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Wednesday, 9 January, 2002, 00:16 GMT
Female school exclusions 'hidden'
Girls are being excluded from school at a higher rate than official figures suggest, researchers say.
Officially, the great majority of those who are expelled are boys, with girls making up only 16%.
A study headed by Professor Audrey Osler of the Centre for Citizenship Studies in Education at Leicester University says there is a widespread belief in education circles that girls are "not a problem" - not least because they do relatively well in exams.
But she said this had led to the scale of exclusion and "self-exclusion" going unrecognised and the particular needs of disaffected girls not being met properly.
Among the report's recommendations are that schools might give girls their own spaces apart from boys, and provide confidential counsellors.
The work, carried out jointly with the New Policy Institute in London, involved interviews with 81 girls in six areas of England, chosen to represent a cross-section of secondary schools.
These included girls whose teachers judged them to be doing well, and those seen to have difficulties.
They also spoke to parents, teachers and other staff.
Four themes emerged.
"Girls said boys tended to defend themselves and answer back and get into worse trouble," Prof Osler told BBC News Online.
"But the girls used tactics such as apologising or crying - which got them out of trouble but which didn't solve the underlying problem."
This might be because aggression was seen to be "unfeminine."
"You had to stick up for yourself, but being seen to be friendly and nice was important - whereas with boys it was things such as sexual activity and cheeking the teachers and not doing homework."
"One girl said, 'There's a girl who hasn't been here because of rumours that she had been sleeping around'.
"Girls use whispering campaigns and verbal and psychological bullying which teachers find hard to detect and to deal with."
Victims were unhappy for weeks, whereas boys tended to resort to physical bullying and seemed to make friends again quickly.
"Girls felt bullying was directly related to exclusion - you might just stop coming to school - whereas adults didn't see it as a big issue in the way that girls did."
Even if a girl did not remove herself from school she might become withdrawn, which teachers tended to overlook, Prof Osler said.
Head teachers were also likely to use "unofficial" methods with female pupils, such as 'Come back when you've cooled off', or asking their parents to remove them from the school, so the problem did not show up in official statistics.
"Self-exclusion and internal exclusion, for example truancy or being removed from class, appear to be widespread," says the report, co-authored by Cathy Street, Marie Lall and Kerry Vincent.
Prof Osler said it was impossible to put an accurate figure on this without further research.
Their recommendations include asking the government to compile truancy figures broken down by gender.
Organisations which provided alternative schooling for excluded pupils should monitor attendance by gender - because most appeared to be geared up to dealing with boys.
They also felt schools should consult them about bullying in particular, because their perceptions often did not match those of the adults.
"Schools cannot afford to be smug about the issue," Prof Osler said.
The presence of a counsellor or nurse in a school could also help - "someone to turn to" in confidence who was outside the disciplinary machinery and staffroom gossip.
About a fifth of the girls interviewed were from minority ethnic groups.
It is known already from official statistics that black girls are about four times more likely than white girls to be excluded.
In the interviews, white girls were "totally unaware" of this, Prof Osler said - but they did feel teachers tended to be harder on black girls, the professor said.
Overall, the number of officially-recorded exclusions peaked in 1996/97 at about 12,700, falling to 8,300 in 1999/2000 - the most recent figures available. Exclusions of girls have fallen faster than those of boys.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "We strongly discourage schools from practising so-called 'unofficial' exclusions.
"While we are not aware that it is a very widespread practice in schools, we constantly look to make sure our discipline and exclusions policy works to best effect to raise standards for all pupils."
She said £174m was available to schools and education authorities this year specifically to tackle truancy and exclusions - 10 times more than in 1996/97.
"We are not convinced that there is strong support for single-sex units - but will always consider innovations that do improve standards carefully.
"The key to success lies in the school having an inclusive ethos, with strong senior management support for the learning support units, and individual support for the pupils within them," she added.
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