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Inclusion needs an overhaul

A radical change in perception is needed to re-engage our disaffected students, writes Kathryn Riley.

A group of 10 to 16-year-olds made history recently by appearing before a group of MPs and peers to discuss human rights. There are pragmatic arguments for listening to what young people have to say about their education. They can tell us what's working and what isn't. This is critical for disengaged pupils who are likely to find themselves on the margins and prey to extremist dogmas.

Three years ago, Elle Rustique-Forrester and I began a collaborative project with Lancashire education authority looking at student disaffection. We wanted to know two things: what forced the different "camps" into blame mode: teachers ("if only the pupil would attend school regularly"); parents ("if only teachers would listen"); and pupils ("if only the lessons weren't so boring"). We also wanted to know whether things could be done differently.

The pupils we met were "the awkward squad". In and out of school, they found re-entry a lonely business, particularly when erratic attendance led to sarcastic comments from teachers: "Oh you've decided to join us today, have you?" Few saw school as a place for growth, learning or expanding future options. They could see how their behaviour contributed to tension in the classroom and the demands on their teachers, and they knew they had to change but didn't know how. One or two hectoring teachers could tip the behavioural balance, but supportive teachers could keep them on track.

They saw themselves at the bottom of the heap, labelled by teachers as "thick" and unwanted in the school. Once they had got into a downward spiral of bad behaviour, exclusion, and non-attendance, they thought the chances of improving their prospects were almost nil. They drew pictures with powerful imagery which suggested "I am very sad", "stressed out", "lonely" and "depressed".

We concluded that schools operate on certain assumptions. One is that young people come to school on time, daily and with no interruptions to learning. But this is far from true. For many, school life was a fragmented, demeaning and boring experience - not because most teachers are not committed to the needs of the disaffected, but because teachers and pupils are locked into an educational blame culture with little room for manoeuvre, one which leaves troublesome pupils alienated.

Today, pressures on schools are huge. They must meet targets for pupil achievement, complete endless paperwork, follow a national curriculum which seems unsuitable for some, and deal with a minority of disruptive students.

Can things be different? Yes they can. Schools are changing, refocusing on teaching, learning and relationships. One head told us: "I've got to call off the rotweillers. I've got to stop pushing my teachers to achieve the targets. We've got to talk about children and learning." Heads, teachers, parents and pupils agreed on the need for:

* smaller classes and more opportunities for teachers to get to know pupils better and to share good practice;

* more say for pupils in how schools are managed along with more teachers who empathise with their pupils, have a sense of humour and take time to explain using a variety of teaching styles that reflect the different ways in which people learn;

* a rewards-based culture with better communication between school and home;

* more informal approaches to learning, in and out of school;

* better physical conditions.

Teachers need more opportunities to experiment with new methods of organising teaching and learning, along with more methods that test the boundaries of the school day or week, or even our concept of what a school should look like.

Once we begin to think about our young people as tomorrow's citizens, we will start thinking about schools differently.

'Working with Disaffected Students: why students lose interest in school and what we can do about it' by Kathryn Riley and Elle Rustique-Forrester (Paul Chapman).Kathryn Riley is visiting professor at London's Institute of Education

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