Bringing them all back in

14th July 2006 at 01:00
Pupils and parents who do not have a stake in the school system are an enormous challenge. Tim Brighouse reads an account of a solution with Every Child Matters at its heart

Breaking the cycle of educational alienation: a multiprofessional approach By Richard Williams and Colin Pritchard Open University Press pound;18.99 Here's a book for those in schools and local authorities who are serious about the Every Child Matters agenda. It's sufficiently practical to be widely and immediately useful in reducing the 10 per cent or so of children and families who are disaffected and alienated from the school system.

Does your school have a boy whose father has a criminal record and who, himself, is stealing, truanting, smoking and being a nuisance to himself and others and who appears - despite your best efforts - totally unresponsive to changing a lifestyle he sees as normal? Have you a troubled teenage girl who is confused, angry, out of control and disturbed in and out of school where she has an attachment to an equally troubled young man, and whose overwhelmed single parent has a drug habit and no energy to spare for her? Or can you bring to mind a set of aggressive parents who come into school and (even before you have spoken) accuse you of being prejudiced in favour of the children from "posh" homes and go on to threaten - in an alarmingly convincing manner - to beat the living daylights out of you? You can? Then this is a book for you.

We all know that truancy, fighting, vandalism, drug abuse, bullying, theft, classroom disruption and teacher stress are often associated with pupils who don't like school. The authors believe that they have found interventions, which they go on to describe, that will ensure the pupils come to like school and stop their undesirable behaviour.

The first three of the 14 chapters outline theories of alienation and some of the familiar but startling statistical correlations between alienation and related undesirable outcomes. For example, the link between permanent school exclusion and later teenage homelessness and a spell in prison makes one realise the trauma and sense of failure which so many teachers and heads recount when they are forced to take such drastic steps. They know that by so doing they are substantially increasing the chances of a wasted life.

The remaining chapters describe a practical set of measures that were introduced in a primary school in a very socially and economically challenged community and the nearby secondary school to which it sends its pupils. The interdisciplinary project a rare phenomenon in itself - was led by one of the authors, Richard Williams, a senior education social worker.

It was backed by a steering group and some modest funding from the local education authority, health, probation and social services.

The task appears impossibly formidable. The objectives include "early identification of difficult pupils and of family difficulties likely to disrupt their educational progress"; "enhancement of pupils' integration with full attendance"; "assistance to teachers such as to lead to improved morale in the school"; and "reduction in the levels of crime and delinquency in the school and community". Phew!

Williams's hands-on role in the secondary school focused on behaviour issues, complementing the health education specialty of the teacher attached to the project in that school. The third member of the team, based in the primary school, was also strong on behaviour. Throughout, Williams kept detailed notes and to his credit established a "control" pair of schools where he took the temperature of staff and student opinion before and after the intervention. The attention to detail and the use of data are unusual and impressive features both of the project and of the way they are used to support the validity of Williams's thesis.

Straightforward as that thesis sounds put simply, that once children start enjoying school all problems of alienation evaporate, it is of course a tall order for schools to achieve it with the sort of pupils and families mentioned in the first paragraph.

Yet this achievement is precisely what is described here, in meticulously assembled case studies. In many of these, most of us would have given up on young people with such unappealing characteristics. But not Williams and his team. And, crucially, in each school at least one member of staff is prepared to turn themselves inside out to find the key to unlocking the minds and opening the hearts of the young people concerned. These are perhaps two of the clearest messages of the project: first, never give up on a pupil and second, every pupil needs at least one worthwhile and trusting relationship with one member of staff. Otherwise, although children may be physically present in school, they are not really there at all. Two simple messages, but so difficult to implement. That's the beauty of this book: it describes both problems and the detailed, painstaking solutions.

Read it. Doubtless there'll now be lots of books centred on Every Child Matters and interdisciplinary and multi-agency work. Few of them will be as useful to practitioners as this one.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser to the London Schools Challenge

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