A million pupils truant every year in the United Kingdom, and 13, 500 were excluded last year, a rise of 10,000 since 1990. On top of the official statistics, a hidden curriculum of failure involving the underachievement of boys poses its own more insidious threat. Onlookers might wonder why the "system" is in a state of apparent crisis. In typical adversarial fashion sides are taken and the resulting controversy produces a culture of blame. Let us try to refocus this apparent debate to achieve a more valid - albeit somewhat speculative - diagnosis.
First, positive correlations are often to be found between how happy a school's staff are and levels of pupil disaffection. Evidence ranging from formal research through HMI reports to one's own experience as a teacher says very loudly that things are more likely to go badly when teachers cease to enjoy their jobs and the company of their colleagues. A cohesive set of harmonious relationships works wonders for one's resilience when it is challenged by poorly motivated children.
More speculatively it is conceivable that teachers who are able to remain highly committed are as individuals happy people. Being a happy person may be a necessary condition to remaining in the long haul an effective teacher.
Second, we should consider the quality and attractiveness of the physical learning environments of schools. The North American academic Eric Sundstrom's environmental psychology about workplaces documents how their symbolic nature influences an individual's self-identity and perceived social status. Workplaces offering employee satisfaction are more productive. Human beings construct beliefs about their self-worth through the kinds of physical living spaces made available to them. Both teachers and pupils will not be exempt from the impact of these factors.
The quality and relevance of the curriculum to all pupils, while vitally important, may have its effectiveness undermined if employees' (and pupils') feelings about their workplaces are negative. Government reports are beginning to acknowledge the depressing state of many school buildings,but they hold back from commenting on how poor buildings may foster a psychology of disaffection that extends to staff as well as pupils.
In an image conscious society should we be surprised if excellent young graduates are not putting teaching as a first career choice and that older teachers have been enthusiastic for early retirement deals?
Third, disaffection is a catch-all concept whose sociological and psychological connotations should be viewed critically. It implies that young people, often boys, are dissatisfied with their schools only and not with the quality of their entire lives. How valid is this assumption? Experience tells us that many of those labelled as disaffected are living in poverty and therefore excluded from material advantages. So the source of their disaffection is linked to family circumstances and pessimistic perceptions about their life chances.
Research from the University of Sheffield demonstrates that boys feel it is "uncool" to work: their role models are sports and pop stars. Perhaps if education had a more "sexy" image the increasing underachievement by boys might be reversed.
Would boys work harder for young male teachers whose cars they admire than for teachers who fit a different image? As the Teacher Training Agency in England has realised in its recruitment campaigns, role models are influential. Boys as well as girls have their perceptions about education filtered through teachers. So to combat disaffection we must combat professional pressures that impair the capacity of some teachers to be attractive contemporary role models.
Fourth, besides needing to be aware of the complex sources of disaffection among pupils, teachers and communities, we must be alert to stereotyping pupils. All pupils will, theoretically at least, be "disaffected " for different reasons. They should not be glibly categorised. It took a long time to realise the power that language has in making a reality of the prejudice attached to a label. Are the so-called disaffected shortly to become another group of pupils described benignly as having special educational needs? I have tried to argue that a "medical model" of disaffection is doomed to aggravate an already worrying situation.
Finally, it is encouraging that imaginative strategies are beginning to emerge to address pieces of the sociological jigsaw. American-style "full-service" schools are being pioneered in Aberdeenshire with the support of Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State. Only time will tell whether the multi-agency approach genuinely offers pupils a substantively different educational experience.
We may find that the only durable solution is to develop a range of kinds of schools which provide a better match to the needs, aspirations and ambitions of all individuals.
One does not need high intelligence to predict that an inadequately differentiated national school system is a recipe for the exclusion of many. One cannot expect to resolve the challenges of exclusion and truancy by reincluding pupils in structures they might regard as incarcerating rather than educational.
Unfortunately, at present only rich families have the privilege of being in a position to select alternative forms of schooling for their disaffected offspring. Equality of opportunity is an important right that we should extend to all families. Culpability for the complex roots of disaffection lies more in our peculiar "pluralist" culture than in the failings of individual teachers or schools.
Chris Holligan teaches in the faculty of education, Paisley University