The boy who wouldn't go away

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
Perhaps the most affecting image to emerge from the whole stramash at the Ridings School in Halifax was the one stolen by the BBC camera perched on the roof of a nearby building, filming for Panorama's inside story. For all it was through a long lens, there was a familiarity about this picture.

A pupil, third or fourth year by looks, was standing outside the door of that most enduring of educational initiatives: the temporary hutted unit. Obviously ejected on account of his disruptive contribution to the class, he was refusing to take it lying down. There was a rattle of the door handle here, and a kick at the door frame there, and in the time honoured tradition he would occasionally swing in front of the window to leer inside.

At length, the door flew open, and a teacher appeared, apparently driven to distraction by the enemy without, seeking to challenge him or possibly to negotiate re-entry. At this the boy fled, out of range and lost to the teacher's view.

I was reminded of the media project in which students are asked to comment on the picture of a skinhead violently pushing an old lady: the act of an evil mugger, for sure. But when the complete picture was revealed, it was possible to see that he was in fact moving her out of the way of some falling masonry, at great risk to himself.

It is, indeed, difficult to gain the whole picture from a distance, and perhaps dangerous to try - although the before and after pictures of the Ridings' former headteacher seemed to tell their own story. However, one point was crystal clear: the pupil kept returning to his place outside the door. No matter that he had been ejected for being presumably unwilling to work; no matter how often the teacher came out to chase him: each time he returned.

I chose to view this as the one chink of light in the reported educational gloom, and it seemed to me to pose a vital question. If school is such a painful experience for so many pupils who misbehave and disrupt classes, why do they keep turning up? How often is the cry heard in the staff room: "Why is Jimmy never off?" It's a little too glib, I think, to relate it merely to the school's role as a social centre, although the importance of that function should not be underrated. Any teacher who has experienced shadowing a pupil or class for a day is inevitably left wondering how some pupils put up with the mind-numbing experiences to which they are subjected, as they wander the corridors from punishment to punishment, for lost homeworks, inattention, disruptive behaviour or giving cheek.

Yet, although some seek to avoid the problem by truanting, a high proportion of troubled pupils do not have a major attendance problem.

The conclusion must be that, though seemingly ill-equipped to operate in the manner expected of them within the school system, there is something in these pupils that wants to be successful in school, to get it right for once, to fit in like the majority of pupils manage to, most of the time, and there is something almost tragic about their willingness to return again and again, sometimes in the face of overwhelmingly negative experiences.

As I sat watching that lonely figure returning repeatedly to that hut in Halifax, and by doing so seeming to emphasise the fact of his rejection, it suddenly struck me that if we are cynical enough to refuse to teach those who find it difficult to learn, we should not be surprised if eventually they lose the will to try.

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