What are we to make of the annual exclusion statistics?
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent
When they go up - as they just have - are we to understand that children are getting naughtier?
Or does it mean that schools are less able to cope with challenging behaviour?
Statistics, even official statistics, can be partial, erroneous and misleading. But they are the only counter-weight we have to anecdotal evidence.
Statistics on exclusions have not been around for very long. On a comparable basis, the exclusions figures go back only a decade.
Highs and lows
They appear to suggest that exclusions in England rose steadily from 11,100 in 1994-5 to a peak of 12,700 in 1996-7.
Then, as the new Labour government set a target of reducing exclusions by one third by 2002, they fell dramatically to a low of just 8,320 in 1999-2000.
It was a rare case of an education target being met and being met early.
But instead of celebrating this achievement, the government was already embarking on a change of heart.
Facing protests from head teachers, and evidence that discipline was a major cause of teachers leaving the profession, it abandoned all exclusion targets in May 2001.
Since then the proportion of pupils being excluded has risen slightly and this week's figures show a further rise to 9,880 pupils being excluded in 2003-4.
It is worth noting, as an aside, that the number of youngsters who are currently excluded from school is higher than this, as the figures only show children excluded in that year and do not count those who were excluded in previous years and remain out of school.
So, over the past decade, we have seen a large fluctuation in exclusion rates: rising, then falling, then rising again, with a 35% variation from peak to trough.
Is it credible that behaviour has changed accordingly? Clearly not.
Yet there is a strong perception within the political debate on education that discipline has deteriorated.
It is hard to know when, if ever, there was a golden age of pupil behaviour. Certainly no one seems to think we are in it now.
Yet, as the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), has suggested, this is inconsistent with the findings of Ofsted.
Its annual judgement on behaviour in schools suggests a steady improvement.
In 2002-3 Ofsted judged 90% of secondary schools in England to have behaviour which was "good" or better. This was the peak of a steady and consistent rise from 79% in 1996-7.
The IPPR is currently promoting a policy of "zero exclusions", which it claims is an ambitious, long-term but achievable reality.
Many head teachers and teachers would disagree. They believe a sanction of last resort is essential.
Sir Robert Dowling, head of George Dixon School in Birmingham, is one. He runs a tight ship at his inner-city school but insists exclusions are sometimes necessary.
As he readily agrees, exclusion is sometimes a "sacrifice of the one for the sake of the many".
Like prisons, he says, exclusions are something we need even if we don't like them.
The big objection to the government's target of one-third reduction was that it appeared to be arbitrary and it was imposed upon schools from the centre.
Yet now the political directive has been withdrawn, exclusions have still not returned to their pre-target levels. Does this suggest that there were too many exclusions in the late 1990s?
If the government's Social Exclusion Unit had not made exclusions a priority would they still be running at well over 12,000 a year instead of just under 10,000?
Or is it that, even if behaviour has not improved, schools are better able to deal with difficult pupils now that there are more on-site units offering special provision without the need to exclude?
One welcome addition to this year's statistics was the breakdown of the causes of permanent exclusions.
Some 29% of exclusions were for a physical assault against a pupil or an adult. While the term "physical assault" covers a wide spectrum, I suspect most would agree that exclusion would usually be a reasonable response.
Another 15% of exclusions were for "verbal abuse or threatening behaviour" against a pupil or adult. This is a very wide category and could extend from a death threat to being cheeky. Only a case-by-case analysis could reveal whether these exclusions were justified.
Some of the other reasons - covering very small numbers - include serious offences such as bullying (a mere 2%), racist abuse, drug and alcohol-related incidents, theft and causing damage.
Yet the biggest single category of offence is also the hardest to define. It is simply summarised as "persistent disruptive behaviour". This accounted for 31% of permanent exclusions.
It is this area that the IPPR has highlighted. One of its research fellows, Jodie Reed, has argued that one of the reasons why schools are quick to exclude for serious offences is because teachers are not coping well with "low-level" misbehaviour.
She believes that if this can be tackled, then progress could be made towards "zero exclusions".
It is brave, possibly foolish, for a non-teacher to suggest that schools could manage without ever excluding a student.
But, if the statistics show one thing, it is that there is no direct correlation between the rate of exclusions and the collective misbehaviour of the school population.
Exclusion rates do not just happen; they are the result of a policy or a philosophy of inclusion.
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