Ruth Kelly – the story so far…
“We do not of course agree on everything,” the
education secretary admitted at the Secondary Heads Association
conference last month.
Observers of Ruth Kelly’s first few months in the job may
judge that as something of an understatement.
In less than six months, Ruth Kelly has found herself on the
receiving end of stinging criticism.
Her parent power message, which perhaps unwisely dominated her SHA
speech, was reportedly greeted by jeering. Some found it
Unsurprisingly her zero-tolerance stance on disruptive behaviour
has, on the other hand, earned her support among teachers.
Escalating levels of classroom violence is, alongside paperwork,
often blamed for driving teachers out of the profession, and
teaching unions including the National Association of Schoolmasters
and Union of Women Teachers in Scotland have been pushing for
Education secretaries before Kelly have grappled with the
problem of how to tackle bad behaviour in the classroom while
staying true to Labour’s key policy of inclusive education.
None has succeeded.
Now Kelly seems to have abandoned all pretence to inclusion with
her blunt zero-tolerance message, which will undoubtedly cause
In a speech she gave in January, Kelly said: “Heads have the
right to exclude pupils and use other sanctions for the good of the
pupil and the good of the wider school.”
Remembering that children who are permanently excluded often
face many problems in the long-term, she warned that they should
not “simply be thrown on the scrapheap”.
“If we get it wrong, we risk losing an entire generation of
children, and the reaping the results in antisocial behaviour,
rising crime and increasing social and economic inequality,”
Gerry German, the director of the Communities Empowerment Network,
an organisation that represents children excluded from school, is
dismayed by Kelly’s position, if unsurprised.
He believes successive education secretaries have delivered the
same message, in a different package, on how to deal with
disruptive of students in much the same way for more than a quarter
of a century.
Although many children arrive at the school gates with any
number of problems he says they are often exacerbated by the school
“What is it about our schools and communities that provoke
violence?” he asks.
“What we need are comprehensive schools in every
neighbourhood. Instead of schools with 1000-plus students we need
schools in our inner cities of 500 students at most.”
German adds that public schools have 15 students per class and
if that was the case in comprehensives “we would no longer
On one hand the government’s policy thrust is towards making
schools more closely connected to the communities they are part of,
for example through extended schools.
But it is envisaged that this programme will focus mostly on
primary schools, while it looks likely that secondary education
will be dominated by competition among schools for foundation
status, which brings greater independence.
In a system where schools may yet have the freedom to accept,
reject or eject students with greater freedom, the zero-tolerance
message threatens to create more division.
Even before Kelly’s stance many schools have not been
following proper procedures on exclusions, choosing to ignore
provisions that allow for restorative justice and mediation, claims
He also believes that figures on fixed-term exclusions are much
higher than the 100,000 quoted by the Department for Education and
Following in the footsteps of her predecessors, Kelly has said
that children who are excluded from mainstream education must not
be given a second-rate schooling.
But German says the education provided by pupil referral units –
the most common alternative to mainstream school – is in many ways
“The trouble with PRUs is that they are not full-time, the
curriculum is different and they often do not have the same
facilities, such as science laboratories.”