Discard bad plans, not sad children;Another Voice;Opinion

25th June 1999 at 01:00
LAST Christmas Eve, as I walked home from the office party, I saw a street dweller hanged on a drainpipe. He was deathly pale. I managed to get him down, and someone called the emergency services on my mobile phone. The operator asked whether I would perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I looked at his unshaven jaws and foam-flecked lips, and heard myself say "yes" through my own very dry ones.

Luckily the ambulance arrived, and we watched as they attempted to revive him. I missed the last train and waited hours for the night bus which would take me to my night's destination - a hot bath and a warm bed. But for my dead acquaintance, Christmas was really not worth waiting for.

Now I cannot pass a beggar in the street without handing over a coin, with a smile. The street dweller might have decided life was worth living if enough people had acknowledged his common humanity. For me, the act of giving successfully neutralises the vivid spectre of a young man's body hanging from the vertical line of his cheap leather belt.

Much later, I wondered: "What was his schooling like? Were his last thoughts of good old Mr. Chips?" He had certainly managed to exclude himself, but short of death there really is no such thing as exclusion - the community is a seamless cloth, or it is not a "community" at all.

High exclusion rates might be a reaction to the obsession with school league tables, but there are some curious discrepancies in other statistics. Rates in England are eight times higher than in Northern Ireland, and there were no (that's zero) students excluded from schools in Glasgow during 199697 - odd, isn't it?

African Caribbean children are six times more likely to be excluded and children in care ten times, more likely to be excluded than their white classmates. According to the Government's Social Exclusion Unit a quarter of secondary schools are responsible for around two-thirds of permanent exclusions. Within individual schools, it seems to me that the teachers who generate most of the negative referrals and push hardest for exclusions are a minority.

Young people are not very good at keeping their home and working lives separate, and so family relationships are important to educational success. Emotional damage, educational shortcomings, and the sense of alienation which follows exclusion hinder change. But in turning the risk of failure into the possibility of success, we must recognise that I can't change unless you do, and you can't change unless I do.

Schools and students need firm discipline and clear management, but children can get lost in the system. A child's difficult behaviour has meaning, and our task is to understand it. When plans for dealing with disruptive behaviour fail, we should throw out the plan, not the child!

And here's a thought - the educational welfare officer chases after truants, and even threatens court action. But permanently excluded children are told to stay away. Most non-attenders can understand these simple mechanics of "successful school avoidance", but can we appreciate the irony?

Inclusion is not something which will just happen. Events in Yugoslavia have shown how thin the fabric of social cohesion can be. There is a primitive urge hidden within all of us to reject people who "do not fit". We will have to develop an inclusive ethos in our schools.

For instance, while some people were able to acknowledge the possibility of what Sir William Macpherson called "unwitting institutional racism", others angrily rejected his concerns.

Difficult children are demanding, but teachers make mistakes, too. We must search for ways to deal with apparently insurmountable problems. Finding out what is really wrong is half the battle.

Peter was a 10-year-old who had been permanently excluded for repeatedly running away from school. His parents never made it to meetings, and the temptation to refer the case on was strong. The LEA wanted action, but the question was... what? I tracked Dad down in the local pub, and we settled down to "pool and a pint". When one of his friends let slip that Dad was an ex-prisoner, he decided to open up completely.

Peter had been badly affected by his father's unpredictable disappearances. There had been five deaths in the family, including his uncle, who had recently died suddenly. Peter knew his mother had the same condition.

His grief, and the thought that his mother might suddenly die, or Dad be arrested (who would look after him then?) made him too anxious to sit still. Once these facts were known, intervening became much easier.

The challenge is to find affordable, effective and humane alternatives to exclusion, without losing sight of the other valuable learning goals.

Adam Abdelnoor is a psychologist specialising in working with excluded children. He is currently organising a conference to be held at Warwick University in September to promote alternatives to school exclusion. Conference details: www.staying-power.com or tel 01722 339811.

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