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Shackled and caged by school

Teenagers with learning difficulties have disturbing images of their schools and teachers. Adi Bloom reports.

Deformed, misshapen bodies, crippling chains and head-crushing boredom are how some teenagers with learning difficulties represent the school day.

An English child sees school as a cage, in which debris is spooned into a gagged pupil's head while a Belgian teenager perceives the experience of Roman Catholic school as being nailed to a cross.

The images emerged when pupils from England, France and Belgium were asked to draw pictures of school, teachers and their feelings about education.

Many produced images of shackled and chained bodies. In one drawing, a ragged and bent pupil is chained to a giant ball, while mocking hands point from the sidelines. In another, crowds of unhappy pupils stare out from behind iron bars. "Can I go to the toilet?" one asks.

Carole Dolignon, an education researcher at Charles de Gaulle university, in Lille, asked 150 pupils aged between 11 and 16, to draw the pictures.

The results include a giant club, wielded over a confused-looking student by a disembodied hand. Another shows a headless ogre, waving its hands and stamping its feet.

"This metaphor shows the pressure and power of the adult on the oppressed pupil," said Ms Dolignon. "Factors at school, such as pressure, control and rigid ideologies, subdue playfulness and creativity. The school is an agonising environment."

Several drawings depict physical deformity. In one, a skeleton is chained to a rock. In another, bodies with drooping shoulders and prominent ribs frown as they face a row of desks.

Other pupils represent the pressures of the school day. One sketched an eye, in which red veins ripple. Another drew a girl with head in hands and eyes shut. A caption reads: "School is boredom."

Ms Dolignon presented many of the drawings to the European Conference on Educational Re-search, held in Crete last week.

She told delegates: "Disaffection is closely linked with the pupil's feeling of failure. There is a paradox between the submission promulgated by school, with the necessity of self-expression felt by teenagers. Drawing is a way of releasing one's emotions. It is a source of satisfaction, but it is also a means of expression to others."

Michael Ratcliffe, managing director of Taking Part, a charity working with people with learning disabilities, said: "If you have a learning difficulty, going to school can be very frightening. There needs to be more work to ensure that teaching methods meet these people's needs."

But John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers, said teachers should not take it personally.

"Children have outside influences and pressures, such as their home life, and how other people think of them," he said. "Because they are in school, other concerns become mediated through images of school. I don't think it's criticism of school per se."

At the Crossroads of Self-Representation and Self-Expression for the Teenager With Learning Difficulties, by Carole Dolignon, is available from:

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