Battling on the home front

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Home tuition can be a gloomy experience, and sometimes a very funny one. Away from the health and safety rules of the classroom, you acquire the art of working on the floor or balancing books on an orange box, as well as developing devices for coping with leaky dogs, flea-ridden cats, had-tempered rottweilers, and lovable puppies. Sometimes you play "spot the pupil"; the student sleeps in one of four homes and you have to guess which one before the lesson time runs out.

You also get to study parents in detail. A parent or guardian must be present for tuition and, as grannies are scarce, usually it's a parent who opens the door. Well, sometimes. One mum found the 9.30am start too early, so my pebble-on-window-trick was often employed. A neighbour once came out and bellowed something which suggested sloth and doubtful parentage. It worked a treat.

Friends ask me why I work in such unappealing conditions. Though grumbling is understandable when the lesson has been spent in a smoke-filled room, perched on a chair favoured by the leaky dog, you stick it for the sake of the isolated child who lives in these conditions.

Children excluded from school, whether they're seven or 15-years-old, have only five hours' tuition a week. Exclusion is a double punishment: the child is removed from education, friends, daily routine, exams and job prospects, as well as being returned full-time to the often unhappy, inadequate home which created his or her aberrant behaviour in the first place. The child's disturbed behaviour almost always springs from a disrupted family unit, and the parents' failure to spend time with their child. The home tutor can bring a little fresh air and is generally welcomed.

He or she is seen not only as a teacher, but as a counsellor, mediator, "sharer" of anger with the excluding school, writer of letters to prevent the gas being cut off, and escort of parent and child to the "new" school. Wayne, his mum and I turned up at such an event to find barely room to sit down. Uncle Tom Cobley wasn't there but eight others were - including the sort of blue-rinsed governor I thought was extinct. She lectured Wayne on his past misdeeds, reduced him to tears (though 13 and a big boy) while mum departed in hysterics to be restrained by me in the corridor before she re-entered to inflict verbal or physical abuse on the assembled "court".

In such cases, the tutor is hard-pressed to defend the school's attitude. The "plot" to deter Wayne worked: there was no way he was going there.

Fortunately, he was later happily placed at a centre for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties, but others really do roam the streets, dabbling in drugs or stealing cars, with access to further education or employment jeopardised.

There are other frustrations. John, an unlikely candidate for exclusion from a school which had pretensions to being an academy for young gentlefolk, perked up enough to find himself an apprenticeship with a family friend. Up at six for a 10-hour day, he was a different boy. Sadly, my boss had to advise that, although 16, John could not legally continue, even unpaid. This severely tested our good relations. One cannot easily defend an anomaly whereby no school or college will accept a young person because of his age, but neither is he permitted to take up useful employment. This is an area where surely some flexibility should be exercised. Fortunately, John, from a supportive family, hung on, but others would be less able to cope.

Though I joke about going to work clad in wet-suit with gas-mask and dog-tranquiliser darts, there is the odd reward. In this one-to-one situation, a child may learn to read, or gain self-esteem. Some learn that not all teachers are "the enemy", and that a meaningful relationship, involving mutual respect, can be experienced with an authority figure. You can feel - and be - of use.

Liz Macdonald lives in Bristol

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