Alienated in a class apart

A teacher who cut his toenails in front of the class underlined his disrespect for them, an ex-offender told researchers in their background study on socially excluded groups that is contributing to the Scottish Parliament's inquiry into the purposes of education.

Schools' focus on academic achievement, teachers' interest in the high-fliers and their neglect of key life and vocational skills helped to alienate many young people struggling with personal and domestic difficulties, the team from the Scottish Council for Research in Education report in their findings to the Parliament's education, culture and sport committee.

Young unemployed men, semi-skilled workers and young mothers told the focus group study that they were alienated by teachers' attitudes to the less able or those simply struggling to survive.

Three women in their mid to late 30s recalled being publicly humiliated and laughed at by teachers because of their difficulties. "One even recalled being made to sit in a corner wearing a dunce's hat. Everyone in the group (including the facilitators) gasped in disbelief. However, it was clear that this was no metaphorical dunce's hat," the SCRE researchers report.

Another ex-offender, aged 32, who had been written off at an early age only found out he was dyslexic once he was in a young offenders' institution.

The SCRE team says: "For those without academic leanings, life had very definitely been elsewhere. Many looked back with fond regret at the 'carrying on', and the going out that had been at the forefront of their lives between the ages of 12 and 16. Some reported that they had spent much of their time sniffing glue, drinking, or 'terrorising' people (usually other children, but sometimes their teachers).

"Others had to cope with difficult family circumstances - like coming home from school to find that 'your ma's out and your dad's lying drunk on the couch'."

Yet despite the negativity about their own schooling, groups on the margin believe schools have improved and recognise education's role in self-improvement. Many have aspirations for their own children and most believe education can still deliver. "Many respondents thought that Scottish education had indeed become more flexible and inclusive in recent years. However, the objective evidence for these claims was fairly slight," the SCRE researchers state.

Interviews with younger men, not long out of school, were less supportive and one recalled "being made to feel dead wee in there" while others objected to being "given a ragging" in class.

The groups told the team that the continued focus on academic achievement leads to young people leaving school with poor life skills. They are ill-prepared for work and would benefit from learning about timekeeping and presentation.

The groups believe one of the purposes of education is to prepare people for working life by developing their self-confidence and giving them "the chance to shine".

The report concludes that "minor adjustments of curricular content are unlikely to have a profound impact on the educational experiences of (our) most alienated young people. Indeed it is questionable whether a system that is largely self-referential and focused on academic achievement can provide young people with the innate self-belief and confidence that they will require to meet the demands of a rapidly-changing world."

The study interviewed 77 people, including single mothers in deprived urban areas, young unemployed men, disabled people, those in ethnic minority groups, low-skilled workers and older people.

"Inquiry into the Purposes of Scottish Education: Final report of the findings from the focus group consultation" is by Anne Pirrie, Kevin Lowden and Valerie Wilson

What makes a good teacher?

The groups recognised that teachers were under pressure to deliver results and expected to cope with changes in pupils' behaviour that were perceived to be the result of wider social changes. At the same time, some groups thought teachers were doing themselves a disservice by dressing inappropriately and behaving too informally. "You should have seen the way she was dressed. You'd have thought she was going up to a club in the town," said one woman.

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