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Can we save the underclass?

David Nicholson wants low achievers to be helped, but not at the expense of other pupils

Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector, has warned that "an increasing number of young people find school education to be an uncomfortable learning environment . . . Young people can often be disaffected from school rather than from learning." My belief is that disaffection exists in all comprehensive schools, although perhaps more obviously so in those serving urban areas. Primary colleagues will also, I suspect, recognise the trait, though habits and characteristics may be less well developed in that sector. They cannot be characterised by attendance patterns alone, though their attendance is often well below average. But while some are virtually "school refusers", others come and go, nominally members of the 80 per cent or four-day week club, even if not always staying for the whole day. Some, however, are regular attenders and rarely miss a day or a class.

Nor do they conform to a single pattern of behaviour. It is true that they are responsible for the bulk of disruption to lessons and for most incidents of petty vandalism and general flouting of school rules. But not all behave in such ways. Some are content to drift silently through each day, engaging with teachers and the work of the class as little as possible and avoiding attention being drawn to them at any time. In this last they are usually unsuccessful: never having a pencil, without the book or worksheet necessary for the class and with homework uncompleted or "forgotten", they are doomed to the teacher's notice.

Such matters as these in all schools will lead to parents being contacted. But all too often there is no response from parents. Letters are unanswered, telephone calls unreturned. Even where there is a parental response the reality which the school is often compelled to face is that the problems at home are even greater than in school and the parent is unable, sometimes unwilling, to exercise the control and direction over the child's life which the school seeks.

These pupils can be spotted clearly in the SCE data published annually by the Scottish Office. They are the ones not included in the statistic for the percentage of fourth-years attaining five or more Standard grades at bands 1-6. They are there, too, in the figures for no awards. Some will have failed to complete the essential internal elements of courses, more will simply not have turned up in May for the examination. And it is from this group, or that portion of it which is condemned to the category of "S5 Christmas leavers", that the fifth-year "ghosts" will come: those who have to remain on the roll from August to Christmas but who never set foot within the school.

Every teacher will have recognised by now the young people being described and will recognise the feelings of frustration generated by them. Governments may set national targets and education authorities may commit themselves to strategic policies for raising attainment but to the teachers charged with meeting the needs of these pupils and increasingly held accountable for their underperformance such formal official statements offer no immediate practical help and work in the main not to encourage and support but to undermine morale and imply professional inadequacy. Yet it is with this very group of young people that there must be intervention if standards are to be raised and the current waste of potential brought to an end. The hard question is how this is to be done.

HMI has in its publications on individual schools and in general summaries on standards within schools identified areas of comparative weakness and has offered How Good Is Our School as a constructive tool to assist in the tasks of self-evaluation and self-improvement. This has been generally welcomed but I suspect that in a few short sessions we will hear from HMI - as we have already been hearing in secondary schools in respect of our failure to advance 5-14 and national testing - charges that schools have failed to implement the performance indicators adequately. If this proves to be so I believe that the reason will be found in the conviction of teachers that neither curriculum change nor professional review of this kind offers a solution to their most pressing concerns. And these are concerns over the pupils I have already described.

The numbers will, of course, vary from school to school as will the proportion of the school population they constitute. But in some schools this is a significant percentage of the population and in all schools the difficulties and challenges they present are out of proportion to their numbers and they have a profound dislocating effect on the progression of teaching and the learning of the entire pupil group. They not only fail to achieve themselves but depress levels of attainment within the class groups of which they are members.

It is not realistic just to ask the current teaching force to do more or to expect staff development, new courses or new methodology to provide the answer. The problem is more, much more, than a school matter and within present resources all that the best teachers are able to do is to contain these pupils and seek to minimise their effect on the learning of others. This is a difficult task and it has been a thankless one.

It is time that there was public recognition for what our teachers have achieved. Yes, there is pupil underachievement, at times very significant levels of underachievement. For the reason that schools have managed to contain many of the disaffected within the system and offer some exposure to education there has been a price paid by other pupils who have had to share their classrooms: they have attained less than they might otherwise have done.

But against the odds some of the disaffected group do attain some qualifications, however modest, and some do go on to find a sense of direction. A school system less tolerant of this difficult group of pupils and of the baggage they carry with them could produce quickly improved attainment among the remainder of its population but at a social cost which I for one am reluctant to contemplate.

This is the reality which has to be addressed by all of the current policy initiatives to set targets and raise standards. The disaffection which all can recognise does not simply stem from the school experience of S1 and S2 and changes to that experience will not of themselves provide a remedy. We have a generation of children in our classrooms many of whose parents have not found their experience of formal education offering either access to regular or steady employment or providing a basis for an enriching social and family life.

When people have lived through years when the nation's leader have rejected the concept of society and the shared responsibilities implied in it there should be no surprise that confidence is lacking in that central social institution, the school, and that the offspring of Thatcher's children themselves display increasing disaffection with regard to it.

David Nicholson is headteacher of Victoria Drive Secondary, Glasgow.

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