Did teaching steal my soul?

John Roberts

Time changes everything, including a teacher's priorities. Former head John Roberts,right, explains how he dealt with two exclusions, 25 years apart

I recently retired after 18 years as head of a large comprehensive. I'd been teaching for an unbroken 38 years and, given the chance, would do it all again. But did becoming a head cost me my soul? What happened to me in the 20 years between my becoming a teacher and my being promoted to head? Did I grow up and mature a bit? Did I betray important principles? Did I follow the well-trodden, predictable path from radical to conservative? Or is it about the shift in perspectives required and allowed by changing roles in a school? Have the educational structures and policies changed so much that they demand different responses? Is is society that has changed, or is it me?

2002: Oakbank school, Keighley, West Yorkshire "They're here to see you now, Mr Roberts," the school secretary phones from reception.

I wait at the door of my room, watching as they ascend the curving, dark oak staircase. Jim comes first, stepping sprightly and spruce in proper uniform for once. His mother comes more slowly, holding the banister. Her face is pallid, her dark hair straggly and thin. By the time she reaches the top she is out of breath.

"Good of you to come," I say. "Come in." We shake hands as she wheezes. She settles heavily into an armchair. Jim sits in the chair next to her and nonchalantly examines the room. His insouciance needles me. Will nothing squash him? I sit facing them across the coffee table.

The conversation will follow the usual pattern, but I have already decided the outcome: I will permanently exclude Jim. After my first few permanent exclusions, I was wracked with guilt. The school for which I was responsible had failed this deprived and needy child; he was being cast out of the community and would be even more vulnerable to temptation and crime.

The pressures on his already stressed mother (inevitably, Dad was no longer around) would increase.

But now I am hardened. At the forefront of my mind is not the good of this child or his family, but the good of the school community. This is not an abstract concept: Jim has frightened and hurt children, prevented many from working as they want to, tempted the easily-led into his own ways. He has driven good, committed teachers to the end of their tether.

I am also sustained by the knowledge that he has benefited from all our support systems. He has had timetable changes based on his subject preferences and his need for female teachers. He has had a learning support assistant and a mentor. He and his mother have had endless talks with his head of year, he has signed contracts promising not to do this or that; to stay away from this area or that child. He has had time out of school on extended work experience and time at the FE college in small groups on practical subjects such as bricklaying, painting and decorating, and motor mechanics. Finally, he has had considerable time in the learning support unit with a group of staff who are, frankly, saints. He has had one-to-one help with reading and anger management. He has had second chances galore.

None of this has altered his behaviour except in the very, very short term.

We may indeed have failed this child, but his family has also failed him: his father's absence, his sugar-saturated diet, his elder brother's imprisonment for burglary, his mother's drinking, both parents' truancy and lack of effort in their own schooldays and, let's admit it, a degree of fecklessness. These are not his fault. But he has also failed himself. He has made choices and ignored consequences; he has never taken responsibility for his own actions but constantly blames others.

The school's had enough of him; it has done its fair share of patching up, picking up, helping and succouring, excusing and explaining. "I can't do anything with him," his mum says. "He runs wild. He sometimes never comes in at night. I don't know where he goes."

Jim looks at his mum as she speaks, as if he has no connection with her, as if she were a stranger. She looks beaten, not just by Jim, but by all the pressures of deprivation: lack of money, abuse of men, the soulless estate she lives on, fags and ill-health, the venal pap on the television. Beaten, too perhaps, by her dependence on the social support mechanisms that often fail in the end because the problem is too great for them.

She and Jim are too great a problem for us to solve. Some of the best people in this school have tried and failed. Jim promises he will improve, doesn't want to go to another school, says he likes his learning support teachers, doesn't want to make any more problems for his mum. But I am unmoved. He has to go.

He has already had three exclusions. He has started a fire in a science lab, has frequently told teachers to fuck off, attends lessons only when he chooses, refuses to go to detentions, attacked other students with a stick and pieces of flagstone, headbutted a girl, disrupted endless lessons, assaulted a lunchtime supervisor. The list goes on.

I tell them I am permanently excluding him. I explain the procedure about governors and appeals. Jim's mother has been through it all before.

Wearily, she levers herself up out of the chair. "I'm sorry he's been so much trouble." Jim is unfazed. I watch them go down the stairs. But I no longer brood about these matters.

A lot of people will feel safer and happier now Jim has gone. I decide to go down to the learning support unit to give its staff the news. They will be sad, I know, and, unlike me, will brood on their failure to help this vulnerable child. Yet again, I marvel at those schools I read about that say they never exclude. I cannot imagine staff being more resourceful or effective than ours.

1977: Summerhill Academy, Aberdeen

A similar scene, but this time I am a form tutor.

Two policemen bring Iain in. They have collected him from a city store.

He'd been truanting and was spotted by a store detective. The police frisked him but found nothing. Now he's back, and there's a police car in the playground. Iain is nearly 14, small for his age. He looks vulnerable and aggressive at the same time: sad, yet truculent. He answers questions in low, flat monosyllables.

It is a familiar ritual: the two policemen, the headteacher behind the desk, the deputy head at one side, me sitting awkwardly in the corner. Iain offers no explanations.

The police leave, their law and order function completed. Iain receives the head's homily in the same uninvolved way he answered the questions. His deep fatigue, the way he is removed from everything that happens to him, is a necessity. He has a reading age of six. He has learned to cope with lessons he cannot understand. There are occasional outbursts, occasional escapes into truancy, but generally he has learned to be indifferent. In fact, he likes coming to school: however meaningless the work, the companionship of his friends is a warmth he depends on. He lives with his father, who is living with another woman and her young daughter. This new relationship has, in turn, broken down. Although all four continue to live together, the house is divided into two: father and son live in one half, "stepmother" and her daughter in the other.

I plead on his behalf, as his tutor. But the head is adamant: this latest truancy and his history of bad and abusive behaviour, his frequent refusal to obey rules and follow teachers' instructions, mean he must be permanently excluded. He has done enough damage to other members of the community. And so he leaves. To what, I wonder.

I later write to the head: "This anecdote shows the real values of our school in operation. School authority had to decide on its priorities: the needs of the individual child or the efficiency of the institution. I would argue that the lack of care shown in the decision to exclude, and the principles that motivated it, have a tendency to deprave and corrupt everyone connected with it: the punished child, the punishing teacher, and those other teachers and children who witness such treatment.

"A school sets up its own tensions, and some pupils cannot cope with them.

Most pupils can accept the demands and constraints, often at the cost of passivity and mental truancy. But some cannot or will not. Many emancipate themselves by vandalism, truancy or apathy; it is how they retain their autonomy.

"The tensions of compulsion, large groups, and unpopular and irrelevant activities are compounded by teachers' hang-ups about respect, clothes and manners, usually based on personal prejudice or arbitrary convention.

Punishment is the only available response to deviant behaviour. School discipline has less to do with growth and liberation of people than with squashing them flat. If we wish to regulate, punish and exclude pupils, let us do so without pretending to act in the name of 'toleration, health, freedom and community living' as the behaviour policy document puts it."

The head never responded. But I was right, wasn't I? Standing up for the weak and deprived. What a hero! And those teachers who later came to plead similarly with me when I was a head intent on excluding a student were also right. My defence of the excluded child was part of my approach to school that saw events and policies from the student's point of view, not the authority's. So, in one school I supported girls' right to wear jewellery against school policy. There, too, as part of a plan to increase students'

involvement, each tutor group was to do its own assembly instead of being talked at by the head or deputy.

My group decided they didn't want to do an assembly. But authority would not allow this choice. So we did an assembly about not wanting to do an assembly and about the denial of our authentic voice, about sham democracy.

And, of course, I was carpeted for insubordination. Another victory.

I allowed students to call me by my first name and that wasn't allowed either. Naturally, I told the students all about these confrontations in the name of freedom of information. What a pain in the arse I must have been. Re-reading that letter to my head reminds me how far I have come to compromising myself, metamorphosing myself into an agent of all the forces I used to condemn. I have grown hardened, comforted myself with the gratitude of lesser teachers whose problems I have reduced (and those brilliant ones whose frustrations I have lessened), rehearsed the litany of "community", pleaded the necessity for the emotional distance necessary for justice, savoured the comparative peace that ensued for the hard-working, decent andor quiescent students whom I had protected.

And that was right too, wasn't it? That was my job, for I had voluntarily taken on the wider responsibility. I had wanted successfully to run a whole school, not just a department or my own classroom. I had to sacrifice my own indulgent sensibilities for the good of others. What a hero!

Moreover, I believe three major changes over the past 25 years made my exclusion decisions more justifiable, easier to live with. First, schools have more alternatives for these students than they used to: more literacy support, more vocational courses, mentors, support assistants, learning support units, opportunities outside school at college and in work experience, pupil referral units, unofficial swaps between schools to avoid the official exclusion. If a student has run the gamut of what a school can offer and still has not responded, that student has a problem bigger than the school can deal with andor that student is wilfully irresponsible.

Second, there are more and more young people arriving at school who require strict rules, explicit expectations and clear boundaries which they have not been given at home. It is difficult for these youngsters to adjust; impossible for some. For most, after a time, these boundaries represent a haven compared with the insecurities, inconsistencies, casual violence and inarticulacy of home.

Third, ours is no longer a law-abiding and respectful society. There is now a large minority who believe they can say what they like and do what they like and disregard public limits. Our liberal ideas are scoffed at, abused and exploited ruthlessly. In school, the beleaguered majority have had enough. Society could crack apart if we continued to pretend we could run it on libertarian principles. The responsibility to avoid this falls on those in authority. "The loss of liberty is the price we pay for freedom" is not just a clever-clever, supercilious paradox. It is, sadly, true that the larger freedom now entails the loss of some civil liberties.

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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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