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Can we ever make a difference?

EDUCATION history is doomed to repeat itself, first at local level and then as a government initiative. Anyone who has been around in the business long enough gets that feeling of deja vu too often.

It hit me again when I read that front-page story: "1,000 sin bins to curb the unruly". This time round it was central Government which was planning to invest pound;47 million in learning support units for violent and disruptive pupils. Education Secretary David Blunkett was declaring zero tolerance on bullying, threatening behaviour, anarchy and lawlesness, he assured a receptive National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers conference. There it all was: new money; new initiative - but an old idea.

"At the 1974 conference of the Association of Assistant Mistresses a motion was passed asking that sanctuary units with extra staff should be set up for disturbed children who upset their teachers and terrified their classmates. A delegate labelled them 'sin bins'." That was how I began my report two years later on the units which were springing up as local initiatives.

At that stage there was no direct control, advice, monitoring or even much interest from the Department for Education and Science. No one knew how many schools were running their own withdrawal units, and the education authorities mostly set them up as experiments, but the one thing which was clear was that there were plenty of candidates.

"Are children really worse behaved than they used to be?" we asked then. "Do the reasons have anything to do with schools or more with society and their homes? Should the schools make more effort to contain them or would the children be better off in a separate unit?"

I visited units in Bristol, Gateshead, Reading and inner London and there wasn't much doubt that the children were better off in them. I didn't encounter a single child whose disturbed behaviour was not linked to breakdown, inadequacy or idifference somewhere in the family background. The object was to provide short-term support for the individual, as well as respite for their former classmates; to offer an alternative to permanent exclusion; to give time for reassessment and for bruises to heal after a crisis. What seemed to help most was the personal care and attention, compared to the casual anonymity of a large comprehensive.

Further down the line, the aim was to pick up on education and return children to normal schooling, just as it is with the latest initiative, though that was the least successful part of the operation then. Some of the units were run by social workers who believed that education was the problem, rather than the solution, and with most of them it was rare for a 15-year-old to return to full-time schooling, though they might be better adjusted for a return to life. "We don't just help kids to fit into the system. We help them to recover."

That wave of units mostly disappeared, not because they had failed or succeeded, but because LEA funding dried up during the years of Conservative government, or because the authorities themselves ceased to exist - the Inner London Education Authority had run 10 educational guidance units and offered schools money to run their own. We all know now what the penalty was for that sort of therapeutic spending.

And so time and politics moved on, towards eventual reinvention. The objectives now are much the same and maybe there is more chance of long-term success with stronger central direction, cash and appraisal - so long as it is not too heavy-handed. But the really depressing parallel is that the violence and disruption which were believed to mirror society and parental failure 20-odd years ago can so easily be attributed to the same factors several governments later. Will education, or even social inclusion ever make a difference?

Patricia Rowan is a former editor of 'The TES'

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