Teachers are pushing for an investigation into alternatives to mainstream education for some pupils, as concern grows over violent behaviour. 

Delegates at the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) annual general meeting unanimously backed a motion that asks councils to release information about in-school inclusion and “nurture” spaces, with figures suggesting they have helped drive down exclusion rates. 

The proposal also calls for a report on authorities that are “resourcing and running an alternative curriculum within mainstream schools to support children and young people with social, emotional and behavioural needs rather than the presumption to mainstreaming within classrooms”.

It comes after warnings that violence is happening more frequently in education settings. Some have attributed the trend to “distressed behaviour” and anxiety brought on by the pandemic. However, many teachers say they had concerns long before Covid.

In her address as outgoing EIS president, Heather Hughes told the gathering in Dundee: “All too often [teachers] are made to feel that the blame lies with them and not with the lack of support for young people who are expressing their frustrations over the lack of appropriate support - or, for many, particularly those with social and emotional difficulties, [with] the inappropriate environment they are expected to learn in. These are the reasons they lash out.” 

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Presenting the motion, Jim Slaven said: “An important part of many schools just now is that learning area which provides an alternative to exclusion. 

“Going by a variety of names – the inclusion zone, the hub, the haven, the nurture room, the wellbeing wood – regardless of the label, they won’t be seeing too many lines in our school handbooks, simply because, by some, they may be seen as working against the presumption to mainstream. But they’re out there, fully functioning in many schools, often existing under the radar and surely producing beneficial outcomes for particular young people, their families and their whole-school, wider communities.”

Mr Slaven said that, given Covid-related disruption, it was more important than ever to hear about “alternative curriculum success stories”. He added: “This motion is asking authorities to provide some detail and let us, as a union, work with them in a more collaborative way to share good practice around these in-school approaches, so that we can assist more young people to get back on track with their learning and, vitally, within their own establishments. 

“Having previously worked for several years in an authority-run alternative curriculum project, and having witnessed the many benefits for the participating youngsters, I, like many of you, am aware of the need that some young people have to be away from the classroom setting, perhaps only for a short period of time.”

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Scottish Government figures for the state sector show that, in 2020/21, only one learner was “removed from the register”, which is when an excluded individual does not return to their original school and is instead taught elsewhere. This is down from 3 in 2018/19 and 60 in 2010/11.

The 2020/21 session also saw 8,322 cases of temporary exclusion compared with nearly 15,000 in 2018/19 and 26,784 in 2010/11. Overall, the temporary exclusion rate plunged from 39.9 per 1,000 pupils to 11.9 between 2010/11 and 2020/21.

Experts say the trend is due to a range of factors but have highlighted new approaches to tackling difficult or aggressive behaviour. Glasgow City Council, for example, has moved decisively away from pupil referral units, instead creating “enhanced nurture” facilities that are located onsite in mainstream schools. Exclusion is used only in extreme circumstances.

Mr Slaven said: “In the last three or four years, evidence has shown that the roll-out of these in-school, dedicated support areas has greatly reduced the number of youngsters being excluded across Scotland. Therefore, I would suggest that an investigation and report by authorities using in-school, alternative curriculums might just highlight some of the following as being essential for success: clear aims, objectives and evaluations involving all users; areas themselves to be fully funded and fully resourced; appropriate, willing individuals to set up and ensure effective running; relevant assessment of engagement and outcomes, including return dates to classroom activities if this is deemed appropriate.”

He added: “Although this list of needs is a familiar one, it is well worth pursuing for the good of the youngster, their own families, staff around the school and, very importantly, [it] will allow other students to continue with their learning.

"Management corridors are becoming busy places with the troubled youngsters I refer to. So, rather than alternative to exclusion, shouldn’t these proposed formal learning spaces be thought of as a means of inclusion instead.”