‘Special units’ to tackle pupil exclusion rates

ONE of Scotland’s largest education authorities is to open a network of special units to help tackle the highest pupil exclusion rates in the country.

Dundee City Council plans to open the “inclusion” units – which will each cost about £70,000 a year to run – in four secondaries from the start of the next school year in an attempt to find an alternative to sending children home from lessons for long periods.

The latest government figures on school exclusions show that Dundee excluded 1,800 pupils in 2010-11 – for reasons including attacks on teachers, stalking and drug abuse – equivalent to a rate of 107 per 1,000 pupils or two-and-a-half times the national average. This compares with rates of 7 per 1,000 in some education authorities such as East Renfrewshire. The rates in other major Scottish cities are: 62 in Aberdeen; 53 in Glasgow; and 35 in Edinburgh.

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Working in partnership with Apex Scotland, a charity that deals with young offenders, the city will copy the approach adopted in Fife, where an inclusion unit at Dunfermline High has been credited with dramatically reducing the number of exclusions.

The units are staffed by qualified youth workers who run programmes that deal with pupils who would otherwise have been sent home or are at risk of being excluded because of their behaviour.

Philip Dunion, director of Apex Scotland, said: “Dundee has the highest rates of exclusion in Scotland and there’s definitely the desire to bring this figure down.

“In talks, the council has been fantastically enthusiastic and recognises the need to do something different.”

While pupils in the inclusion units will be given time to catch up with schoolwork, the facilities will not be staffed by teachers and will not teach the curriculum. Instead, pupils will spend time focusing on the reasons for their behaviour and the impact it could have on their futures.

“A big part of it is making sure pupils don’t go back to class feeling they have fallen further behind,” Dunion said. “But it’s more about encouraging them to look at the way they are behaving. Our primary role is to help them understand what their future could be like in either a positive or a negative way.”

The most recent Scottish Government figures show 26,844 pupils were excluded in 2010-11, although the rates varied dramatically across Scotland. Most are for short periods with a later return to the same school.

The units in Dundee will also include workers from the charity Includem and SkillForce, an educational body which works in schools across Britain to help young people in danger of leaving without any skills or qualifications. For the first two years they will be paid for by a consortium of funders, including charitable trusts.

If successful, however, the council will be expected to fund the units in future.

Previous research has backed the idea of inclusion units as a means of lowering offending and reoffending rates. Studies by academics at Edinburgh University found that if a child had been excluded by the age of 12, he or she was four times more likely to be jailed by the age of 22.

Fife Council has brought its exclusion rate down to 38 per 1,000 pupils with the help of inclusion units. At Dunfermline High, the number of ­pupils suspended or expelled was reduced by almost three-quarters.

Depute head Louise Ramsay, who set up the unit, said: “Exclusions were not benefiting anybody. They get an unruly pupil out of class for a short period but that’s about it.”

Inclusion units do not have universal support, however. Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said they simply helped “camouflage” the problem of misbehaving pupils. He said the most troublesome should be “put out” of the school system for an extended period before being let back in.

“Inclusion units are fine, but surely the answer is to exclude badly behaved children not put them in special premises,” he said. “The real issue, which is never properly addressed, is why we are putting up with unacceptable behaviour in the first place. There’s a number of behavioural problems that can’t be dealt with in school, they simply need to be put out. We need to be honest. There are some behaviours which are totally unacceptable.”

A Dundee City Council spokesman said: “We are in the process of finalising details of the project. The education department has met with Apex and are looking to move forward in the near future.”

A government spokesman added: “Schools and local authorities can and do use a range of strategies to promote positive behaviour and reduce the need for exclusion. Education Scotland supports councils to identify and address local needs to deliver the best results for their pupils.”

Twitter: @Chris_Scotsman