LEADING ARTICLE:A fair deal for classroom lepers

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The Independent Online
At Handsworth Wood Boys' School in inner-city Birmingham, more than one in six pupils were ordered to stay at home because of bad behaviour last year. The teachers could not cope. Most pupils were readmitted after a few days' cooling off. But these extraordinary figures highlight a dramatic rise in the numbers of pupils being excluded temporarily and permanently. It is estimated that 10,000 children nationwide were told last year never to darken their school's door again.

These statistics are an admission of failure. If we abandon difficult young people with such careless disregard, there is little point bemoaning delinquency and the creation of a so-called "underclass". Once children are permanently excluded, they are usually shunted from school to school and treated like lepers by the authorities. The chances of them ever being rehabilitated, never mind succeeding at school, are slim. Indeed, many revel in exclusion. It gives them - and they are mainly boys - a macho image, according to a report for Birmingham City Council whose details we publish today.

The temptation for schools to kick out their hard cases is growing. Educational psychologists and other behavioural specialists are in short supply. And the price of tolerating disruption is increasing. The performance of other children suffers and poor academic results drag down the school's position in league tables. If the parents of other pupils then withdraw them, school funding falls: a pupil drain fast becomes a financial drain. Typically, schools are becoming polarised between those filled with previously excluded pupils and those so popular that they turn away children seeking a second chance.

We need an urgent remedy if the schools system is to not to breed a hopeless group of leavers who will already have been condemned by their educational experience to be social outsiders.

The Birmingham City Council report has two important recommendations that should be taken up. First, it calls on schools to share the problem children, by setting a ceiling on the number of excluded pupils that any school should accept, thereby effectively obliging all schools to take at least a few. Second, it proposes the establishment of neighbourhood education centres where problem pupils could be sent for a short time, giving both them and their schools respite. These new units would give head teachers - who rarely wish to "give up'' on a child - a realistic alternative to formally excluding them. After receiving expert help, pupils would go back to school.

Such an initiative is vital if both the concerns of most parents and the needs of troubled children are to be taken seriously. Schools must recognise that they owe a duty of care to children up to 16, matching the legal obligation that their pupils have to attend classes. Too often, schools are neglecting their side of the bargain.