Call for learners' charter to help life chances of disadvantaged

3rd July 2009 at 01:00
Campaigner says system concentrates on those working in schools, not the pupils, many of whom suffer social exclusion

The "dangerous" times we live in require bold and radical work to make sure schools can remain forces for good in society, according to an education expert.

Gus John, a long-time equality campaigner and former director of education for Hackney in east London, says a nationwide learners' charter is the only way to ensure education is a priority.

Intervention through schools is the only way to stop the "terrifying" level of street violence, he says. Children killing each other raises huge questions about the function of education.

Mr John - who is chair of the Communities Empowerment Network which deals with more than a 1,000 school exclusions per year and supports young people and parents in appeals - says society has been "sidestepping" issues since the 1944 Education Act, which still provides much of the foundation for teaching today.

Legislation, according to Mr John, ignores children and focuses on those who work in schools. This means certain groups, particularly black pupils, are failed.

He wants his charter to become statutory guidance for schools. The idea is being considered by the NUT, the National Association of Head Teachers and charities, including the Children's Society and Barnardo's. It sets out the rights children can expect at school and their responsibilities.

Mr John wants Ofsted to consider equality more fully when inspecting schools. "Those of us who in the last few decades have worked to ensure that promoting racial equality and social justice remains high up on the political agenda are alarmed at the prospect of yet more denial of opportunity and of fundamental rights and entitlements as a result of the current financial crisis," he said.

This is one reason why he is pushing for a charter. Another is his research in the North West among young offenders about their experiences of school.

"Academies and the Building Schools for the Future programme are not having any visible impact on that process of systematising social exclusion among the young. In fact, it could be argued that they are adding massively to the problem," Mr John says.

"It costs the Government roughly Pounds 100,000 to keep one young person in jail for a year.

"For every 10 young people in a young offenders' institution, the cost is Pounds 1million. Where those young people are children in local authority care, the cumulative cost is considerably higher.

"How much more cheaply and in a more humane and children- friendly environment could the state provide for such people, before they offend, in a learning environment that acknowledges their emotional and developmental support needs, rather than one that effectively makes them yet one more statistic among the 135,000 children of compulsory school age who are not in mainstream schooling?

"Why can't we fix the regime of schooling so that it caters for the diverse needs of an increasingly diverse learning community, including teachers as learners?"

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