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Social Exclusion Unit

Volume 589: debated on Monday 11 May 1998

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asked Her Majesty's Government:What work the Social Exclusion Unit will undertake on school exclusions and truancy. [HL1842]

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister launched the Social Exclusion Unit last December with a remit to co-ordinate and improve government action to reduce social exclusion. As one of its first priorities, the Prime Minister asked it to report by Easter on how to make a step change in the scale of truancy and exclusions from school and to find better solutions for those who have to be excluded. The unit has worked closely on this task with other government departments, drawing on outside expertise and research, as well as a wide programme of visits and meetings and a written consultation exercise.The Government have now reached their conclusions. These decisions, and the underlying analysis, are set out in the unit's report

Truancy and School Exclusions, published today. Copies of the report are available in the House Libraries. The report sets out what we know about the scale of truancy and exclusion. Our information on both is imperfect. For truancy, figures compiled from registration statistics suggest that around 1 million pupils take at least one half day off without authority. But in confidential surveys pupils admit to much higher levels: one survey suggested nearly one in ten 15 year-olds truanted at least once a week.

The numbers permanently excluded from school stand at around 13,000 a year and have been rising fast. Over 100,000 are excluded temporarily. Eighty three per cent. of excluded pupils are boys, and half are aged fourteen or fifteen. African Caribbean children are six times more likely than average to be excluded, and children in care 10 times more likely. The causes of both problems are complex. Parents are responsible for ensuring that their children attend school, and poor parental supervision is often the cause of truancy. Peer group and community attitudes are also important, as are anxiety about exams, poor basic skills, fear of bullying or boredom with school. The reasons for exclusions vary widely, from relatively minor issues which should not have warranted such a response, to serious, even criminal, behaviour. The rise in exclusion has been attributed to a wide mix of factors, including poor basic skills, limited aspirations and opportunities, high levels of family stress, as well as lack of training and support in schools, and pressures on academic standards. More often than not, excluded children do not get reintegrated into school quickly. Those who are educated outside school rarely receive a full timetable and many get little more than a few hours tuition per week, and are otherwise left to their own devices.

Both truancy and exclusion are strongly associated with a range of other problems including unemployment and homelessness, but above all with crime. An Audit Commission study showed that nearly half of all school age offenders have been excluded from school and a quarter truanted significantly. The problems cut across departments and agencies and therefore require coherent solutions that involve not only schools, but also the police, social services, as well as parents. There is much good practice to learn from. Where it is followed, exclusion and truancy have been greatly reduced. As a result there are wide variations in the levels of exclusion and truancy between regions and between schools with similar intakes and results.

The report published today draws on the lessons of what works. It commits the Government to the goal of cutting levels of both exclusions and truancy by a third by 2002. The measures to deliver this span a range of departments and local agencies as well as schools, parents and pupils, reflecting the multi-dimensional nature of the problem. The national target will be underpinned by local authority level targets for truancy and exclusion reductions. The Government will consult on the detail of how targets should be set. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment will introduce an amendment to the School Standards and Framework Bill to permit school level targets for the worst performers on truancy. The Crime and Disorder Bill introduces parenting orders for parents who fail to ensure their children attend school. The Home Secretary will introduce an amendment to the Bill to give the police a new power to pick up truants in areas where the local education authority has agreed with the chief constable designated places to where they may be taken.

To cut down on inappropriate exclusions, the Government will lay down clear rules on when exclusion is justified and give them legal force. There will be special Ofsted inspections for schools with particularly high levels of exclusions. Children excluded from school during the two GCSE years will stay in their original school for league table purposes, so there is no advantage in excluding poor performers.

The number of children from ethnic minorities who are excluded will be measured and reported at school level. The DfEE task group on raising achievement of ethnic minority pupils will look at what can be done to promote community mentoring in ethnic minority communities. There will be a major push to improve the school performance of children in local authority care, with more detailed proposals announced later this summer.

The Government will develop proposals to target more resources on preventive work with children at risk of exclusion. Local education authorities will also have incentives to provide more support to schools. There will be a requirement that all excluded pupils receive full-time education so that their discipline or other problems are tackled in controlled environments and they are not abandoned to roam the streets. Decisions on the extra funding that is necessary, and on how funding will be organised, will be taken in the comprehensive spending reviews. Full provision will be phased in over no more than three years. In addition, education action zones will have a special focus on areas with particularly high levels of exclusion and truancy to give extra encouragement for innovative approaches to bringing them down. A ministerial task force under the Minister for School Standards will oversee the implementation of these policies. Together these measures will ensure that far fewer young people lose time from school. In the short term, children themselves will benefit from keeping up with their education. The wider community will benefit from less crime. In the long term, there will be benefits as fewer young people leave school without qualifications. These measures will require schools, police, and parents to play a part in ensuring that education is no longer optional, and they will end a situation where failure to attend school has been tolerated and sometimes even condoned.