I HAD a visit from a young man recently. He pulled up outside our house and gave me a beaming smile. It was a friend of my son’s. I hadn’t seen him for months, not since I drove past him standing on a street corner looking lost. He was clearly a young man lacking direction.
Shortly afterwards, his father sent me a message full of deep concern. He was at his wit’s end, he said. If I happened to see his son, please could I have a word with him, anything to get him back on the right path.
Let’s call this lad Sam. Three years ago, Sam was excluded from school, permanently.
No one ever seemed to get to the bottom of what had really happened.
There were various tales of Sam spending the day in isolation after getting into trouble for a variety of reasons.
Whatever the cause, like a growing number of pupils, he was told to leave. How can this happen, you might ask, in a country which is supposed to offer young people education or training until the age of 19?
And how can children be removed from school when parents are reminded constantly of the importance of attendance every single session or face shame, guilt and possibly a hefty fine?
Well it does happen, and it’s getting worse. Figures published by the Department for Education this summer showed that there were more than 40 permanent exclusions a day – a total of 7,700 – during the 2016-17 school year. This compared with just over 35 a day the previous year. Fixed-term exclusions increased by about 40,000, to a total of 382,000, meaning nearly one in 20 pupils were sent home in disgrace.
The truth is that exclusions are the dirty little secret of a system which gears secondary schools almost entirely to the twin aims of impressing Ofsted inspectors and hauling themselves up the GCSE league tables.
I have heard countless tales of pupils considered “difficult” being excluded on a trumped-up excuse so they don’t cause trouble during an inspection. Indeed, I was waiting in a school reception area recently for an appointment and I saw it with my own eyes. I spotted a small troupe of dejected youngsters being collected by their shame-faced parents, as the Ofsted team flitted past the end of the corridor. And whilst I totally understand that disruptive classmates are constantly cited as a major barrier to learning, the reasons for such behaviour should really be tackled at source.
There will always be children with clear behavioural and emotional problems, I know. However, there will also be those who find today’s rigorous and exacting scholastic expectations simply too much to handle. School rules and regulations have never been so fierce; I do understand why some youngsters rebel. I suspect I might have done the same. Too many schools are nothing more than pressure cookers.
I am not laying the blame at the door of the head teachers’ office here. I can only imagine the demands that school senior management teams are under. This is particularly acute in academies, which are accountable not to the local authority, but their own directors and Ofsted. Indeed, academies show the highest rates of fixed term exclusions across the board.
I’d be the last person to argue against improving standards in our region. High educational attainment and the self-confidence which comes with attending a high-performing school is one way that our children can help to close the North-South divide.
However, it is disturbing to find that secondary schools in Yorkshire and the Humber gave out the highest number of fixed term exclusions in England over the last academic year, an overall rate of 5.8 per 100 pupils.
Middlesbrough actually tops this dishonourable league, handing them to 11.67 pupils in every 100, but Doncaster and my own town of Barnsley are not far behind, excluding more than one in 10 pupils from secondary schools last year.
And what happens to these pupils? The lucky few are picked up and accommodated in a decent pupil referral unit (PRU) or supported to attend a vocational college course which is often more practical than a traditional school syllabus. The rest end up left to their own devices, disappearing through the cracks, plagued by mental health problems and prey to criminal gangs and drug dealers.
You will be pleased to know that Sam is one of the lucky ones. When he was kicked out of school, he was sent to a PRU. Things were hard for a few years, he said, but the teachers guided him to achieve GCSE exam passes in maths and English. His achievements have brought him an apprenticeship in construction, which pays for his moped.
His delight touched my heart. Sam now has so much to be proud of. This is more than can be said for those who preside over an education system which threatens to throw so many young people on the scrapheap before they even leave school.