Child's play

7th January 2000 at 00:00
In the days before everything was targeted, monitored and vetted for value for money, we had a governor ahead of his time. His aim in life was to make the school more cost-efficient. He was never happier than when he found a piece of paper that had not been used on both sides, or money spent on a local education authority service that could have been done cheaper by the chap down the road.

He thought Inset was a waste of money and questioned the validity of any teacher going out of school for any course instead of staying in school to "do the job for which they are paid". If teachers needed more training, he believed they should do it at their own expense in their over-long holidays.

As a convert to the JohnPatten view that all primary school teachers needed was to be motherly and teach the 3Rs properly, he was incensed when he found out that one energetic teacher wanted to attend a course to improve her juggling skills as part of a planned circus project. And he would have been horrified to learn that I have just been on three courses in one week.

The first course was an excellent introduction to positive handling, which at first glance seemed to be a course for would-be kindergarten bouncers, a profession for which I have the ideal physique. We were shown how to use verbal strategies to avoid physical confrontation and, reassuringly, how to restrain children who would not respond to persuasion, by use of the "single elbow" restraint. This is supposed to ensure maximum safety for all without harming the child. Even as I was practising this technique, Fred was at school demonstrating how swiftly I would need it when I got back.

Fred is an angelic seven-year-old with a beautiful gap-toothed smile which lights up his face when he is not having a tantrum and rolling around the floor or hiding under a desk. Despite being obviously bright, he cannot read, write or do even the simplest maths. He is in care and has limited contact with his natural parents.

While I was practising on a consenting adult volunteer, Fred was crawling under the coats in the Year 3 cloakroom. There he found a door wedge with which he threatened to cut his wrist and tell his social worker that his teacher had done it. (Our trainer stressed how vital it was that if we were forced as a last resort to restran a child, we should do so with the prior knowledge of all adults concerned to prevent false accusations. This approach has still not prevented many teachers from being suspended "without prejudice".) Returning to school after the course, I was summoned to Fred's class where he was brandishing the model Roman sword he and I made last week. Thankfully, visions of the newspaper headline "Child Slashed With Sword Made By Headteacher" slowly faded as I escorted him to a "time-out" area where he could cool off.

My second course was on inclusion. Although we have no problem with exclusions, we are struggling to include such disruptive children as Fred and still serve the needs of all. We have a duty of care to all our children and to our staff, but those advisers who come from a special needs background seem to see any plea for balance as negative, obstructionist and selfish.

Coming back from that course, I was in time to attend the case conference on Fred's future. In addition to Fred's teacher and learning support assistant, his headteacher, educational psychologist, a senior social worker, his social worker, a member of the LEA educational behaviour unit and Fred's foster mum were all in deep discussions about his future.

At the end of our deliberations, I warned of possible parental complaints about Fred's behaviour as it could be argued that he is having more than his share of our school resources. So far, our tolerant parents have excused the bumps and bruises served out to their children with remarkable good humour, but this may not last.

Fred showed enough restraint for me to attend my final course of the week on using the latest software package for keeping track of assessment results. As the tutor pointed out, this would help us to predict targets for pupils more accurately and possibly enhance our position in the league tables by tracking and targeting the appropriate children. This theme had an uncomfortable resonance, since the way we handle disruptive children, mainstream and assess all touch on the public image of the school.

Getting the right balance for all makes the juggling trick of keeping those plates spinning on sticks seem like child's play. Where's that course advert for "circus skills"?

Bob Aston is head of a junior school in Medway, Kent

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