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Home truths about the neds and losers

For inclusion to succeed, schools have to work with the parents of disruptive children, says Ewan Aitken

I ONCE worked as a youth worker in what politicians call an area of social and economic deprivation and the residents call home. I remember talking to one young lad in trouble again for vandalism because, he said, he was bored. "How come you don't go to school?" I asked. He said: "Ma teacher said you'll never pass the exam, so there's no point in trying. I'm just doing what I was telt for once."

I repeat that story not to lay the blame for what is now called "ned culture" at the door of the teaching profession. It just reminds me of how powerful language can be, even words said in weariness and exasperation.

Recently I have read many words describing those that struggle with mainstream school and so cause disruption. Words like ned, thug, hooligan, troublemaker, loser, scum.

Another character from my youth work days said: "See you do-gooders, you cannae fool me. You still think ah'm scum, so I'm gonna prove you right".

Exclusion by language. Exclusion by lack of self-worth. Exclusion just by their very existence. Is it any wonder that those of us who believe in mainstreaming do so because institutionally to exclude is to perpetuate a cycle that needs breaking?

Of course, to argue that mainstreaming in school is the answer for young people whose lifestyle is destructive to themselves and others is to give the classroom a power it can never have. But to exclude them from that situation in a manner of punishment for what is essentially their inability to cope with being alive is to perpetuate the problem, not solve it.

The challenge is to find, and more importantly resource, that middle ground, a place within the school, but not necessarily the classroom, where these young people can begin the journey of self-discovery that is fundamental to any form of learning. But it's more than that. The challenge also is to go out of the school and into the home.

One teacher told me that she could tell by 9:15am on a Monday if she would get through 20 per cent or 80 per cent of her forward plan for the week. It depended entirely in what had happened in the homes of her class. Working in the home will not be easy. But it is fundamental to mainstreaming, even more so than units, alternative curriculums and the like in schools.

Sadly, the only suggestions that I have heard recently regarding parents are the punitive ones of fines and prison as punishments for their children's misdemeanours. Attractive as that may seem when anger and frustration flow from our sense of powerlessness, it will merely once again exclude those who already feel they don't belong.

That does not mean we do not need to challenge parents, and challenge them hard. Without challenging parents, the problems will continue. I heard recently of a restorative justice conference where the parent of child who had caused pound;100,000 worth of damage complained that their "wee boy was only a child and didn't need this humiliation". Sadly, the opportunity to challenge the parent on why the child ended up there was missed. Instead warm words were used to keep the conference going and the complainers were made to feel like the victims. This was not helpful.

Mainstreaming needs resources. We need support units in at least every high school. We need well-attended pupil support groups with a range of resources at their disposal. We need a children's panel with the resources to deliver its considered judgments. But, most of all, we need to face up to the challenge of resourcing whatever it takes to support parents whose own struggles are manifested in their children's destructive lifestyle choices.

This is a high-risk strategy. It assumes any of us actually know how to be parents. It means high-intensity work with, in some cases, daily intervention which may take years to show success. It means workers facing rejection again and again until the parents they are trying to support trust them enough to risk being vulnerable with them. And it means teachers, knowing the strategy is in place, playing their part in keeping that intensive investment going in the classroom, even though it will be a struggle at times.

Mainstreaming and inclusion are not statements of geography or education.

They are the aspirations of an inclusive society - aspirations that need resourcing, not just in the classroom, but in the home and beyond.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council.

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