Answering the cries of 'it's not fair' with empathy

4th November 2011 at 00:00
Pupils might begrudge the attention their troubled peers receive, but by tapping into their sense of justice we can get them on board with the inclusion agenda

This year I'm going to be visiting schools in East Lothian on a drop- in basis whenever a gap appears in my diary. And so it was today I managed to fit a 30-minute visit to school while travelling between two meetings.

I loved that the headteacher was walking along the corridor with her shoes off. Of course she was a bit shame-faced, but I've always liked the combination of informality and educational rigour. As I visited the classes I was hugely impressed by the quality of work I witnessed and the positive relationships between the teachers and the young people.

Anyway, enough of this, for the point of this article is connected to something the headteacher told me about how they support children with autism in the school. At the end of last term the school had arranged with its educational psychologist to work with each of the classes that had such a child as a member. In a number of sessions - some which had the child present and some which didn't - the educational psychologist described what it was like to have such needs, explained the behaviour, and talked about how to accommodate and respond to their classmates on the autistic spectrum. Apparently the children have been wonderful and it has contributed to creating an environment where all children belong to the school community and engage in worthwhile learning.

This description triggered a memory from last year when I led six separate workshops with secondary school students. Under the Scottish Commissioner for Children and Young People's "Right Blether" banner, we listened to 180 young people talking about their experiences in East Lothian schools and communities. Their responses were overwhelmingly positive, but there was one recurring theme which got me thinking.

The theme, which came up in every one of the workshops, could be characterised by the phrase "It's not fair". The focus of that concern was the feeling that some of their peers were treated more advantageously than themselves. The young people they were referring to were those who were typically badly behaved, disruptive, disengaged, and generally not interested in education. Yet the apparent reward such young people got from the school was opportunities, chances, tolerance and recognition that were not available to the typically diligent and well-behaved student who was not given such leeway - hence the recurring refrain "It's not fair".

This is the parallel I'd like to draw with what I heard about last week. Schools nowadays go to great lengths to try to engage with the hard-to- reach. So often we know that many - if not all - of such young people come from disrupted backgrounds: backgrounds where drink, drugs, neglect and violence can be ever- present; backgrounds where love, clean clothes, regular meals, and stable relationships are unknown. Yet when we - the school - try to understand and compensate for such experiences through out-of-school opportunities, second chances and additional support, we are accused by the majority of our students of being "unfair". These are the same young people, who, if shown a video of neglect, starvation, violence, abuse, or the effects of poverty on children in developing countries, would happily engage in fundraising activities.

So why is it that they can't see the "unfairness" of the life experiences of the troubled boy in their class who is always the first to be sent to the depute head? Perhaps the answer lies in what I saw happening in the primary school I visited. For it is tapping into the natural sense of justice which every child has, but which can only be triggered if the pupils are helped to understand and empathise with what it's like to have such needs or experience such a life.

It makes me think that "inclusion" has for too long been an adult agenda. We, professionals, politicians, social scientists, public health and criminal justice experts, etc, etc all argue for schools where young people from vulnerable backgrounds are included in the mainstream. Yet how often have we taken the time to explain "why" we do this to the other young people in our schools? Is it any wonder that they consider our actions to be "unfair"?

What if we worked with young people, staff, parents and other supporters of the school to tackle this in a structured and positive manner - which did not stigmatise the individuals concerned? By seeking to involve all members of the school community actively in the "inclusion" agenda - but especially the children and young people - we have a chance to create places where all young people feel a common sense of belonging and responsibility for one another.

Perhaps there is an opportunity to bring this issue to prominence through the current consultation for a Rights of Children and Young People Bill. The key question posed in that consultation is, whether or not we require legislation to place the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child at the heart of Scottish Government policy making and decisions. The simple answer to that question has to be a resounding YES!

I'll leave the last, and most powerful, words to a young person I met as part of a Right Blether workshop held at one of our residential homes:

"No one knows what it's like to be me."

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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