From sublime to the extreme

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
MY OCTOBER holiday reading was Between Extremes, the account by former Beirut hostages John McCarthy and Brian Keenan of their trek in the Andes.

A powerful fascination is generated by this unlikely alliance of opposites: the laconic, English minor public schoolboy, and the philosophical Protestant nationalist from Belfast.

I thought such a book would be the ideal antidote to the pressures of the half-term just past, but, as seems to be the way with teachers, I'd hardly finished the foreword before I was aware of faint echoes.

Take the last two pupils I spoke to before the holidays: she was in the school wind band and was all set for a holiday concert tour in Minnesota; he was in trouble, again, and was returning to a house where he was the only family member not disabled in some way. In terms of sophistication, she was 15 going on 21; he was 14 going on 10. You could say it was the comprehensive system personified.

Leaving McCarthy and Keenan halfway up a mountain, I thought back over the pupils I'd interviewed in the past four weeks, mostly, as is the way, for disciplinary matters. It struck me that more than half of them had a parent who was suffering from fairly serious medical problems.

Frequently, we are reminded of the academic pressures on our pupils, ad every school seeks to address gender imbalances in attainment and attempts to support pupils through the temptations of peer pressure.

Guidance teams across the country chew their nails about the pupils who are having a rough time, but who choose to disguise the fact and who seek some kind of "normality" in their school life by determinedly avoiding drawing attention to themselves. Only the crass or deliberately unseeing can ignore the effect of poverty and unequal opportunity on our education system, yet it is a sobering moment when social policy is brought down to specific concerns about pupils' home lives.

The comprehensive ideal stands clearly as the only honest way forward. Even those who argue for selectivity on academic, social or economic grounds will admit to favouring a system that gave them unfair advantages.

However, those who cling to the ideal that teaching "between extremes" is the best way forward for all our pupils need to realise that it is a hard road to make sure that all children, the gifted as well as the disadvantaged, those in the middle as well as those at the extremes, get a fair deal. We need action more than speeches.

As St Francis of Assisi told his followers: "Go out and preach the Good News, and, if necessary, use words."

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