Another view - Extreme choices face those who want to keep FE open to all

18th December 2009 at 00:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

A lecturer is interviewing a prospective student. He is a young man in his early 20s whom we shall call Derek. Right away the lecturer notices that there is something about Derek that is slightly strange.

For one thing he is smartly dressed in a suit and tie - a rarity these days for students either at interview or in class. There is also a certain look in his eye that marks him out from others.

She notes from his application that since leaving school he has not done a lot in education or employment. Derek is interested in the humanities, he says, particularly history. His chief interest is the Second World War and the role of the Nazis. He tells her that he actually owns a Nazi uniform of his own. "Though I wouldn't wear it in Golders Green," he adds with a chuckle.

Is he being serious? It seems that he is. And now he is in full flow. It was the Americans, he says, who really started the war, so it was they who were responsible for the deaths of millions of European Jews.

At this point the question in the interviewer's mind is no longer to do with seriousness, but sanity. Derek has also revealed that he is a member of the British National Party. You don't have to be mad to follow BNP leader Nick Griffin, though possibly it helps.

But while Derek might come across as odd, he isn't deranged.

The lecturer notices that he was at a residential school. She probes this a little and, despite his reticence, comes to the conclusion it was probably a special school. When the interview is over she discovers that it specialises in children with autism. This makes sense. His lack of a sense of audience and the impression he might be making on others is certainly consistent with someone on the autistic spectrum.

The course he has applied for is one designed to lead adult students on to university. After some discussion Derek decides that this is not the route he really wants to take. At this point the interviewer gives a huge (inward) sigh of relief. Her course is not appropriate for Derek after all.

If it had been she would have faced a number of dilemmas concerning whether or not to offer him a place. First, there were his views and opinions. Openly racist, extreme right-wing beliefs would go against the grain of most educators in most institutions. But are they grounds for denying someone an education? If they are - and presumably the same prohibition would have to apply to employment - are we saying that the whole of the BNP and its sympathisers should be perpetually banished to the ranks of the Neets: not in education, employment or training?

Second, there is the practical aspect. Derek is applying to a college with a multi-ethnic student body. His declared views would make him antagonistic towards large numbers of his fellow students - and them antagonistic to him. Any class with such a combustible mix is going to be characterised by some pretty acrimonious exchanges.

I ran this latter point past a group of my own students. About two-thirds of them are from ethnic minorities. They answered seriously and with a surprising degree of liberalism. Essentially they said that while they wouldn't like to study alongside such a student, he had a right to be there.

They were also thoughtful in their responses to Derek's autism. Two turned out to have siblings who were autistic. Both understood the difficulties of integrating such students into mainstream education, but said that it should still be attempted. In a climate where entitlement is seen pretty much as a right, they argued that Derek, for all his challenges, was as entitled as anyone else to be given a place.

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