Educating Yorkshire episode7: The needs of the one.

18th October 2013 at 18:13



When James Cameron was trying to tell the story of the Titanic, with its huge brush strokes of ocean, iceberg and hubris, he used a love story. Educating Yorkshire does what every author from Moses to Wagner has done, and tells universal stories using human lives as typewriter ribbon. This week we looked at the strange, tragic tension that lies at the heart of the school mission: are we a community or a collection? Are we a village or are we simply next to each other? This dichotomy dominates political philosophy, and the teacher's every day. Do we act for the greater good? For the greatest good of the greatest number? Or are the rights of everyone sacred? I know what Kant would say, and I know what JS Mill would say, but I don't know what I'd say to them.


I know what Jack would say, this week's star turn. He'd probably say, 'This is bullsh##, man,' punch a locker and bowl out of school with a teacher loping after him saying, 'Actually you can't leave,' while Jack proved them wrong with every leaden step. Jack was a boy with Traveller roots (the moment where he described how his family had burned his recently deceased Grandad's caravan in Traveller tradition was a touching travelogue into a secret nation), a history of changing schools, and a bag of chips on both shoulders. Jack was blessed with broad shoulders and the hair-trigger temper of a mousetrap. Of course, other kids find it irresistible to take the cheese, and kids like Jack spend a lifetime proving how hard they can spring. He could, it has to be said, rattle his own cheese pretty well, finding malice in people 'looking at him', which is the eternal retrospective self-justification of hard men and head cases everywhere.


But he's not without insight. Asked what he thought it would be like to teach him, he answered, 'I'd hate it. I'd have throttled me.' I'm not even sure it's possible to throttle yourself, but no doubt he'd have a good stab at it. 'I wouldn't let me into the class.' And isn't it funny that- tired nods to student voice aside- kids often know exactly what teachers need to do about bad behaviour? I've lost count of the times kids have asked me- innocently, with genuine interest- why we don't deal with kids enough when they muck around. Ask most kids what we should do, and they'd say, 'Send them out, call home, give them a detention.' Instead we mutter something about inclusion and wonder if the world's gone mad.


Inclusion's a funny thing. It's still relatively new in teaching- the idea that we should try to keep kids in classes, not throw them out. It was originally designed to describe kids with disabilities; after all, why shouldn't schools make reasonable accommodations to make sure all children feel part of the school community? But mission creep extended its range beyond sense, and it became dogma that no child should be removed from mainstream, almost no matter how badly they behaved. It was one of the worst pieces of ideology to harrow the classroom, and when I joined the profession in 2004, even I could see what madness it had led to: kids telling teachers to f$$k off, but contained in classrooms like diving bells so that they could be socialised, magically, by the class community. In reality, it condemned teachers to Hell, and ruined the education for generations of school children.


Which isn't to say that these kids should be sent up chimneys or down sink holes, but that special environments should exist for children who put themselves beyond the reach of mainstream strategies of education, also withered on the limb. Kids like Jack need small scale, calm, one-to-one provision, as badly as oxygen, something that was proved by his spell in the internal exclusion unit at school, from which he returned a calm king of his own Kingdom. But if schools don't have anywhere safe and supportive for these kids to go to, then simply kettling them in a room for a few days is meaningless. Inclusion at all costs isn't just brainless, it's heartless. Intelligent exclusion, set with compassion and the real interests of the child, is what they need, not just what teachers want. And when more schools realise that rigour and compassion aren't mutually exclusive, we'll see achievement shoot up everywhere. Until then, inclusion will be a ***'s shibboleth where desperate children are shovelled back in classrooms and under the carpet.


The Head, Mr Mitchell, made a good case for inclusion on this basis. He said that if he could, he would spend even more money on it, and he's absolutely right. A good inclusion/ exclusion unit is a fruit machine that pays out every time you feed it properly.


On another note, it was interesting to see how a boy like Jack could be a ticking time bomb to his peers and most teachers, but when he chose to be better- eg in History- he was better than just good. This tells us many things. Firstly, it tells us that good behaviour is, for all but the most damaged children, a matter of choice. Jack was calm and keen when he wanted to be, something I've seen with countless 'unteachable' children, most of whom were excused in some way by well- meaning mentors as being 'helpless to stop themselves.' For most kids that just isn't true. Children will act as they please until someone helps them to stop. I've seem too many kids turn from devils to angels in a heartbeat from one lesson to the next to see them as anything other than vessels of their own destiny.


Secondly, it shows that most kids can be reached. Jack's passion was history, and unsurprisingly he knew a bit about it. It was probably the thing that made him feel good, that he wasn't a failure. And any teacher can do that, with even the bluntest of blades, with careful praise and measured steps. But that motivation wasn't reflected in the school predictions: he was floated to hit an E were he to pursue it, and the school were, rightly, hesitant to enter him for a subject where he might not achieve anything portable or valuable, like a C+. And I'm glad to say that the school ignored the Satanic determinism of the predicted grade and gave the kid what he needed, which was a chance. Predicted grades generated by algorithms make my temples throb. At some point in the last decade, we castrated our professional judgement and handed our balls to the Gods of Data. Children became points on a scatter graph, and professional instinct was supplanted by the mystical probability fields of chance.


To Hell with it, and to Hell with them. Jack wasn't a dot on a graph, and he wasn't a predicted E. He was a boy who loved History, and if his teacher even believed in him for a heartbeat, then he should have been given a place at the table, however humble. Because people change, and children grow, and no human should be captive to the reductivist hopelessness of Destiny. All of the kids I teach are possible A* students, and that's the target I set myself, if not them. And if they don't achieve it, then I don't shrink with misery and plead failure; I raise a glass to fortune and try again with the next kid, and the next, until they wheel us into the Last Staffroom.




Other highlights:


  • The solemn meeting where senior staff agreed that Jack was on his last legs at the school, especially after his comment that he was going to shove a traffic cone up some unlucky junior's ass. 'I thought he said a pine cone, but that didn't make sense,' said one SLT. Clearly they have a very specific list of tariffs for sanctions.
  • The fabulous Mrs Marsden, Head of Year. She's been a beating heart of this series, and no doubt the school. You could fall into the depths of her compassion and drown, although from the sounds of it, the kids and staff came to her room for the sweets as much as the hugs. 'And the occasional tea bag,' as Mr Burton put it, alluding to moments over which it might be best to draw a veil.