Socialist Worker

School system that's designed to exclude

Issue No. 1803

THE NUMBER of pupils expelled from school is rising for the first time in five years. Education secretary Estelle Morris says she is 'relaxed' about it. The same Morris claims to be so concerned to keep children in school that she is pleased to see parents of truanting children sent to prison. The hypocrisy is staggering. Government policies are overwhelmingly responsible for both truancy and permanent exclusions (expulsions).

The latest figures show an 11 percent increase in the number of permanent exclusions in England. Some 9,210 pupils were expelled in 2000-1 compared with 8,323 the previous year. The biggest rise was among primary school children, up 19 percent. The government claims that rising exclusions reflect worsening pupil behaviour. The number of exclusions ten years ago was just 3,000. There is no evidence at all to suggest that pupil behaviour is three times worse than a decade ago.

The greatest increase in the number of exclusions was between 1990 and 1997, when they reached a peak of 12,700. This was when the Tories introduced the national curriculum, national testing and school league tables.

There is a direct link between those 'reforms' and the rise in exclusions. A report by Professor Paul Cooper of the University of Leicester last September is one of the most recent of many pieces of research showing this link. League tables created a pressure on schools to 'get rid' of difficult pupils whose scores in national tests might lower a school's average results.

The break-up of local education authority admission procedures also meant schools in middle class areas were able to pick and choose children. The effect was that children not wanted by such schools were dumped in schools which were already lower down the league tables. Those schools found themselves taking ever more pupils with special educational needs or who had been excluded from elsewhere.

The increased pressure on those schools then meant that they ended up excluding more pupils.

Key facts

  • ENGLAND HAS the highest rate of permanent exclusions from school in Europe. It also has the most tested children. That relentless regime and a mind-numbingly narrow curriculum lie behind pupils getting fed up with school.
  • THE government has proposed a two-tier system for children aged 14. There would be a 'vocational pathway' aimed simply at preparing many working class children for work. That approach has encouraged hundreds of schools to jump the gun and simply drop foreign languages from this September.
  • PRIMARY schools have recorded the greatest increase in exclusions. And it is in primaries that the government has pushed most of its pet schemes-above all the literacy and numeracy hours. The Childline charity warned only two weeks ago of rising anxiety among primary school children facing national tests. It is the most vulnerable children who crack under the pressure.
  • FOUR OUT of five permanently excluded children have special educational needs. But most have not been given a 'statement' that would qualify their schools for resources to provide support.
  • BLACK children are three times more likely to be excluded than white children. That is not because they are three times more unruly. It is a consequence of the institutionalised racism in society as a whole and in the education system.
  • POLICE AND truancy officers trawl working class areas and claim they find children being kept out of school by 'feckless' parents. There is no hue and cry and police targeting of middle class areas or of middle class parents who keep children from school for skiing breaks.

Picking wrong targets

ESTELLE MORRIS is said to have cheered when Oxfordshire mother Patricia Amos was jailed because her children had played truant. Headlines then suggested a flood of absent children going back to school. The reality turned out to be a few anecdotes from some headteachers.

Fines on parents over truancy have been rising over the last two years, and were splashed across local papers. This has had no lasting impact on reducing truancy. In the same week as Patricia Amos was released on appeal a couple in Warwickshire were fined £200 each with £50 costs after their 14 year old son skipped school.

The mother said, 'I tried everything in my power to get him out of bed, including bribery, blackmail and some force.' Also in the same week a couple in Lewisham, south London, were fined £4,000 with £523 costs for their 15 year old daughter's failure to attend.

Michele Batstone said, 'With four other kids it's an impossible amount to pay. I cannot control her. There has been no backup, counselling or anything.' The sick result of the government's policy is to increase the pressures in such families to boiling point, leading in some cases to violence. No one should take a single step down New Labour's road.

Failed pupils and scapegoating

FIVE YEARS ago the incoming New Labour government said it would stop the rise in exclusions. But it also pledged to keep all the market mechanisms introduced by the Tories in place. So the solution of Labour's then education secretary David Blunkett was to set yet more targets for schools, this time on cutting the number of exclusions. Schools that missed the target would lose money.

The pressure appeared to work. The number of officially recorded exclusions fell. But the underlying pressures on schools remained. Schools at the top of league tables either continued excluding or used admissions policies to stop 'problem' children getting in.

Schools at the bottom faced a major cut in funding if they excluded pupils. So the number of 'informal' exclusions rose. Many parents were pressured outside official procedures to take their children elsewhere.

A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in January of this year found that while girls were just 17 percent of the number of official exclusions, many more were removed from class 'informally or for fixed periods'. The schools inspectorate Ofsted found the following month that 10,000 children were simply missing from school rolls.

Its report said, 'Some local education authorities don't know where pupils are, and in some they write them off their books.' New Labour's response was to abandon any aim to reduce the number of exclusions. Estelle Morris said earlier this year that she wanted to free headteachers to be able to expel more easily.

New government guidelines cut the number of children who overturned their exclusion on appeal. It marked a sharp turn to scapegoating the most vulnerable children and their parents for the stresses faced by teachers and schools.

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Article information

Sat 8 Jun 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1803
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