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Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 16:28 GMT
New action on school exclusions
Head teachers in England are being told that they can kick pupils out of school for a single, first offence of bullying, if they consider it to be serious enough.
The Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, said serious bullying - or possession of an offensive weapon - would be added to the grounds for immediate expulsion in new guidelines to be issued next week.
The existing grounds are sexual misconduct, drug dealing, or serious violence - actual or threatened.
Earlier, officials in her department had said that only the possession of an offensive weapon would be added to the list of offences which could lead to a pupil being permanently excluded with immediate effect.
On bullying, independent appeal panels were to be told that someone who had been expelled for persistent bullying should not normally be sent back to the same school.
The exact wording of the new guidance is not yet available.
Message to heads
Ms Morris told BBC News she wanted to give a very clear message that bullying was not acceptable in schools.
"There are just too many examples of children whose lives have been made a misery by the action of other children," she said.
"What I've been told is that, in the past, schools have felt nervous about excluding bullies.
"I want to say to head teachers, if that is their decision, that persistent bullying or a first-time offence of serious bullying, they want to exclude, well then we will support them in doing that."
The Conservatives said the move was a reversal of current policy.
The head of the Commons education select committee, Barry Sheerman, agreed it was "a U-turn" - and said it might be going too far.
"One strike and you're out is pretty dramatic, because sometimes you can be picking on the victim not the bully," he told BBC Radio 4's PM programme.
It should be left to the professionals - teachers and head teachers - to get the "tricky balance" right.
The fact that there was now alternative provision for excluded pupils, in referral units, was important.
They were in a sense "the true victims", who needed help to become full human beings.
The moves have gone down well with teachers' representatives and children's charities.
Michelle Elliott of the children's charity Kidscape said calls to its helpline suggested that violence was on the increase.
"The kind of bullying that's getting worse is violent bullying where children have knives, where they threaten other children," she said.
"We have even had cases where one child has set another child on fire.
"We have more violent cases of girls attacking. That didn't use to be.
"And they are getting younger - five or six year olds. They are holding a whole class or a whole school to ransom.
"I'm delighted that they are actually taking this seriously now and that we are going to be able to do something about it."
The NASUWT teachers' union has made a stand against violence, backing members who have threatened industrial action rather than teach disruptive children.
"This is a very welcome if long overdue step back towards reality, commonsense and the re-establishment of the rule of law in schools," said its general secretary, Nigel de Gruchy.
"For far too long teachers and pupils have been at the mercy of a small but increasing number of weapon-carrying adolescent thugs with licence to behave with impunity.
"Behaviour which, if exhibited in the street would lead to arrest and imprisonment, often went unpunished and undeterred thanks to the pitiful 'protection' provided by wretched appeal panels."
But he said "New Labour's unrealistic emphasis upon inclusivity" and the previous targets for reducing exclusions had proved to be "an absolute disaster".
"The desperate pleas of thousands of bullied pupils are thankfully getting through to government ministers," he said.
Former education secretary David Blunkett set a target of reducing exclusions by a third, which was reached early last year when the number expelled during 1999/2000 - the most recent figures - dropped to 8,323.
No new target was set - although the Scottish Executive has set a target of reducing exclusions there by a third.
Schools have also been unhappy with the reinstatement of excluded pupils by appeals panels, which are required to consider the educational needs of the individual pupil rather than his or her impact on fellow students.
Official figures show there were 950 appeals in England in 1999/00 - down by 320 on the previous year.
Of those, about 350 or 37% were successful - 4.2% of all those expelled.
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