Problem policies for problem children;Platform;Opinion

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
Ministers are pledged to fight exclusion but children with difficulties are still getting a raw deal, says Alex McKillop

IN A MAINSTREAM secondary a third-year English lesson is under way. The teacher reviews the pupils' folios. On examining Mary's, he finds it littered with errors. Mary is a pupil with special educational needs who requires extensive support for learning, particularly in language.

The English teacher believes he can no longer help Mary and has her removed from the class. A letter sent to her parents expresses concern at her lack of progress. She is excluded from the class until further notice and spends her time in the technical and home economics departments.

Hardly a credible scenario? Thankfully we have English language specialists, trained support for learning staff, classroom assistants, educational psychologists and a plethora of strategies to support young people experiencing difficulty with their education. But only if that difficulty is recognised as an "educational" problem.

In a similar school the English lesson is interrupted by an outburst from Joe. Joseph is a pupil with special educational needs; he experiences social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. The teacher has him removed from the class and he is given a punishment exercise.

A letter of concern is sent to Joe's parents, a joint assessment team meeting is convened and serious consideration is given to excluding Joseph and placing him in an alternative resource.

Unfortunately this is a credible scenario. If we as teachers are honest with ourselves we differentiate our responses to needs of children. If the perceived problem is considered to be educational the young person is more liable to be supported than if the problem is perceived to be behavioural. We have historically brushed the "problem child" under the carpet, abdicated responsibility for them and removed them to the nearest resource for the emotionally or behaviourally disturbed (EBD).

We salve our collective consciences by claiming that it is for the greater good to sacrifice one so others may flourish. Little attempt is made to find solutions to the problems being experienced by the young person: we simply displace "the problem". Anyway, the people in the alternative resource will be better equipped to deal with the situation.

Now, with the intervention of Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, serious attempts are to be made to maintain young people experiencing difficulty of an emotional andor behavioural nature, within the mainstream of education. How this is to be achieved will vary from authority to authority. That all local authorities are financially challenged and require to find cheaper or "best value" options to deal with this situation is difficult to deny.

The demise of Strathclyde region has meant that those places to which young people experiencing emotional and behavioural difficulties had previously been consigned have come under closer financial scrutiny. Government fiscal policy also ensured that an alternative to exclusion within the mainstream of provision, at a far lesser cost, became expedient.

Many reasons can be given to support an inclusive policy for pupils experiencing emotional andor behavioural difficulties. The point is not to go over the research but to examine the profession's attitude. With pressures steadily increasing through 5-14, Higher Still, league tables and other impositions, how well are we equipped to support young people already experiencing difficulties of a social, emotional or behavioural nature? Does a Scottish Office policy change a profession's attitude?

One effect of previous policies was that EBD provision and children were off campus which means that mainstream teachers lack experience and often the inclination to deal with challenging children. They do not have the training to change the problematic behaviour.

Some prejudice has been prevalent about the provision in the EBD sector. Much of that may stem from the archaic traditions of the former List D and residential school set-up where control often took precedence over education, innovation and achievement. Today the emphasis is on providing as broad and appropriate a curriculum as possible, using a variety of strategies and methods, to help ease the young person's difficulties.

In what ways will the pound;23 million earmarked by the Scottish Office for the reduction of exclusions be used?

One fear is that it will be devoted to set up holding places within mainstream schools, populated by excluded young people and managed by under-trained and inexperienced staff. Remember surplus teachers being offered learning support and computing as an alternative to compulsory transfer?

If there is not an inclusive policy for children with behavioural problems and all that that entails, we will be no further forward. Schools will end up with disadvantaged youngsters being further disadvantaged and damaged by being in a base resourced with untrained, inexperienced, demotivated and stressed staff.

This is not a criticism of teachers forced by lack of status - on long or short-term supply, temporary contracts, surplus or whatever - into positions they would normally not choose. It is a condemnation of those who administer and appoint in terms of financial and staffing expediency, with little thought or insight into the needs of the young people and those of the staff who teach them.

Would you exclude pupils with language difficulties from the English department and place them in technical or home economics? Pupils experiencing emotional and behavioural difficulties deserve the same expert support.

Alex McKillop teaches English and personal and social development at Ridgepark School, Lanark.

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