly, the school's first attempt at exclusion in that period.

Exclusion can come in three forms: temporary, indefinite and permanent. Last month the Government published proposals that would abolish the indefinite category, which amounts to a form of limbo, and impose time limits on the other two. It has also proposed that local education authorities should have a duty, not just the power, to provide education for problem children other than at school.

Recent research showing an alarming rise in excluded children has led to the suspicion that many have been weeded out on trivial disciplinary grounds to enable schools to compete more effectively for local pupils. The Department of Education intends to issue guidance to ensure that exclusion is used only as a last resort. It should at the same time take steps to ensure better provision than at present for the education of those with special needs. Ideally, problem children should be identified and given special attention at an early age; but in all cases they should be returned to mainstream education as quickly as possible. On this subject, the Department of Education's thinking seems wholly sound. But to implement it when the air is thick with recriminations will always be difficult.