Billy and the Lion King

Sean McPartlin

Now that the mass media have rediscovered education and its methodology, I've been reading my papers and watching the news with one of my second-year pupils very much in mind. It was always clear that Billy was going to have problems in secondary. He gets bored, often withdraws into himself and frequently refuses to do any work.

This is not surprising, as Billy's reading and writing skills are minimal. For all of his first year with us, he, and his parents, refused to accept learning support, or to acknowledge there was a problem. Frustrated teachers were left to cope with a 12-year-old for whom school was a grey, meaningless nothing. No wonder he wandered the corridors, desperate to minimise class contact time; a lot of his teachers felt like doing the same.

Despite this there was a feeling that something could be done if only Billy could bring himself to accept help. The few months he'd spent at a special reading unit while in primary had been extremely effective, and progress had been made.

We offered him a place in our Wednesday Group, and "the lads" enthused to him about their placements at the local youth strategy centre. Eventually Billy said he'd like to have a look at it. The upshot was that he convinced himself, and his parents, that a referral would be a good idea. Now he attends two days a week and is making use of extended learning support in school.

He has become more confident; he leads conversation and smiles a lot. He writes that his biggest ambition is "to be able to read and write better", and, though we're not talking miracles here, Billy has suggested hidden depths on more than one occasion.

We were nearing the end of the groupwork sessions one week. Against the rules, my colleague and I had been banging away at another pupil, trying everything to get him to agree that he should face up to problems, instead of pretending they didn't exist. I could see Billy getting agitated. He'd been remarkably patient, but he had to be getting bored with our lack of attention. At that, he broke in: "Davie! Can you not see? It's like the Lion King!" Bemused looks all round.

"The Lion King, ken? When Simba realises he has to go back to the kingdom and take over for his father; that he cannae keep running away all the time. "

Result: perfect understanding for David, and a success for Billy in seconds, where the teachers had laboured in vain for 15 minutes. It was the same again last week. "Push your fringe out of your eyes, Billy," said my colleague. "I can't see your eyes. You can tell a lot about people by looking in their eyes."

With a wee smile came the reply from the boy who had been the non-communicator of the year: "Why do you think I've got a fringe, Miss?" These glimpses of insight were reminders that Billy, like every pupil, is truly of mixed ability, with strengths and weaknesses, skills and disabilities. You would really need as many streams as pupils, if you were going to do that particular job properly. Or maybe it's like the parent remarked, after I'd painfully explained the meaning of "mixed-ability" teaching: "Oh," she said. "The pupils. I thought you meant the teachers."

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