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The kid who came back and bucked our unequal society

You may have heard me speak of Wendy before. She is my assistant principal who loves children in inverse proportion to their roguery. We were sitting chewing tobacco, mulling over a meeting earlier that day with the health authority, when the receptionist popped her head round the door and said that someone called Joe Stone* wanted to see me.

Wendy squealed with delight. I checked my desk drawer for the Walther PPK I keep for emergencies. Joe disappeared from Year 10 four years ago after a series of incidents involving drugs, and violence towards other students and staff. His mother had thrown him out when she took up with a new man, and he lived with dad, a burly builder who did not have the skills to deal with his complex son. He showed up a few times on our CCTV when we had suffered vandalism, and the last we had heard of him he was in prison after squashing flat the face of a local lad who happened to say the wrong thing. Male, white, working-class underachiever - with a vengeance.

Joe told us he now had a job and a girlfriend. He wanted to go into the marines. He was training for the physical test with a daily run, and wanted us to find him a maths tutor to help him prepare for the mental tests. I put the Walther back in the drawer and Wendy gave him a hug.

Our earlier meeting had been to discuss the services provided by the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). We sit in any number of case conferences, dutifully doing our multi-agency bit for the benefit of the child. Our frustration is that we cannot get the specialist help needed. CAMHS explained from its side that resources are so limited, only young people at risk of suicide are likely to meet its threshold. So forget early intervention and prevention: only when the house is nearly burnt down can it provide a bucket of water.

Our new Prime Minister David Cameron talks of our broken society. It chimes with the feeling that we are dealing with increasing numbers of children from dysfunctional families, more children with mental health problems, and more for whom life is a burden not a joy. Despite the last ten fat years of plenty in education, there are still too many children who need to talk and never enough experts to listen.

The wonderful book The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett explains why. It is one of those books that makes sense of a whole series of gut feelings that teachers have and offers evidence for what we have always suspected. Their thesis is simple: the more equal the society, the happier the people, regardless of the wealth of the nation. Conversely, the greater the gap between rich and poor in a country, the greater the social problems: lower life expectancy, worse mental illness, higher teenage pregnancy rate, greater obesity, more people in prison, lower literacy and so on.

And which countries come out time and time again as being most unequal, and so most socially dysfunctional, across a range of outcomes? The US is consistently the worse, with the UK and Portugal vying for unenviable second place. Japan and the Scandinavian countries are consistently the most equal and happiest.

More equal societies are not just about tax policies. They are about salary differentials in the first place (bankers take note) and a host of policies, such as generous parental leave, which build secure families. Unequal societies emphasise dominance hierarchies, self-advancement and status competition. More equal societies stress mutual interdependence and co-operation. Self-worth comes from the quality of relationships and the contribution made to others and the community rather than on wealth and status.

Joe was brought up to have to fend for himself. He had to compete with others in his family for love and respect, and he lost. He was barely literate and numerate. It is hardly surprising that his frustration found expression in anger, and that he searched for respect and status through his fists.

Teachers from across the world visit our school: Thai, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Australian. They all comment in amazement at how hard British teachers work, how much time we spend preparing lessons, marking, running activities and revision lessons, seeing individuals. They wonder at the army of support staff which we have and they do not: teaching assistants, counsellors, technicians and so on. Why is it that we are not at the top of every educational league table in the world as a result of all this effort?

The answer is that we are spending more and more to deal with the consequences of an unequal society that is low in trust, mutuality and the capacity for empathy. Schools get the blame for everything from low literacy to binge drinking, but we are only dealing with the results of a wider cancer deep in society, running ever faster just to stand still. Let's hope the new Government tackles the root causes rather than just expecting us to treat the symptoms.

* Name has been changed

Roger Pope, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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