Lessons for life

Since coming to power New Labour has made reducing exclusion
from schools one of its key educational policies. But just how well
have schools fared in tackling truancy and exclusions? Natalie
Valios investigates.

“We don’t need no education” might be an acceptable philosophy
for wealthy rock stars like Pink Floyd, but most children won’t get
far in life without one. Reducing social exclusion has been a
trademark policy of New Labour and the drive to promote educational
achievement among disadvantaged children has formed an important
part of that policy.

School is, after all, the first in a long line of situations in
which individuals can become socially excluded, often with serious
long-term consequences. Tackling social exclusion means reducing
truancy and exclusions, and finding better solutions for excluded

With this in mind, the government set up the Social Exclusion
Unit to co-ordinate research and policy development on countering
social exclusion.

The first SEU report revealed that each year at least one
million children truant, more than 100,000 children are excluded
temporarily and about 13,000 excluded permanently.1

Children looked after – and other children defined by the
Children Act 1989 as “in need” – are among the most vulnerable to
school exclusion and truancy. The report identified that children
with special needs and African-Caribbean children were six times
more likely than others to be excluded, while looked after children
were 10 times more likely.

Three national targets were set, to be attained by 2002:

– a reduction of both permanent and fixed-term exclusions by one

– alternative full-time and appropriate education for all pupils
excluded from school for more than three weeks; and

– a reduction in truancy levels by one third.

The report and its targets cover England only; the issues of
exclusion and non-attendance of school in Scotland, Wales and
Northern Ireland are being addressed within the separate education

The intention was for national targets to be turned into local
ones and included in local authorities’ education development
plans. A more recent report from the SEU outlined progress on its
entire remit; as far as education is concerned, permanent school
exclusions fell by 18 per cent between 1997 and 1999 to 10,400,
while the overall national truancy rate remained static during the
same period.2

The key issues of pupil attendance, behaviour, the use of
exclusion and re-integration were gathered together for local
authorities and local education authorities in two government
circulars in 1999. They encourage schools, local education
authorities and outside agencies to work together to tackle
multi-faceted problems and reduce exclusions and truancy.

So, has four years of trumpeting the New Labour mantra
“education, education, education” amounted to anything? SEU targets
are backed up by several initiatives – learning support units and
learning mentors in Excellence in Cities areas; deprived areas
receiving extra government money to fund their social inclusion
policies; the social inclusion pupil support grant; and pupil
referral units.

From April 2001, the investment from the Connexions service, the
Children’s Fund and the social inclusion pupil support grant will
make £600 million available to tackle truancy and

By the end of the year there will be 2,400 learning mentors:
individuals employed by head teachers to follow up on truancy, help
tackle disaffection and support children being bullied. They also
act as a point of contact for bringing in specialists, such as
social workers or probation officers.

Learning support units within schools enable teachers to remove
disruptive pupils from the classroom quickly without excluding them
from school. By 2003 there will be 1,000 units with the aim of
re-integrating pupils into normal classes by combining behavioural
issues with lessons; and pupil referral units will have 1,000 more
places this year compared to 1997.

Positive measures. But there is concern that while the
government promotes its school inclusion policy, league tables
simultaneously give schools perverse incentives to kick out
disruptive and disaffected pupils.

Jacqui Newvell, head of the National Children’s Bureau’s pupil
inclusion unit, says: “Schools have been put in a situation where
they have no incentive [to be inclusive], quite the opposite.”

The thresholds on which schools exclude vary tremendously, she
says, from assaulting a member of staff to dyeing your hair. And
while the circulars are a good piece of guidance which could be
adapted to support any young person, says Newvell, the problem is
the extent to which it has or has not been implemented.

“Anecdotally there are some schools and local education
authorities that are doing some good stuff and others who aren’t.
It’s foolish to suggest it’s all bad, but equally foolish to say
that just because the guidance is there it’s being

She is uneasy at the drive for learning support units in
schools. “Our concern would be that youngsters are internally
excluded. Good practice would be for children to go there for a
planned programme of work to be rehabilitated back into

And although the support fund’s purpose is to help vulnerable
children in schools, only thriving schools will use it well, she
says. “Things work well in successful schools. Chucking more money
at bad schools won’t necessarily make it a good school. There needs
to be a fundamental rethink about what children go to school for.
If it’s only for measured attainment in GCSEs then it’s not
surprising that so many are switched off. I would like to see young
people have a sense of personal achievement that counts.”

In terms of one-to-one work, however, learning mentors have been
a good thing, says Newvell, adding as an afterthought: “How that’s
going to fit together with Connexions, who knows.”

Sue Howe, general secretary of the National Association of
Social Workers in Education, agrees: “There is a lot of worry about
this because there will be another person in the school with a
role. It’s still vague as to how the education welfare role will
fit in with Connexions and its personal advisers. We have to be
careful not to duplicate roles.”

Howe, who is also principal education welfare manager for Surrey
Council, advocates a plan for each child which names the most
appropriate person for them to have most contact with to save
complications, whether it’s a personal adviser, education welfare
officer or social worker. And although she is full of praise for
the government circulars – “a godsend” – and learning mentors,
Howe, too, is concerned about the whole school inclusion agenda
gelling when head teachers don’t want disruptive children in their

To counteract this, head teachers in some local authorities have
agreed to take excluded children from other schools. In Surrey,
head teachers have signed up to points system whereby points are
deducted whenever they exclude a young person. After the excluded
child is assessed at a pupil referral unit, they are reintegrated
into the next school with the lowest points.

Government measures to prevent young people being socially
excluded at school are working, says Howe, but could do more if
there were extra education welfare staff to carry out additional
preventive work.

“There are a lot of initiatives around social inclusion, but
unless we actually give teaching staff the time and resources to
implement them, it isn’t going to happen,” warns Newvell. “We need
to put some passion back into learning.”

Otherwise, the danger is that pupils really will feel like “just
another brick in the wall”.

1 Social Exclusion Unit, Truancy and
School Exclusion
, The Stationery Office, 1998

2 Social Exclusion Unit, Preventing
Social Exclusion
, The Stationery Office, 2001

Case study

Last year, about 300 children looked after by Hampshire Council
received Harry Potter books in recognition of their achievements at
school. The books were presented at an annual prize-giving,
alongside certificates signed by senior managers in education and
social services.

Steve Love, assistant director of social services and head of
children and families, says: “Our aim is that every child in care
will be rewarded for an achievement, regardless of whether it is
academic. For example, if they have attended school after truanting
for two years, or have stopped being disruptive in class.”

Extra assistance for looked-after children in secondary schools
is provided by seven education support teachers each linked to
schools, children’s homes and foster homes in a given area. Their
supervisor is the manager of the adolescent support service which
is based within the social services department.

If the relationship between the child and the school appears to
be breaking down – because of their disruptive behaviour, truancy,
inability to cope with the curriculum, or a disability such as
Asperger’s syndrome – the teacher can refer the pupil to their
education support teacher who works at keeping them from being
excluded. The child’s teacher or social worker can also contact the
education support teacher if they feel the young person needs extra
help. Education support teachers visit their children’s homes or
foster homes to work with children on a one-to-one basis.

In addition, the council has social workers working with
children in schools who are disruptive or truanting, but are not
likely to go into care.

Key to success is joint working between social services and
education, says Love. He is concerned that the conglomeration of
government school inclusion measures could lead to an
unco-ordinated approach by those local authorities without joint
management programmes – to the detriment of the child.

“There is a danger of duplication. You could have a mentor, a
social worker, a support teacher, and before you know it this poor
kid has four people moving about with it.”

Hampshire’s harmonised approach is working. In the last academic
year, out of 76 school leavers looked after by the local authority,
28 per cent passed five or more GCSEs at grade A-C, 72 per cent
passed five or more GCSEs at grade A-G, and 8 per cent passed eight
or more GCSEs at grade A-C.



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