Work ethics

Work ethics – Ex-headteacher Peter Inson asks whether in fact compulsory schooling is socially excluding some youngsters.

The Guardian
November 15th 2006

Charlie, 15, is a serial truant who prefers employment to the classroom. Ex-headteacher Peter Inson asks whether compulsory schooling is socially excluding some youngsters

I’ve dealt with a few naughty boys in my time, remonstrated with them, raised hell with their parents sometimes and, occasionally, had to exclude them. But Charlie is unlike any of them. He is a determined 15-year-old truant, and he has worked – illegally, but with huge success – for a landscape gardening business for over a year.

It’s Friday, and Charlie had just finished a week’s work. He looks me straight in the eye, smiles a shy smile, and accepts a proffered hand as we sit down and talk about the school from which he seems to have escaped, and from which, over the last two years, he has been excluded on about 13 occasions – sometimes for a week, sometimes longer.

He talks about walking out of school to visit the shops, bringing alcohol into school, and bunking off lessons. He admits that he got into rows with teachers and disrupted classes. In class, he talked persistently because he was bored, and sometimes he turned on other pupils when they told him to shut up. He admits striking some of them, but claims that no one was hurt.

It is not difficult to imagine him driving teachers to distraction, blundering head on against any sense of progression or purpose. He would try the patience of the most saintly of teachers, and he is not someone I would have wanted in my class. Yet he is so unlike many of the troublemakers with whom I’ve crossed swords.

The school’s governors amused Charlie with their earnest concern that he should not misbehave again. He laughs as he recalls some of their words: “You’ve got to go to school – otherwise your parents will have to go to prison.”

He explains that the governors had not punished him – exclusion was really the granting of his freedom when, initially, he had expected to be punished for what he freely acknowledges was wrong-doing. Had they detained him after school, he would have accepted that. He just could not see why they didn’t understand his viewpoint, and would not accept his resentment at being expected to attend school for no good reason he could see.

Charlie assures me that none of the teachers had ever done anything to help him or to counsel him. He insists that they bored and frustrated him and reacted to him adversely, sometimes with scarcely veiled ill-temper. He did, however, learn one thorough lesson: that his misbehaviour enabled him to escape, and that to return to school would be a waste of his own time and that of other pupils whose work he would disrupt.

In escaping, he showed resourcefulness. He took himself to the school’s careers office and pretended to be older than he was. He was given access to a computer on which there was a list of work experience jobs, meant for older pupils. He found details of a prospective employer and went to see him, with his parents. The school contacted the employer asking him to give Charlie work experience for three days a week. It became four days a week, and is now virtually full-time.

There is a widespread assumption that children who do not attend school are socially excluded. But there is another view: that such children simply include themselves in the parts of society that they wish to join, or are likely to join. If these parts of society involve worthy endeavour and constructive activity, is this not social inclusion and is it not much better than wasting the time and energy of teachers and young people who do want to be at school?

Lone figure

Current discussion of social inclusion suggests that attendance at school is the only way of ensuring that children are socially included. What then of the lone figure, withdrawn from classes because he or she resents being in school? Surely such a child is as excluded as much, for example, as a child neglected by parents or carers?

Prisons and schools are the only institutions where people are incarcerated against their wishes – one, supposedly, excluding, and the other including. State schools are the places where children have to be included, unless parents have the means to educate their children privately.Both systems have their justifications for holding their inmates – prisoners to be reformed and separated from others whom they might harm, and children to be educated.

When compulsory education was first discussed in the 19th century, there was much concern about the infringement of parents’ rights. TH Green, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, solved this conundrum by claiming that compulsion would be a justifiable intrusion, necessary for only one generation of children. Parents who had themselves been to school would naturally come to appreciate education and desire education for their children. Several generations on, we still await that happy dawn.

More prosaically, headteachers, who invite the trust of parents, face two questions. First, how can they protect a child from untoward influences, threats and aggression when they are under pressure not to exclude difficult children? (Can worthwhile assurances be given? Without them, how can they expect parents to send their children?) Second, how can headteachers justify their roles in such a coercive system unless they are reasonably sure that what they can provide is better, for each child, than any reasonable alternatives?

What is it about real jobs that young people enjoy? A sense of shared purpose is there, of getting real things done in the “real” world, the world from which they see themselves as excluded. Crucially, they enjoy being treated as adults by adults, and it is very easy for them to see teachers as quasi adults whose hold over them is neither dependence nor trust, but compulsion and coercion.

It is heady stuff, the adult world. At Charlie’s age, I was getting up at 5am to milk a herd of cows before going to school, and I remember well a sense of worth, of importance, because adults away from home and school trusted me and relied on me. And it is not only the technical aspects of the work that have to be learned, there are personal attributes to develop, attention to the safety of others, encouraging others, consideration for them, keeping others informed, taking a share in the less pleasant aspects of a job, and being reliable. This is the necessary discipline of the workplace, and, most importantly for young people, is essential for a stable, purposeful routine, and for keeping a job.

In school, the Charlies of this world are prisoners of war, held against their will, often encouraged by peers when they frustrate the common enemy.

Charlie is fortunate. He has grown beyond ill-temper and is beginning to understand adult imperfection. What he can’t understand is that, although he is regarded as an undesirable in school, and has a worthwhile job to go to and is not in trouble outside school, he is not allowed to leave. He certainly has no desire to trouble teachers. Is he not reasonable, intelligent, mature?

At one school where I taught it used to be easier to accommodate the likes of Charlie when seasonal work on farms, or agricultural shows, resulted in empty desks. For the individuals, this was clearly preparation for the world of work and, by turning a blind eye, the school kept a sort of faith with parents. But for town-based youngsters this sort of understanding was not possible. And now, with attendance targets and policies of “social inclusion”, it is virtually impossible.

So we must ask again: why, if 14-year-olds are capable of getting jobs, should they be excluded from employment, so long as a return to education is encouraged whenever they are ready to start again?

The law does not require attendance at school; it requires parents to ensure a suitable education. If the parents of a 14-year-old can find him or her a job, and are convinced that this is a better option than school, why should they not take this route? Its chances of success are surely much greater than enforced attendance at school.

For legal reasons, I cannot check Charlie’s story with his school, but Charlie’s experience there has resulted in his dismissing it completely as worthless. He has a positive attitude to life and has worthy interests, including a pet shire horse about which he can talk knowledgeably. So much more terrible, then, is this failure on the part of a society that tries to exclude him from places where he is appreciated, useful and happy. How will he view schools should he ever become a parent?

Those who would intervene now in the lives of children such as Charlie should ask themselves what they want to achieve. They should remember the cost of keeping children in care – about £100,000 a year. They should remember too the cost in ruined lives – the increased likelihood of teenage parenthood, failure at school, unemployment and prison. This is where truants may well find themselves.

Contempt and ill-will

Charlie has found for himself a job in which he has learned to make himself useful, to be reliable, to work in a team, to get on with his workmates, to learn new skills, and to apply them. He appreciates that he might need further training as he progresses and is willing to learn things that are relevant and helpful. All this despite the contempt of those who, supposedly, were there to help him in school.

That’s not bad for a “difficult” 15-year-old who has circumvented exclusion – exclusion from the world of work, the adult world. He should be praised, and parents like his, who are prepared to take responsibility for their children, should be encouraged to challenge the state’s attempts to monopolise education.

Comments on this article:

Very good article, and yet another that indicates the “one size fits all” madness of comprehensive education has failed.

· Perhaps like a lot of people of a certain age I can empathise with Charlie. I too had no idea why I was kept in school, truanted and started to develop a criminal career of petty theft. I eventually escaped school with pathetic qualifications (do CSEs count anymore, anywhere) and nil careers advice since girls from my school didn’t have careers  they just got pregnant! Actually after 2 years in the workplace and some pretty crappy clerical work I returned to study with a very clear idea of where I wanted to be. I don’t have a career as such now; I work as a reasonably well paid PA to support my study habit. I enjoy gaining knowledge for the sake of it in subjects that interest me, not as laid down by a government curriculum. I took a civil engineering course in 1984 using applied mathematics for vocational purposes certainly put it in context that school never managed. Yes I had good school teachers, and we had bad ones too, but it’s in the world of work that young adults learn real everyday social skills with, dare I say it, their elders and betters, not in school participating in pack mentality cliques.

· Teachers are often painted, in these situations, as the enemy, keeping children in school against their will. Yet our hands are tied as much as anyone’s. Ask any secondary school teacher if they know children who would be better off at work at 14 and they will be able to rattle off half a dozen names of surly, disaffected teenagers who disrupt classes and make lives of teachers and children alike a misery, yet could be doing something productive elsewhere. This is a frustration all round; for teachers who have to coax and cajole coursework out of uninterested students who are unlikely to achieve the magic C grade, and for those youngsters who are just counting down until they can leave. It is for this reason the idea of forcing students to stay at school until 18 appals me. For the last two years, I taught a boy who often chatted to me amiably about the school site, telling me of his buying and selling online and the things he was interested in. The second the bell went and I had to make him sit down and work, he turned into an obstinate annoyance who spoilt lots of lessons and was very difficult to teach. He failed his GCSEs, yet when I saw him outside school once he had left he bore no ill-will and chattered away happily about job and the benefits working had brought him. If only he could have been allowed to do that at 14!

· Excellent article indeed. Our whole attitude to education must change radically to fit in with the needs of modern society and its citizens. I personally know of many people who dropped out of education as soon as they could only to return to obtain university diplomas (and one even as a single mother). People mature at different rates in different ways and must be granted access to academic or formal education when they are most likely to gain from it, not when it suits someone’s targets for achievements. The value of practical training is grossly underestimated and must also be an option open to all, and certainly not presented as a second class option. Sadly we have been going in the opposite direction under brainless Blair, and clueless Cameron offers little hope…

· I know a school where a number of boys like Charlie work 2 or 3 days a week in an agreed way (one on a farm another with a carpet fitter)and attend a School the rest of the time. It suits them and the school and makes sense. I believe they will get a qualification based on the work they do. So the current system allows such flexibility – and it seems to work.

I agree with many of the other posters. Some children have no interest in the academic and would be better suited to the practical. I would also add that there has tended to be an element of snobbery towards vocational courses.

Other nations recognised early on the importance of vocational training, notably Germany, and their economies prospered, in part, because of it. In the UK there was resistance by universities to establishing faculties like engineering, and when they did there were often inadequate. This explains why the government needed to establish polytechnics, which though not entirely perfect, was at least a start.

Yet we have gone full circle as many of these polytechnics have been converted into universities and have focused on the academic in place of the vocational.
In light of this, the government’s target of 50% of young people going to university is the wrong way to deal with this, nor will it make up the skills shortfall.

· Good article, and the prison / school comparison is a telling one. Schools should stick to broad academic activity. Vocational activity should take place outside school, or schools should adapt to include real purposeful projects and enterprises within their curriculum. I gave up on school at 13, truanted etc, because it seemed madness to me to sit in rooms with 30 other kids all facing the front, while a man in tweed droned on to us. It is even more mad today. It is not an enjoyable or dynamic way to learn things, and never was very effective for huge numbers of under-16s; it is a nineteenth century model, and probably the only reason for schools to continue like this is health and safety – the child minding model. A kid with a computer in their room can fill up with information, fact and opinion just as effectively as in school, so the whole point of school should be to improve and develop the social, moral and communication skills of children, rather than laboriously testing them. Ask any GCSE examiner how their marking of papers (and hence their power over the life chances of examinees) relates to the growth of a young person. Charlie sounds a damn good egg.

· The article makes a lot of sense – but …. the one thing that isn’t really taken into account is the danger of exploitation: those parents who want or need their child to be out working, sometimes in the family business, sometimes not, and bringing in some kind of income. The current system protects those children from exploitation and offers them the opportunity to get an education. That is what the current compulsion achieves – or is supposed to achieve.

That doesn’t answer the criticisms made in the article though – and surely the way forward, as is sort of suggested, is for a more sensible approach to assessing the type of education that the parents are providing in place of school. Often jobs will require a degree of numeracy (even if it’s only working out your wages) and a degree of literacy – and often that may be more than is going to be achieved in the unwanted environment of the school.
· This is a useful expose of this governments near-fanatical pursuit of targets; in this case the hysterical headlines we see each year as more academic ‘records’ are broken. The drive is relentlessly to get more robots sitting, and passing, exams and going on to ‘university’, whether or not there are enough suitably remunerating jobs at the end of it to justify the expense.

And for those kids that aren’t academically inclined, there’s an almost negligible programme of investment in vocational training and qualification which would be far more use to them. The problem they have is that they don’t make such sexy league tables to publish in the TES every year. It’s criminally wasteful.

My best mate is one I’ve known since secondary school. He wasn’t interested while he was there, wasn’t disruptive or anything but left as soon as he could with no qualifications. I don’t know if he’s a millionaire now, he doesn’t know himself, but he’s had a stellar career in senior management in the media industry and he’s now running his own recording studio. I was the bright one who sat A levels, and teachers thought he was a numpty!

· As someone who benefited from vocational education, and an apprenticeship training. My observation is that yes we need to re-open up the doors to not just vocational training but also to the very specific educational and intellectual skills that are a part of these parcel of vocational education.

I certainly agree that we need to break the belief that ‘vocational’ education is in anyway inferior to ‘academic’ education, above all else craft skills are a hugely under appreciated discipline of the mind and hand. But we also need to ensure that the doors to educational advancement via a vocational route are open.

The corollary argument to the Peter Inson’s comment is that providing a child with a course of study which captivates his/her interest and imagination will inevitably bring about a need for challenge, advancement and importantly recognition.

I would also comment that vocational does not exclude excellence, indeed excellence is patently obvious by is presence or absence in vocational practice.
But to achieve excellence we need to require excellence.

That is has never been an easy path for vocational students, but more so it is a bigger challenge to the educationalists who need to make the jump from the accepted excellence of academic study, to the forgotten excellence of vocational study and vocational practice. Are there even people around who can teach these skills?

One thing is for sure, vocational training cannot be allowed to remain the repository of the failed academic. Vocational education offers a huge opportunity, not just to provide us with mechanics and plumbers but to open up excellence to many for whom it is denied.

It must be and understand that excellence in any field of education or training has its own merit and merit must be the key to opportunity.

That, sadly and despite the denial, is a failing of British class ridden society.

· Definitely an interesting article. I agree that one-size certainly odes not fit all. However AllyF odes raise a good point – how do you make sure that children don’t leave school early then regret it later. As Hypolyta’s experience shows it is generally only later in life that the value of education becomes evident.

Certainly I think vocational training is much over-looked in the current system, and should be encouraged – not just as an alternative for a few pupils, but as a good counter-point to academic training for all pupils. However I think that we should also make it easier for people to return to education after 16. E.g. by increasing the number of night-classes available for GCSE and A-levels, and making these free, at least up to the age of 30, if not older.

Freepoland, you write: “A kid with a computer in their room can fill up with information, fact and opinion just as effectively as in school, so the whole point of school should be to improve and develop the social, moral and communication skills of children, rather than laboriously testing them.”

However much information and opinion available on the web is just plain wrong. I recall that my lessons in GCSE History were principally about how to use source materials and understand their uses and limitations. These kind of skills are very difficult to teach purely by textbook/computer alone.

· There must be lots of kids who know what they are going to do when they leave school. Work for their Dad or Uncle perhaps in the building trade.It is crazy to keep these kids at school for another year until 16 when they could begin to learn their trade and give them a purpose in life.If they have to get up in the morning for work they will not be hanging around the streets half the night.

· All very nice, but Charlie surely is quite a rare case. Why was compulsory education until 16 introduced in the first place, almost universally? Because it is/was generally thought to be the age at which children are responsible enough to make decisions for themselves that will affect the whole course of their life.

It’s all very well slagging off one size fits all policies, but can someone suggest a practical way of deciding who gets to go off and work in a garden centre and who gets to go and bury themselves in books at school? Yes, there is so so so much wrong with our education system — too many compulsory options, not enough vocational ones, not enough work experience, starting too early an age, ridiculous targets that make real learning almost impossible, an obsession with university enrolments that churns out micky mouse degrees but a very low-skilled workforce, a curriculum more suited to Victorian times, and a paperwork load that has almost crushed one dedicated teacher I know.

But what is the alternative to it being compulsory until 16? Allowing kids who cant be arsed with school to choose to go and make a living on their wits? Allowing strapped parents to push their kids into a Dickensian adolescence at work?

· But what is the alternative to it being compulsory until 16? If you have to corral them so that they are not exploited by others, then make special facilities for those who don’t wish to be educated and make attendance at those compulsory. They’ll hate it a bit less than school and the ones who choose to be educated will not have to put up with the disruption.

· Very good article. Pity that the people in charge do not see the sense of this.
There are upwards of 50,000 parents who have chosen not to delegate the responsibility for their children’s education to schools. Every day, we prove that children can be educated without being cooped up in day-prison for 30 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, for 11 years. As Peter Inson says, school is not compulsory – education is. Home-educated children are to be found in all areas of life choosing their own way through. Some teenagers are taking an Open University course, writing computer games, running their own business, making records, shooting films. Occasionally they do GCSEs or A-levels, if they feel that those exams will be useful to the achievement of their objectives.

domo says: >can someone suggest a practical way of deciding who gets >to go off and work in a garden centre and who gets to go >and bury themselves in books at school?
Why not let the young people choose themselves? No-one else decides “who gets to go off and work in a supermarket and who gets to go and bury themselves in books at university”.

If school needs to be compulsory to prevent a small minority of children being exploited by being sent to work, why is attendance at a soup kitchen or a communal dormitory not also compulsory?