A revolutionary solution: simple but too hard

WORKING WITH DISAFFECTED STUDENTS. By Kathryn A Riley and Elle Rustique-Forrester. Paul Chapman pound;16.99

Five years ago, in Whose School Is It Anyway?, Kathryn Riley made a powerful case against ever-tightening central government control. If the schools of today are to meet the needs of tomorrow, she argued, we need to give the biggest say to those people who are closest to the school - the communities, parents and pupils they serve. The stage at which government should intervene is in setting a framework that challenges exclusion. "There is an urgent need to meet the challenges of the disaffected," she concluded.

Now, with co-author Elle Rustique-Forrester, she examines that need. Their concern is with what schools themselves can do, in partnership with local education authorities, with each other and (emphatically) in partnership with parents and students. Their stance is optimistic, positive and realistic - wholly consistent with that earlier theme. But it does let government off the hook. To what extent do government policies - with regard to competition between schools, for instance, or league tables and the obsession with the five-plus A*-C examination standard, contribute to segregation and disaffection? They do not tell us.

This new study is an important reminder, though, of how serious exclusion from education is. Young people with no qualifications are vulnerable, disenfranchised and expensive, yet increasingly (and far more often than any other European country) we formally exclude them. What goes wrong? How can schools and teachers overcome the deficit model assumptions ("It's their own fault; it's their parents' fault; it's their background") that get in the way of more inclusive policies for teaching and learning?

Working with Disaffected Students tries to tackle these questions. It is based on a project the authors undertook in Lancashire, working with LEA officers, social workers, teachers, heads and (crucially) a cross-section of vulnerable or excluded secondary-age children. Forty-five pupils were involved in a series of carefully structured panel sessions. Some of their parents were involved, too: the parents were "very difficult" to reach. Running the panels was a demanding task ("We were reminded," the authors say, "of why, during our time as classroom teachers, we had so often felt exhausted by Friday nights") but one that produced a clear picture of what school felt like for these young people.

Mostly, they saw themselves as failures, vulnerable to the hostility of some - by no means all - of their teachers. Sometimes, indeed, they felt sympathy for teachers. "I don't think some of them are prepared for teaching," one said. "I don't think they knew how hard teaching us would be." There was a common pattern. Difficulty - and the inability to make a connection between their experience in school and their life outside it - led to truancy; truancy led to absence; absence led to greater difficulty and to the spiral of bad behaviour, isolation, then exclusion.

To be fair, the teachers recognised this, and easily identified strategies that worked. Early intervention, they said, was crucial. Using fewer supply teachers helped. So did a less fragmented timetable, more individual support, more mentoring and counselling; so did work experience and (wherever possible) work-based examination courses. Reward-based discipline policies were essential, but discipline was too often about simply maintaining classroom control. That was particularly true for what one teacher called the disaffected teachers - "the hard core, locked into an inappropriate teaching style, very difficult to move". There was an almost universal view that the challenges of disaffection were growing.

What, then, are the solutions? The authors offer what they call "a blueprint for change" - a list of structural, pedagogical and organisational changes that could make learning and teaching better for these children and those who teach them, and which they have market-tested at teachers' and heads' conferences. It centres on school ethos and relationships and emphasises the need for more praise (and hence, a much wider definition of school achievement) and for more (and more informal) communication with parents.

"Good news" postcards, we are reminded, can be particularly effective. The book stresses, too, the importance of early (and real) inter-agency co-operation, and of good initial and on-going teacher training. The central recommendation, though, is to create that "inclusive" learning and teaching environment: in-school support for vulnerable pupils, pastoral care that is learning-based, a wider range of teaching strategies, a curriculum that is accessible, appropriate and relevant to pupils' needs. Simple - and there lies the rub.

For these are hardly revolutionary proposals. "Nothing here is a surprise," one of the heads is quoted as saying. "We have tried to follow these recommendations in my past and present schools. But where are the practicalities? Where will the funding come from? What will we stop doing, to enable us to embrace them?"

They are good questions. "Build ample resources for time and meetings?" one head expostulated. "What a laugh! Where will they come from?" More fundamental than resources, though, is the way in which schools are caught between the rock of the Government's standards agenda and the hard place of its inclusion drive. The pursuit of the former forces schools to concentrate resources on the borderline pupils - those who, with careful coaching, will lift the school a notch in the examination tables. Increasingly and inevitably, the rest will see themselves as failures. Inclusion suffers.

It's a vicious circle - one which, quite possibly, schools themselves can't possibly break. Five years ago Kathryn Riley looked to policy-makers to find a solution. They urgently needed, she said, to reduce the segregation that is building - "to create an inclusive system through the extension of comprehensive education". There is no trace of that recommendation now. It's a sign of the times.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you