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Inquiry to probe ‘long-term cost’ of exclusions

21 February, 2019 — By John Gulliver

Cllr Samata Khatoon and Martin Pratt

A REMARKABLE decision by a group of councillors on Monday evening to probe the “tragic” effects of excluding children from school may help to lift the curtain on one
of the growing scandals of our time.

There is no clear evidence but possible links may exist between “excluded” children and those wandering the streets and ending up in knife crime and as prey to drug gangs, and I have been writing about this for months in the hope that the council’s children’s committee will take up the challenge of an investigation.

And this week, prompted by Somers Town councillor Samata Khatoon, members set up a “panel” in the style of a parliamentary committee to investigate a growing crisis.

Statistics show there were 1,005 “fixed term” exclusions and 30 “permanent” exclusions in Camden in the year 2016/17.

But behind these statistics there is a family in crisis, a human tragedy looming, and limited though their powers and influence are, members of the children’s committee have shown that whatever challenges face them, to some extent it is their responsibility and they must do something about it.

Sadly, writers of government-style reports have forgotten to write simple English – and lean on jargon to get through a discussion.

Lord Laming. Photo: Chris McAndrew

In a report before the committee the word “permanent” is used as well as “fixed term” but I feel that either committee members don’t know exactly what they mean, bearing in mind all the implications of the word “permanent”, for instance, or fail to understand how jargon conceals thought and action instead of illuminating them.

When they refer to “fixed term” exclusions, is that for a day, several days, several weeks? And where are the facts and figures about that in the report? Not there, I’m afraid.

Hopefully, the panel will shine a light on these dark corners.

They have rightfully given themselves the power to ask parents as well as pupils and teachers – note ask, not summon them – to tell them about their problems. They’ll also call in Holborn and St Pancras MP Sir Keir Starmer and councillor Abdul Hai who are involved in a “task force” on knife crime.

I have attended a couple of meetings by the committee since last autumn and it seems pretty clear that every member – councillors and officials – feels the need to do something about “exclusions” and allied problems like “absenteeism”.

In the report, exclusions are described as “tragic”, and the children’s services director, Martin Pratt, referred disparagingly to Ofsted’s description of “exclusions” as “off-rolling” – all signs that members are conscious of the task ahead of them.

Victoria Climbié

Their biggest failure so far is to have accepted the annual figure of exclusions compiled by officials without a breakdown of ethnicity, gender and age.

Too high a proportion may be found among Somalian children whose families, it should be remembered, lived in a terrorists’ “war zone” before escaping to Britain.

Still, I trust the panel will get to the bottom of this.

They will be in good company – for Lord Herbert Laming, who headed the inquiry into the terrible murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié in 2000, has written to The Times about exclusions pointing out that they may be a “short-term” expediency but “come with a long-term cost”. He describes the “behaviour” that leads to exclusions as a “cry for help”.

He warns that unless this is met by a plan of help it is likely to result in greater “vulnerability and alienation” and have a lasting impact on the adult of the future.

Moved by his letter, I spoke to Lord Laming – an experienced children’s director for 20 years in the North-east – and found him a warm-hearted and sensitive man who told me how harrowing he had found the terrible tale about how poor Victoria Climbié was starved and tortured before her death.

It had clearly affected him, and made him take up the question of exclusions – he felt he had to do something, however little, to help the children of today.

His words ring out – and here in Camden the newly set up panel, it seems, is taking up his challenge.

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