Even gangstas need a cuddle

26th August 2005 at 01:00
They might technically be monsters but the permanently excluded aren't really that scary, says Paul Miller

I am walking on the Clent Hills with Craig, a 13-year-old with a recorded reading age of six years and three months. Craig is permanently excluded from his secondary school for poor behaviour and is in group 9 at the behaviour support centre in Birmingham, where I am a teacher. Staff here call group 9 the "Kipling group" because the kids are all fruitcakes. In short, Craig's reintegration into "normal" society is not imminent. "What's the point?" he says to me, between mouthfuls of popcorn.

"What's the point to what?"

"Everyfink! I mean, you're going to end up dying whatever you do, so what's the point?"

And I think: "Aristotle had similar concerns."

Aristotle described a monster as a person who cannot live in the society intended for him. Craig is an Aristotlean monster.

A year ago, I was a mainstream secondary teacher and a lot of my charges have followed me to the Naughty School. You know, those names that, when their permanent exclusion is finally announced in staff briefings, occasion such triumphant punches that you would think West Bromwich Albion had won the FACup. Yet, at the centre, we are often left wondering what the problem was. Emotionally damaged teenagers have usually been denied the attention they need. The result is that they have attention-seeking tantrums at 13 that you might normally expect from a three-year-old. Most need to be taught in family-sized groups, to compensate for the personal involvement a parent might be expected to give but, for one reason or another, doesn't.

Game-playing and reading play a part. So do outings and shorter working days, much to the annoyance of their peers at the local comps.

The newcomer enters an extended family, which is more important to them than an understanding of Macbeth's language in act III, scene I. Thus, our centre has an august father who doesn't like to be called away from his office; a mum who tuts about male behaviour; one gran who thinks naughty children deserve a good slap, and another who smuggles Werther's Originals to the children so long as they don't tell their "father". We have saintly aunts who let them help with the cooking and dirty uncles who write rude words in big letters.

And it works. You should see these young monsters in aprons, pouring cake mix into a baking tray, or sticking their tongues out in concentration as they paint plaster of Paris gnomes.

I conduct my tutorials in the art room. When these kids do not have to meet your eye and you are sharing a palette to scrawl graffiti on a scroll of paper they suddenly say things like: "It was a shock when my mum told me she was pregnant, 'cause my dad's not the father." Or: "I went to get a fag off my mum this morning and there was this bloke in her bed." Or: "D'you know, my mum isn't even barred from the pub she trashed. She's barred from the other pub she trashed, though."

They may have terrorised teachers and neighbours, but these self-styled "gangstas" are less disturbing when you see one cry over his TB injection or have another ask you, through hot tears, how you'd like it if your nan stopped your pocket money.

We are surprisingly successful, particularly at key stage 3. A lot of the children simply get the infantile behaviour out of their system and are ready for any school that will have them. It's a fresh start and takes strength of character: having settled into a surrogate family, the fledglings are kicked out again.

This month I start in a school with different special needs. I will be expected to knuckle under in a more rigorous system, sticking to my specialist subject, making lesson plans and marking homework. I approach my own reintegration with trepidation - and will look to monsters like Craig for inspiration.

Paul Miller teaches in Birmingham

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