Social Inclusion

Social inclusion – Schools can be just like prison.

Times Educational Supplement
July 21st 2000

Children who compare their schools with prisons are nearer the truth than they realise: they are the only places where people are obliged to spend time in close proximity with others whose behaviour, attitudes or other attributes are positively harmful. We are concerned when a custodial sentence is handed if we think that ther recipient may learn to be a more effective criminal, may be subject to bullying or abuse or may simply become more inured to a life of crime. This concern is manifest in our anxiety about rates of recidivism.

We have been reminded during the last few weeks of children whose behaviour in school, threatening fellow pupils with a carving knife and assaulting teachers for example, would probably result in custodial sentences in the adult world. [ TES, front page May 12th and a report from the NAHT conference in The Times, May 31st]  There is understandable anger and resentment that schools should have to face such difficulties, but where is the moral repugnance about a society which claims to concern itself with raising the standard of provision for children in schools but which  incarcerates children in institutions where they and their protectors can be subject to such outrageous behaviour from individuals known to behave dangerously ?

One particular concern raised at the NAHT conference was the matter of targets for reducing the number of permanent exclusions from schools.  Social inclusion seems to be the political flavour of the month and if a symptom of trouble, a trouble that is seen as social exclusion from schools, can be reduced in size, I suppose people might believe that the causes have been similarly reduced, thanks to those in charge, the politicians.  One problem with this for schools is that the extent to which pupils behave so badly that their presence can no longer be tolerated, cannot be related  to statistical targets.  The other problem is that schools deal with real flesh and blood entities and whether they behave badly in droves, or in ones or twos, that is what a school has to deal with.  To tell a headteacher that the school has already used its notional allowance of permanent exclusions is utter nonsense, but this is what is happening.

When a headteacher has to consider imposing a permanent exclusion the needs and interests of the particular pupil are brought most forcibly to his attention by governors, colleagues, the pupil’s parents, the local authority and other interest groups whose help might have been engaged by the parents.  The need to protect the identity and interests of this pupil will mean that the parents of other pupils are unlikely to know anything at all of the matter.  Yet to them a headteacher owes a particular duty of care, legally he is in loco parentis, and any interested parent has a right to know that a son or daughter is not at the mercy of bullies, thieves or persistently disruptive peers.  Headteachers have very little time to consider this aspect of bad behaviour and yet it should be paramount where parents are, in effect, obliged to entrust their children to the headteacher and staff of a school and are not privy to information about the company their children may be forced to keep.

Parents could however do much to help headteachers, by seeking assurances that their children will never be forced to sit near, or be left alone with another child known to have been violent towards other children or adults, or known to be a regular disrupter of classes.  Where such assurances cannot be given, headteachers should welcome parental anxieties as a welcome bulwark against those who might object when the interests of those most vulnearable are put first.

Parents should also remember the arrogance of some of those whom they elect into postions of power, for politicians’ children are saved from such things – the Blair children were socially excluded when they lived with their parents in Hackney and not so very long ago Shirley Williams, then a Labour secretary of state for education, sent her daughter to an independent school while she was closing grammar schools which had been provided for other people’s children.

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