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
    pupils.

    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
    third;

    – 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
    systems.

    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
    exclusion.

    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
    implemented.”

    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
    school.”

    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
    schools.

    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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