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Make the school fit the child

The growing trend to allow troubled and disaffected teenagers to leave the

classroom for the workplace should be reversed and a curriculum found to suit their needs, argues Jane Wharton.

"EXCELLENCE for All" is a fine principle and one upon which this Government has built its educational policy. However, the notion is in danger of being sacrificed, particularly for those who find mainstream schools a wilderness of alienation. As in other areas, the gulf between educational "haves" and "have-nots" is widening despite the mantra of "inclusion".

It is true that last year more children, 1.6 per cent to be precise, got five "good" GCSE passes than in 1998. It is also true that over 50 per cent of those leaving school did not. No one can accuse the Government of complacency. A plethora of initiatives has been introduced - including David Blunkett's decision this week to set improvement targets for secondary schools where less than a quarter of pupils get five good GCSEs.

At the primary end, we have the numeracy and literacy hours (an initiative soon to be extended to 12 and 13-year-olds) and most recently, the commitment to develop free part-time nursery education for three-year-olds.

Clearly, the intention is to raise standards and to bring our school-leavers into line with many other countries. This is surely the duty of any government given the need to keep the country afloat financially, if nothing else. Nevertheless, there is a dichotomy between the drive for achievement and improved targets and a commitment to support children's developmental needs.

At present there is a move to allow more and more disaffected teenagers, some as young as 14, to "leave school" for between three and five days a week and to pursue their "education" in other settings such as colleges of further education, extended work experience or a mixture of the two.

Is this the right thing to do? Will it fulfil Blair's pledge for education, education, education? Is it even appropriate to describe this as education? Education is such a wide term that it can encompass almost anything that is considered desirable in our society. What children learn and how and where they learn it is open to debate.

Nevertheless, at present, under the law, all children have a right to a balanced curriculum. For the most needy children in the country, this seems less and less likely. As schools are pressured to achieve more academically, they believe they have less flexibility.

Children are required to develop in a more regimented fashion and although personal and social education is on the timetable, it is couched in the language of targets rather than experiences.

Children on the margins are aready finding their way into a dumbed-down form of education. Policy-makers and others may say that troubled adolescents are disaffected anyway, that they have rejected the conventional school curriculum. Indeed, that it is not "relevant" to their needs. But I wonder if it is the curriculum that is not relevant or the environment in which it is delivered.

Children who have emotional difficulties, who have experienced early trauma, are usually unhappy. Going to school is first and foremost a social event. Children belong to a group and their contact with teachers is as part of a group. If progress is to occur it requires that children feel reasonably comfortable and enjoy what they do. As education minister Margaret Hodge said when she launched the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's Early Learning Goals recently, "Children make no distinction between work and play - and nor do we".

Because age is only one factor in development, the standardisation of the curriculum will require a special sensitivity on the part of educators to avoid "disaffection" in even young children.

Disaffected adolescents are all too often caricatured as low-achievers who would be better served doing something like bricklaying or hairdressing. This is an insult to such trades who will not thank educators for foisting immature youngsters upon them. The experience of art and literature as well as history and geography are vital components in enabling children to develop a sense of identity.

But perhaps most importantly, the sense of belonging to a community, is of paramount importance. This is not easily found in a setting where the most vulnerable young people are expected to move about, often between different buildings, reporting to different staff and where they can become "lost in the system". Rather than having a curriculum supportive of their needs, they are abandoned to sink or swim in a quasi-adult world. Not surprisingly, many drop out.

The task for educators has always held a tension between nurturing individual development and the passing on of knowledge and skills. The challenge is shared by parents and teachers. If we are to avoid the pendulum swinging too sharply in the direction of targets at the expense of enabling children to develop healthily we must find a way to maintain a balance between the two.

One way of ensuring that this happens would be to reinstate the teaching of child development for all trainee-teachers. Thereby we may be reassured that the delivery of the curriculum might be matched more meaningfully with answering all children's needs.

Jane Wharton is an independent education consultant and an executive member of Human Scale Education

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