Divide does not conquer

23rd March 2007 at 00:00
To help pupils with discipline problems, look at their educational needs instead of segregating them - or worse, demonising them

Children with behaviour problems are being "segregated" within mainstream schools despite the national policy of inclusion, a leading educationist has claimed.

George Head, a senior lecturer in education studies at Glasgow University, believes the education system is perpetuating a pessimistic view of children presented by government and the media, by treating bad behaviour as something that schools need to "fix" before learning can take place.

He argues that efforts to include more children in mainstream education are being undermined so that, for example, young people with behaviour problems are moved to separate units within schools to work with peripatetic support staff. He said overtly categorising children as having behaviour problems was undesirable: "Labelling tends to re-inforce children's negative views of themselves."

Dr Head, who spoke at this week's Helping to Build Healthier and Happier Children conference in Glasgow, argued that in the wider world, children had been "patronised, demonised and marginalised", so that a view of young people as a threatening presence on the edge of society had become "popular mythology".

He singled out factors that had contributed to such negative views, including continual references in the media to "neds", "yobs", and "feral children", and government preoccupation with Asbos and curfews. Either that, he went on, or children were represented as vulnerable and neglected victims who had been let down.

"Within the education system, a similarly pessimistic view of young people has dominated the discourse surrounding behaviour," he said. He pointed to a preponderance of initiatives that dealt with difficult behaviour as a matter of discipline, leading to the ubiquity of phrases such as "assertive discipline" and "discipline with dignity".

He believes that attempts to solve pupils' discipline issues are based on a misguided assumption that to "fix" behaviour makes learning take place; it is more effective to start by looking at educational needs.

"While socially acceptable behaviour might be more conducive to learning taking place, on its own it does not guarantee that learning takes place,"

he said.

Dr Head believes that some progress has been made - thanks largely to the Additional Support for Learning Act of 2004 - in that social, emotional and behavioural difficulties are now seen as learning difficulties, while children with such issues "have ceased to be demonised in the way that they have been in the past".

He said teachers needed more help in dealing with children with behaviour problems. "Quite often, the least supported person is the teacher."

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said: "Pupils with additional support needs can only successfully be educated in mainstream classes if the necessary resources - for example, smaller classes, additional staffing support - are put in place to support this."

Meanwhile, research by Strathclyde University has found that teachers in mainstream primary schools in Scotland have lower expectations of children with learning difficulties than colleagues in special schools.

Lisa Woolfson, a senior lecturer in educational psychology, said: "Research in psychology strongly suggests that what you believe about another person can change your attitude and behaviour towards them, even though the attribution may not be accurate.

"For inclusion policies to work, teachers need to view learners with special needs as equally likely to benefit from their teaching input as other learners in the class."

Dr Woolfson and her team collated the views of 99 primary teachers in one local authority. The findings are published in Educational Psychology.

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